Between the spectacle that is IPL 10 and Virat Kohli’s demands that A-grade cricketers be paid an annual retainer of Rs 5 crore, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the state of cricket in India has never been better. Unfortunately, for some sections of the Indian cricketing fraternity, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The 7th National Inter-Zone T20 Cricket Tournament for the Physically Challenged concluded this weekend with hardly any fanfare. Scattered across iconic Shivaji Park in Mumbai, were four teams battling it out to be recognised as India’s best zonal cricket team. It was a little surprising, therefore, that they were sharing the ground (which itself was not the ideal playing surface) with groups who were playing cricket for fun, as well as several children playing football.
Differently-abled cricketers have been on the fringes of the game for decades
Seated under a tent was the architect of all this, his keen eye roving over the different teams on the field. The President of the All India Cricket Association for the Physically Challenged (AICAPC), Ajit Wadekar – once a former India captain and manager of the Indian cricket team himself – has dedicated the last 30 years to raising the profile of Differently Abled Cricket in India. Today, he serves as President of AICAPC. It’s been a struggle with little reward, but on days like this it all seems worth it. On the field were disabled cricketers from across the country, from as young as 16 to as old as 50, putting their bodies on the line in pursuit of the prestigious trophy.
We spoke to some of these extraordinary athletes so that they could tell us their extraordinary stories.
The West Zone tournament was a few months ago and that is where they select the team for the inter-zonal level. But I had my second-year engineering college exams and missed the game. I couldn’t make it to the national tournament as a result. The funny thing is that I’ve already represented India on the international stage twice, but the college doesn’t care about that. That’s fair, I suppose, since education is very important.
My favourite memory was when I had just started playing cricket. Everyone’s father is concerned about his son’s future and, because I was born with my left arm underdeveloped and much smaller than my right arm, my father didn’t believe that cricket was right for me. In fact, he’s burned three bats and two of my kits to keep me off the field. Luckily, my mother was very supportive of me and she’d tell my father that I had gone to tuition when, in fact, I was playing cricket.
One day in the 10th standard, I was playing in an inter-school tournament but I needed a photo for the registration. So I asked my father to bring it to me. He was furious that I hadn’t taken his permission to play. When he arrived at the ground, the coach saw him and put me into the playing 11. I was lucky to get a chance to play in that match. That day, our team got bowled out for 65 runs. At one point, our opponents needed just 20 runs from 10 overs and that’s when I was given the ball. I bowled three overs, picked up four wickets and gave away just three runs. But the best part was that this was the first time my father had ever seen me play.
Since that day, he never opposed my sporting ambitions. That day my life turned around and it marked the real beginning of my cricketing career. Now my father doesn’t ask me if I’ve studied, because he’s more concerned about whether I’ve practiced enough on the field.
I live in a village in Chattisgarh. I’ve been disabled since birth, but I love cricket and have worked very hard to get to this level. When I found out about this disabled cricket league, I did my best to get involved. I turned up for selections time and again, but didn’t get into the team. But I never gave up – I just practiced harder. It paid off in the end; at the last Central Zone tournament, I was the team’s best bowler of the tournament and now I represent the Central Zone on the national stage. My dream is to play for the Indian national team, but that’s very difficult since the game doesn’t pay when you’re disabled.
We receive no support from the BCCI and this league is trying its best to survive. At the last Five Nations Tournament in Bangladesh, India had to face teams which had the backing of their official cricket boards so they had access to the best doctors and coaches, as well as proper training and facilities. How can we compete with that?
I play cricket for about one and a half months in the year, but I have to return to my hometown where I work as a khetiwadi so that I can support my family. Until we receive proper support and funding, cricket will be just a game for us and not a career.
Cricket is my first love, but it’s impossible to make a living from the game since we receive little support from the government and the BCCI. After struggling for many years, I finally took an interest in arm wrestling, despite being born with just four fingers between both hands.
Nevertheless, I refused to give up and worked very hard until I could represent India on the international stage at the 2013 Para-Armwrestling World Championship, where I placed 10th. Disheartened, I returned home determined to do better. For the next year, all I did was go to work and then to the gym. After a year of intense training, I then returned to the 2014 World Para-Armwrestling Championship in Poland. This time I earned a silver medal for India.
I wish I could play cricket – my first love – at this level and be rewarded for my efforts, as is the case with para-armwrestling, but that is not possible until the governing bodies make an effort to give us the support we need.
I run the Saurabh Foundation in Pune. I started it three years ago and began playing with other disabled people. Previously, I used to play regular cricket, despite the congenital absence of two toes and the shortening of my right leg, because I didn’t even know that this league for disabled people existed. But once I attended a tournament for the differently-abled, I realised that they faced a lot of problems when it came to cricket. That was when I decided that I would do something for them and that’s how the Saurabh Foundation came about.
Most coaches believe that a disabled person has no future in cricket, but that’s a misconception. In my experience, despite being less technically sound than regular players, disabled players possess a tremendous amount of fighting spirit and they play with a lot of heart. With the right training, they can be every bit as good as any able-bodied player. In fact, at the Saurabh Foundation, the differently abled and regular players play together in the same team. We had to get some special permissions to participate in local tournaments, but it was worth it. We are currently the winners of the prestigious Shinde League and the Summer League of the Pune District Cricket Association (PDCA). Moreover, we are the winners for the last three years; our team include two girls and two disabled persons.
A proper structure is required for differently abled players in this country. We need official support to be able to go ahead in the game.
Dr Pankaj Kumar
I’m from Delhi and play for the North Zone team. When I’m not playing cricket, I work as an assistant professor for Kamala Nehru college, Delhi University. Growing up, I played cricket like any other Indian boy, but I never thought it would go any further than that since my left leg has been afflicted by polio, so I decided to pursue my education and received a PhD in finance.
My journey to this level of cricket has been quite quick. Just a few months ago, I felt the urge to play, so I conducted an online search for a cricket league for disabled persons. I was eventually put in touch with someone from the North Zone who advised me on how to get started. One thing led to another and now I’m representing the North Zone on the national stage, by the grace of the Almighty. If all goes well, my dream is to represent India on the international stage. There can be no greater honour than that.
What I found amazing was that cricket for disabled people gets no publicity at all. Despite having the privilege of access to so many streams of information, I hadn’t heard of these tournaments or leagues even once before. I was very lucky to be able to discover this league, but that was mostly due to the privilege of my education and access to information. It was much harder for many of the people playing at this stage to get access to this information when they were first starting out and that’s something that has to change if we are to progress on the international level.
In 1994, when I first started playing cricket, I knew right away that this game was going to be my life. And whatever happened, I would one day play for my country. Nobody took me too seriously since they didn’t see how someone who’s physically challenged could achieve such a dream. Unfortunately, I was a foolish young man and ignored my education. My family tried to get me to focus on my studies, but I was determined to play cricket on a professional level and didn’t realise that they had my best interests at heart. However, it all paid off in the end. In 2015, I captained the Indian disabled cricket team at the Five Nations Tournament in Bangladesh. The dream which had first taken seed in 1994 had finally come true 20 years later. It is the single proudest achievement of my life.
Cricket isn’t just a passion for me. It’s my life. I’ve been giving the sport everything I’ve had for the last 22 years, but in 2003 I finally found out that there are special tournaments for the physically challenged, run by the All India Cricket Association for the Physically Challenged. About three years ago, I founded the Differently Abled Cricket Association of Harayana (DACAH) to develop and support cricket for others like myself. I hope to be able to do as much as Mr Wadekar, who has been fighting for us to be recognised for the last 30 years. Whatever progress we’ve made, against all odds, is solely due to his efforts. I work relentlessly to bring the sport into the spotlight, but it’s an uphill battle. Still, I’ll give it everything I have until we’re recognised.
In January, I met with Saurav Ganguly just to speak about these things and I was touched that this legendary player took some time out of his day for me. He advised me to write to the BCCI and that he’d follow it up with them. I did as he asked, but I received no reply from the officials.
My favourite player is MS Dhoni. He’s simply amazing. If you’re reading this, sir, I would like to tell you that you’re a legend of the sport and a role model for millions of Indians, so wherever you take a stand is where the discussion about cricket begins in this country. Please find it in your heart to promote differently abled cricket just like Rahul Dravid did for the visually-impaired Indian cricket team, which won the Blind T20 Cricket World Cup earlier this year. As a result of his efforts, they were all over the news and social media and the public wanted to know more about them. All we want is a chance to be noticed so that we no longer have to struggle for sponsorships just to continue playing the game we love so much.
S Noorula Huda
When I was just a baby, I fell very ill, but I was unable to receive proper medical care. As a result, I developed polio in my left leg. Today, I live in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh with my mother, who I take care of in her old age. My father was paralysed for 10 years before passing away in 2012. The shock of my father’s death affected my mother’s mental health, so she needs me more than ever now.
When I’m not attending to her needs, I play cricket whenever I can because I love the sport. In fact, I’ve been selected to represent India on the international stage on two separate occasions but, both times, it wasn’t meant to be. The first time I was selected, I didn’t have a passport so I couldn’t travel. The second time, we had no funds to attend the tournament, so we opted to drop out. Without support – financial or otherwise – it is almost impossible to sustain ourselves in this sport, despite having qualified for international tournaments and even representing India on the world stage. If the BCCI officially recognises us, things will change drastically and we’ve been fighting for that recognition for almost 30 years now.
But the biggest problem is that being handicapped has made it very difficult for me to find a job. I’ve been struggling to find work for years – I’ve even had the opportunity to go to Dubai, but I can’t afford to leave my mother behind. A month ago, she fell and cracked her skull. She lost a lot of blood and was in a terrible state, so I was stressed but, she is much better now. So you can understand why I hate to leave her alone. Even during a match, I can barely take my mind off her. I’m not looking for any sympathy; all I want is a job so that I can support my mother and myself. This sport just doesn’t pay.
I’m 16-years-old and I study in the 12th standard in Hyderabad. I started my cricket career at the age of five and I have two coaches who have played for India – Raghuram Bhat sir and Venkatapathy Raju sir. Even though I have an orthopaedic disability in my right hand, it has no impact on my cricketing ability. I play with regular players and I’m in the standbys for the Vijay Merchant Trophy Under-16 team. This year, for the first time, I’m playing disabled cricket tournaments and I was selected to represent South Zone at the national tournament.
The biggest difference I’ve noticed is that regular cricket players receive the kind of training and support which allows them to improve, but that isn’t something disabled players get a chance at. If we got the proper training and support, we too could do really well for the country.
It is a myth that you can’t play cricket with a disability. Just take the case of BS Chandrashekhar, who lost his right arm to polio and still went on to become one of the greatest spinners in history of the modern game. Despite technically being handicapped, he went on to take 242 wickets in test cricket over 16 years of his career. If he could do it, why not anyone else? All I need is a chance to prove myself at that level.
My favourite players are MS Dhoni, Suresh Raina and Ravindra Jadeja. I love them because they are so stylish and such amazing players. Despite being from Hyderabad, Chennai Super Kings is my favourite IPL team because it has all three of my favourite players. I want to represent my country at international tournaments, just like them, when I grow up.
Like this article? Also see: How to: Say No, Without Hurting Someone’s Feelings
Photographs by Anurag Banerjee