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Street kids do India proud

In the prelude to the ICC Cricket World Cup, a team of eight children from slums in Mumbai and Chennai lifted the maiden trophy

Amid all the General Election madness playing out since April, a special victory for India in cricket didn’t get the attention it deserved. A bunch of slum kids from Mumbai and Chennai won us the first edition of the Street Child Cricket World Cup (SCCWC). They beat England in a nail-biting finish at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London earlier this month.

The gender-equal team representing Team India South, comprising four children from Mumbai and four from Chennai, dominated the international roster of the tournament in which 80 participants from nine countries—India, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, UK, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Mauritius—came together. India was represented by two teams: India South and India North.

The sporting event was organised by Street Child United, a UK-based charitable organisation known for organising sports events such as Football World Cups and Olympic Games for street children around the world. It aims to empower marginalised kids and highlight the violence and abuse they face.

The tournament was held between April 30 and May 8. Team India South registered their win barely a fortnight before the men in blue arrived in England for the prestigious ICC Cricket World Cup. In the finals, Team India South faced off against England and went on to win the seven-over match by five wickets. The team scored 47 runs against the rival’s score of 42 runs.

The eight children comprising Team India South were put together by a coalition of two organisations, Magic Bus India Foundation and Karunalaya Social Service Society (KSSS). Magic Bus selected the four children from Mumbai, while KSSS picked the four players from Chennai. Team India North was represented by children selected by Hope Foundation and Save the Children India.

“The first time someone came to me for an autograph after a match, I was taken aback,” says a smiling Mani Ratinam (17), telling Newslaundry about his experience of batting at Lord’s and the dramatic six he hit on the last ball to win the World Cup. India needed four runs to win off one ball. “In my brain, there was only one thought: that I wanted to hit a six and take off my T-shirt and dance in celebration—just like Sourav Ganguly had in 2002—and that’s what I did. After winning, the entire team was dancing to the tune of ‘Champion, Champion’.”

Mani is one of the four kids (two girls and two boys) from Mumbai who comprises Team India South. He was also the vice-captain of the team. All four belong to a slum community in Mankhurd, where sanitation and water conditions are poor and access to safe playing areas is rare. Their parents are daily wage workers who earn an average monthly income of less than Rs 8,000. Their parents are migrants who came to Mumbai with the support of friends or family members; most of them do not have legal documents in place. Children born into such families face multiple interruptions during their schooling year—primarily owing to the demolishing of their homes by municipal authorities—since they do not possess legal documents.

As for Mankhurd, the neighbourhood has witnessed its fair share of children and youngsters using drugs. The community here looks down on young girls stepping out of their homes to play or study, and believe that the role of a girl is restricted to household chores.

Mani has two older sisters. He lost his father at the early age of two, and his mother has looked after the family ever since by working as a housemaid. “My aunt’s sons used to play a lot of gully cricket,” he says in  Bumbaiya Hindi. “They used to win tournaments too and used to return home with cups. Looking at them, even I wanted to do the same.”

The four children in Mumbai trained for two weeks. Mani took upon himself the duties of coach—given the team’s shortage of resources—before they set off to meet the other players from Chennai on April 24. “Humare paas coach nahi tha aur unko maloom tha ki Mani accha cricket khelta hai (We didn’t have a coach and everyone knew that I played cricket well). I taught Shama, Bhavani and Irfan (the other three players from Mumbai) how to field, bowl, and even how to hold a bat in the right manner. At the end of the training, I felt like all us had progressed—and even gone on to become friends.”

The players from Chennai are V Paulraj (who was the team captain), A Nagalakshmi, B Monisha, and K Suryaprakash.

When Mani saw the iconic Lord’s stadium up close, the first thought that went through his head was the 1983 World Cup. “When Kapil Dev led the Indian team to World Cup victory over here. At the time, I didn’t know our team would be able to repeat history.” He admits that even though he was awestruck when he saw England for the first time, there was also a deep and unsettling fear once he saw Lord’s, given the cause he was there to represent. “I was feeling a little scared too. Big stars have played here before us and now we had to fill their shoes.”

Mani played a crucial role in assisting Team India South to victory. In the first friendly face-off between India South and England, he injured his legs during the course of the game, yet managed to fulfill his duties as a bowler, taking two wickets in one over. He also scored 15 runs in the fixture. In the semi-finals, the team faced Bangladesh and aced that too. Bangladesh scored 33 runs, which India South was able to chase and beat in four overs (it was a five-over match). India South lost only one match on Day 2, to another England team. “We had a target of 58 to complete in five overs, but we lost that by one run.”

When asked what kept him and his teammates going, he says: “There were so many Indian supporters in the crowd, waving the national flag and shouting slogans. This made us feel good and gave us some confidence as well.”

Mani’s teammate, Bhavani Mayavan (15), lives in a 10×10 metre home in Mankhurd’s Cheeta Camp area, along with her parents, older sister, two younger brothers, and her grandmother. Her father is the only earning member and is employed with the municipality on a contractual basis. Bhavani was the wicketkeeper and a bowler for Team India South and won the Best Wicketkeeper award at the tournament.

“My brothers taught me how to play cricket once I got selected for the team,” she says, admitting that although she had been interested in cricket ever since she was a young girl, her focus had always been on football. Bhavani has been a part of Magic Bus’s Julie Foudy girls’ football team for a while now.

When asked about the exposure given to young girls in India when it comes to sports, she says: “Girls can play sports too. It is just a mindset that only boys can play sports—especially cricket. My parents got very emotional and excited when they learned that I’d be representing Team India South. They were feeling proud when all the neighbours came over to ask them where was I going.”

Bhavani says her wicketkeeping game wasn’t always strong. At the beginning of the tournament, as well as in training, she would frequently let the ball slip from her hands. “I was told ‘Kuchh bhi ho jaye lekin ball nahi chodne ka (Whatever happens don’t let the ball slip through)’ but it kept happening. At the tournament, it was very cold and was raining heavily as well. But my teammates stood firmly behind me. Over the course of time, all of us became really good friends; they used to always give me confidence to play and say, ‘Tere peeche main khada hoon, don’t worry’. It made me feel like even I should take responsibility and I prayed to God to make me play well.

“When we returned to India after winning, everyone came and hugged and congratulated me in my neighbourhood. They saw the pictures in the newspapers and said ‘Kitni famous ho gayi hai tu’. While we were flying back, the captain asked me for my autograph. I never thought I would ever be able to give anyone an autograph in my life…but the captain even came and took a picture with us.”

Bhavani’s message to the country is that girls should be given more opportunities like this, and not only be kept at home. “Give them freedom, aims and targets. And for this to happen, the support of one’s parents is very important.”

The third player from Mumbai is 14-year-old Mohd Irfan Labbe. His father works as a driver and is the sole earning member of the family. His mother is a housewife, and he has a younger brother. Irfan is the first person in his family to receive a passport. Like most of his other teammates, his cricketing foundation was laid at a young age by playing gully cricket in the neighbourhood.

Speaking with Newslaundry over the phone on a hot Wednesday afternoon—at a time when he was fasting, having kept Roza—he says: “It was nice to meet the players from Chennai and become good friends with them. All of us used to go jogging together at 5.30 am, reach the ground, warm up, and then start practising by 6.30 am. That was our everyday routine before we left for England on April 29.”

The soft-spoken Irfan also won the fair play award at the tournament. “When we won and came back, my family gave me shabaashi (approval). The neighbours look at me xdifferently now … more people come up to me and talk to me.”  

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