The other men in blue

- November 22, 2018
| By : Shaunak Ghosh |

The Indian wheelchair cricket team is on a roll with their recent victories over Bangladesh and Pakistan. Here’s a look at their rise to the top, and how they still need financial and moral support to grow On September 22nd this year, India defeated Pakistan by a mammoth margin of 89 runs after scoring a […]

The Indian wheelchair cricket team is on a roll with their recent victories over Bangladesh and Pakistan. Here’s a look at their rise to the top, and how they still need financial and moral support to grow

On September 22nd this year, India defeated Pakistan by a mammoth margin of 89 runs after scoring a decent 181 on the board in the first innings and restricting the opposition to 92 runs in 16 overs. Thus the Men in Blue clinched the 3-match Friendship Cup, held in Dubai, with a margin of 3-0. This is however not the story of the regular Indian team, but that of 11 men on a wheelchair who represented the country at an international stage.

“We have been fighting for a long time to get the spotlight on, and in the past two years we have made quite a lot of progress,” says Abhai Pratap Singh, the co-founder and leading administrator of Wheelchair Cricket India. Singh, a former squadron leader of the Indian Air Force, is himself confined to a wheelchair, after he was involved in a freak car accident.

“I myself played cricket at an early age and have tried my hand at different sports, but it was always cricket that has fascinated me. We used to play amongst our friends as a recreation, but we didn’t realise that wheelchair cricket was a serious sport that is being played in other countries,” says Singh.

Rules of wheelchair cricket

• Instead of the normal 22 yards the pitch is 18 yards
• The boundaries are placed at 45 metres, lesser than an average cricket match
• The bowlers can either perform a run-up, or just stay at a place and deliver the ball
• A player is given a warning the first time he is given out LBW, but is sent to the pavilion on the second time.

“Earlier we used to bring together people like me on the ground, and we played once in a while, just to get some entertainment from our mundane lives confined to a wheelchair. But since we realised that the game has potential, we decided to think seriously, and decided to form a federation, and that is how Wheelchair Cricket India was born,” he adds.

But how do people, who cannot even walk properly, play 20 overs on the crease, and that too a game which involves running and diving for a catch? “We have modified wheelchair that we import. These wheelchairs help us move fast, and turn”, says Singh. According to Singh, wheelchair cricket is just like any normal cricket match. The rules are the same, there are both fast and spin bowlers, and batsmen hit sixes and run between the wickets like any normal batsman would do.

The players are majorly divided into two categories – one being amputees and people who suffered from polio, that is people who still possess certain amount of power in the lower part of the body, and the other being people who have little to no power and control of the lower body like people with cerebral palsy or someone completely paralysed from waist down. “You’ll see the players from the first category perform dives to save a ball, as they can quickly pick themselves up and sit on the wheelchair, whereas a player from the second category can’t do so.”

“People like us are more prone to injuries and infection than any average person. So, playing openly on a ground for a long time, increase our chances of contracting infections, and so we need to be very careful,” says Singh.

But just playing on occasional days was not enough for them. “We need to form a strong international team that would represent the country, and for that you needed to have a good domestic structure,” says Singh. In 2017, Wheelchair Cricket India organised the first national championships, and asked players to register their names for the competition. “We contacted different NGO’s from across the country, and asked them to form teams that would represent the state, and surprisingly, there were so many people who wanted to play,” says Singh.

The 2017 edition of the national championships saw 12 states participating, with Chattisgarh emerging champions in the final held at Ghaziabad. The recent 2018 edition saw the number of teams exceeding to 16, with over 250 players being registered with the different state wheelchair cricket boards. “We also have a pool of around 500 non-registered players,” says Singh. “From these players, we select the best 15 players who would go on to represent the country in international matches,” he adds.

Sunil, from a distant village in the interiors of Chattisgarh, suffered from polio since his birth, and was the subject of ridicule for his disability. “I was always interested in playing cricket,” he says. At a local NGO for the differently abled in Chattisgarh, he also trained children to play, and that is when he got a call from Wheelchair Cricket India, and was given the responsibility to form a team from Chattisgarh. He trained and formed the Chattisgarh team, which went on to win the inaugural wheelchair cricket national championships. Sunil, who performed exceptionally well in the tournament is now a regular part of the Indian team, and also was a part of the Pakistan series in Dubai, and the recently concluded Bangladesh series in Dhaka.

“For us playing the game is the easiest part, because organising matches are extremely tedious,” says Singh. “The major issue that we face is the lack of funds. To conduct matches between states, and also organise tournaments, keeping in mind the players’ earnings, the cost of 15 high quality wheelchairs per game, travelling costs etc requires lots of money,” he adds.

“For now, we only function on donations by companies and a few well-wishers. Our tour to Dubai was sponsored by the Muthoot group, and even Sachin Tendulkar had donated over six lakh rupees to us, but we need more financial support,” says Singh.

“The cost of renting out proper cricket stadiums is very high, and hence we only play in small grounds. Even if we approach someone for renting out a cricket pitch, authorities refuse us, as they think that the wheelchair tyres would cause damage to the pitch,” says Singh with regret.

Singh also says, that they have organised cricket camps for the wheelchair ridden in places like Lucknow, Chandigarh and Bangalore, but still they need a proper facility for themselves, but there are more such facilities which they are working on.

“We also need to be officially recognized by the BCCI, and we have applied for the process, but it will still take another year or so,” says Singh. “But the progress we have made so far is remarkable, with players like Sunil Gavaskar and Wasim Akram acknowledging us. I hope we are in a better position in another year or so”, he adds. The Indian national team currently stands unbeaten in all international matches they have played.

For India captain Somjeet Singh, leading the team has been a dream come true. “Wearing the blue jersey every time we take the field is very proud and special moment for us. It makes us forget all the sufferings we have faced in our entire lives,” says Singh, who was also man of the series in the India-Pakistan series.

“When we don the Indian jersey, we know that we are no less than Virat Kohli and company. We too, like them, play and win for the country,” concludes Somjeet.