Pakistan’s blind cricket team deserves praise for being world champions. Instead, what they get is pity.
“I used to listen to cricket matches on the radio as a child, and always dreamt of playing the sport though I knew it was not possible,” says cricketer Abdul Razzaq.
No, this is not the Abdul Razzaq, that most fans of Pakistani cricket are familiar with, the all- rounder who is famous for his ability to score quick runs.
This Abdul Razzaq is the captain of the Pakistani blind cricket team, and his achievements are, in some ways, even more impressive than his famous namesake. In captaincy since 2002, he has won two world cups for Pakistan, and the team has been undefeated on international platforms since 2006.
When I first meet him, in the Government Institute for the Blind that also serves as his home, Razzak is clearly in a tizzy. He quickly climbs down the stairs from his residence, briskly walks over to the admin offices and then down to the parking lot and back up again. He moves faster than I would expect a visually challenged person to, though he does take each step carefully and at times has to be led by someone else.
The captain is caught up in the flurry of trying to organise his team for a national tournament. His task is far from easy, and it is not helped by the fact that these players are not being flown around like their counterparts in the Pakistani national cricket team which is still basking in its victory at the Asia Cup. While the national team hits headlines every so often — whether it is for match fixing or winning tournaments — and is a regular fixture on the sports pages, spectators, advertisers and sponsors often forget that the blind cricket team even exists.
The difference between the two teams in terms of resources and official and corporate interest, is quite marked.
For forty-year-old Razzaq, every national series means he has to call for a bus by himself, get all the players together and make sure thay all leave on time. And this is exactly what he is doing today. If his struggles were limited to arranging logistics, he says he would not complain, but he has bigger problems than just trying to get the bus driver to show up on time.
“The last world cup that was supposed to happen in 2010 was cancelled because of lack of funds and visa issues,” he says.
It is one thing to have a tiny fan base and minimal sponsorship, but when tournaments are cancelled, these blind players are deprived of their raison d’être. Still, Abdul Razzaq has not lost heart. “A T-20 world cup for the blind is coming up in December this year. After playing in that, I plan to retire and open a blind cricket academy.” The captain says that there are no dedicated blind cricket academies in the country and he hopes the institution he plans to open can find new talent and promote the blind version of the game.
Perhaps the worst aspect of being a blind cricketer is that, far from being celebrated as a sportsman, the players are looked at with the same pity reserved for those suffering from grave misfortunes. “The public seems to feel only pity for us,” says Razzak. “We don’t want that.”
Very few people come to see them play and even those who do use words like ‘becharey’ which is demoralising to say the least. “We are sportsmen, and we should be treated as such. This is like any other sport and people should understand that.”
Though markedly different from conventional cricket, the game has internationally governed laws approved by the World Blind Cricket Council (WBCC). Established in 1996, the WBCC’s other members include Australia, New Zealand, England, South Africa, West Indies, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. Before any changes are introduced in the format, all of these countries agree to the modification in the game and play accordingly at both the local and international level.
In every match, players are divided into three categories based on the severity of their blindness. A team of 11 has four totally blind players (category B1), three partially blind players (category B2), and four players with partial vision (category B3). The formats currently in play are one-day matches with 40 overs and T20s.
But with more than half the team unable to see the ball, one may well ask how the game is played at all? It is interesting to see how different the bowling and batting are from regular cricket. For one thing, the bowling has to be under arm and the ball has to bounce once on either side of the mid pitch line before it reaches the batting crease. This is a difficult task since there are durational limits on the match. Another modification is that the bowler has to give a verbal signal, shouting “play”, as he releases the ball. After every twenty overs, completely blind cricketers are required to bowl five overs which makes the game even tougher.
The batting comes with its own set of challenges. In the batting order, three consecutive players from each category have to play, making the game trickier when B1 category players bat. On the plus side, runs by totally blind players count for twice as much as those made by their partially blind teammates. The ball used in these matches is made of plastic and filled with metal ball bearings so that batsmen can locate it by listening for the rattling sound.
Abdul Razzaq has a number of feathers in his cap: not only is he the captain of the Pakistan team, he is also the record holder for the fastest half century, scoring 50 runs in just nineteen balls. He also took five wickets while giving only thirteen runs against New Zealand. His personal best was when he scored 87 runs against Australia. Under his guidance, the team won a series against India just last year.
But the star player complains of poor coverage. “They did not even show our matches live. Not even on PTV, which is state-owned,” he says bitterly. “Even finding sponsors for the game has been an uphill task.”
“It’s not considered sports but charity,” adds coach Nafees Ahmed.
Ahmed has been the coach of the Pakistani cricket team since 1998 and has come to see off Abdul Razzaq, helping him arrange for the bus and ensuring that the team leaves on time.
Nafees is also a teacher at this institute and has been very active in promoting this game. He has played a pivotal role in the formation of the Pakistan Blind Cricket Council, under which all the national team members and other officials are registered.
One of his main concerns has been the players’ low salaries and he has lobbied for an increase in their allowances for over a decade now. In the last three years or so, he says, things have improved somewhat. “Each player now gets a monthly stipend of Rs8,000 to Rs12,000 depending on his category,” says Ahmed.
But Abdul Razzaq still considers this too little.
“Even the women national team players get more than that,” the captain complains.
Razzaq also teaches at another blind academy a few kilometres away from his home but despite having two jobs, his living conditions are modest at best and the two-room house in which he lives with his wife and three children is a testament to that.
By now, all the cricketers have gathered and Abdul Razzaq introduces them to me. One of them is Noor Wali, a young man from the tribal areas who is currently studying political science at Government College, Lahore. There are players from all corners of the country, from South Waziristan to Karachi, all united by their love for cricket and their common handicap. Huddled on a bench, they are listening intently to a cricket match on the radio.
As the players troop inside the bus that will take them to Peshawar, Razzaq turns around to say one last thing. He does not want people to come and see them play because they pity them — he has a different reason for wanting people to come to their matches.
“Pakistan is the Blind Cricket world champion. I wish people would realise this, come see our matches and promote us.”
In short, he wants Pakistanis to take pride in their champions.
Evolution of the blind cricket ball
The cane blind cricket balls were the first to be used in Australia from the mid 1920s until 1972. It was used in the first interstate blind cricket match in 1928. Made of cane wicker it had metal pieces inside that made a noise when thrown.
Then the red nylon blind cricket ball was used from 1972 to 1974 only.
The black nylon blind cricket ball has been in use since 1974 until the end of the 2002-2003 season.
The white nylon blind cricket ball was made especially for New Zealand in the early 1990’s.
A hard white plastic ball is currently used in Australia and it is slightly larger and has holes in it so sound can be easily released. This ball has been in use since the beginning of the 2003-2004 season.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 6th, 2012.