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Geetanjali Krishna: Of ivory canes and willow bats

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The ball flies across the field. The blind fielder rolls towards the sound it makes, trying to stop the ball with every part of his body. As I watch this desperate match of skills, I wonder why he does it. Why does he risk life and limb to chase the cricket ball when he’s unable to see where it’s going? A chat with Manvendra Singh Patwal, who’s captained the team since 2004, helps me “see” why.

“Blind cricket is much more than a mere game,” he says, “although it is one that requires immense skill, focus and concentration.” It’s like regular cricket; played on a regular pitch with a regular bat -- just that the ball has bells within it and is bowled underhand. However, the sheer act of playing it enables people who are bound to the tyranny of the ivory cane, to run free on a field. Patwal says the effect this has on the players is phenomenal. “Sports in general, and particularly cricket, can radically change the life of a visually impaired person,” says Patwal.

He offers his own life story as an example. “When I lost my sight at the age of nine in a football accident, my life changed. Suddenly, people had much lower expectations from me,” he says. “The avenues open for me were restricted to studying and at best singing. For me to want to play a game, let alone excel in it, was something nobody dreamed of.” With great foresight, his parents enrolled him in Dehradun’s National Institute for the Visually Handicapped (NIVH). “After months of despair, when I held a jingly jangly cricket ball for the first time, I felt a small glimmer of hope,” he says.

Playing a team sport on a field offers many key opportunities to the blind that people like us take for granted. It offers freedom to run, builds confidence in one’s own physical abilities. “Only someone without sight can understand how debilitating it can be for people like me to know that we can’t see the obstacles that lie in our path,” says Patwal. Cricket also helps players to focus their hearing, for the key skill in the game is being able to locate the ball through its sound. “Most importantly, playing the game competitively gives those 22 players on the field something big, something meaningful to excel in. It gives them a goal to fight for against all odds -- which, in our country, the visually challenged often lack in their lives…” he says.

This fighting spirit and confidence to tackle issues head on have helped Patwal prove himself at work in the ministry of social justice and empowerment. In fact, a couple of months ago, he was asked if he’d like to participate in a Judo tournament in Lithuania. “Being a sportsman, I immediately assented, although I hadn’t learnt the martial art earlier,” he says. When Patwal returned to India with the country’s first bronze medal in the sport, he’d beaten the odds yet again. Having played for the last two decades, Patwal has now set up Blind Cricket India to promote the sport across the country. “I know how it’s helped me. Now I want it to help the thousands of talented youngsters we have in India,” he says.

After chatting with Patwal, I stand looking at the soccer field where my son trains everyday, watching scores of young people run, sweat and toil in Delhi’s stifling heat, wondering why they do it. Then I remember what Manvendra had said: “It’s on the field when for a brief moment, even the most ordinary person can feel like a hero...”

Maybe there isn’t that much of a difference between our worlds after all.

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