While cricket is revered as a religion, how many of us aware there is another cricket team in India that has not received its dues for over seven years?
No, we are not talking about the Indian women’s cricket team, which thankfully in the last few years has managed to make people sit up and take notice of their wonders.
We are talking about India’s wheelchair cricket team!
While the national wheelchair cricket team has 14 players from various states like Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Punjab, Maharashtra, Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, the association has 16 state teams under it.
These state teams played the first-of-its-kind National Wheelchair Cricket Tournament in 2017 with UP clinching the victor’s crown.
What is Wheelchair Cricket India?
From flying a Mig-27 to becoming the Vice-Captain of the Indian wheelchair cricket team, the journey of 38-year-old Squadron Leader Abhai Pratab Singh was anything but easy.
After a road accident in 2009 that paralysed him from the waist-down, he spent two years in a hospital. But once he was out to face the world, he resolved to meet, connect and help others like him. This opportunity to explore the world came in the form of Wheelchair Cricket India.
Wheelchair Cricket India (WCI), the brainchild of international para-athlete and national awardee Pradeep Raj was founded in 2011.
The idea came to Pradeep after he visited Korea and had the chance of interacting with the wheelchair cricket delegations from Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The internationally acclaimed para-athlete is hopeful that Wheelchair Cricket will one day gain as much popularity as the Paralympics.
Speaking to The Times of India, Pradeep Raj says, “When Paralympics was started, no one in India knew about athletes with disabilities. It’s the same case with wheelchair cricket.”
It is then an absolute irony that an association which is transforming the lives of these para-athletes by giving them a chance to represent their country is yet to receive any infrastructural or financial support from the government or any of the national and international cricket bodies.
Pradeep adds how despite several pleas to the sports ministry and BCCI for infrastructure support, they haven’t heard a single response.
“The only person who wrote back was Sachin Tendulkar, who had words of encouragement for the team,” Raj told TOI.
Despite the lack of support, the WCI has stood undeterred in its resolve to promote the sport. Its relentless efforts reflect in the establishment of the Asian Wheelchair Cricket Council (AWCC), which has wheelchair cricket delegations from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan as its members.
In its first-ever meeting that took place on November 4, 2017, at Brahmanbaria in Bangladesh, the AWCC arrived at the unanimous decision that India would host the first Wheelchair Cricket Asia Cup in October 2018.
WCI Vice-President and DPS Rohtak Principal Hector Ravinder Dutt explains that the Indian team was selected at a three-day camp from March 23-25 at DPS Rohtak.
“We zeroed in on exceptional talents with the help of Ranji Trophy player and WCI coach Ankush Attry, who has been associated with us for the last two years,” he told TOI.
The national team is playing against Bangladesh in a bilateral series from May 4-8.
The national team captain is 21-year-old Somjeet Singh from Lucknow. Singh was born with a spinal tumour and has always used a wheelchair for mobility. He first started playing wheelchair cricket for rehabilitative purposes three years ago.
He describes how WCI helped him not just improve his game but also overcome social anxiety and build self-confidence. “I used to suffer from social anxiety because I thought people always underestimate wheelchair users. Cricket has helped me get rid of those inhibitions and become a different person. I am confident that we will win this (bilateral series against Bangladesh) series,” Somjeet told TOI.
While the rules of wheelchair and regular cricket are similar, 22-year-old coach Attry says that the ball used in wheelchair cricket is lighter by a few ounces.
“Players need wheelchairs according to their height and build, to facilitate manoeuvrability. The game requires immense dedication and players need to work on building their upper body strength through a series of exercises and therapy. For example, when players run between the creases, they need to leave behind the bat since they use both hands to power the wheelchair and complete a run,” he told the publication.
Vice-Captain Abhai Pratab Singh boasts of the ability of his team to strike sixers, “In cricket, players can strike the ball on the front or back foot. We have no feet but we still manage to hit sixes. I am sure as we go ahead, we will get more recognition, and more differently-abled (persons) will come out of their houses to make India truly accessible.”
We hope these players receive recognition and support not just from cricket bodies but also the government and sports ministry, and that they don’t have to wait another seven years to get noticed!
Wishing the Indian Wheelchair Cricket team the very best for their bilateral series, and hoping that they continue to make the country proud wherever they go.
But at the same time, we wish India gives them a reason to be proud of her too!
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)