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“From flying a Mig-27 to being in a wheelchair; it was a difficult journey. But now, with Wheelchair Cricket India, we have a chance to explore the world once again,” said Abhai, vice-captain of the Indian wheelchair cricket team, which left for Dhaka on its first international trip on Thursday. The team will play against Bangladesh in a bilateral series from May 4-8.
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‘Wrote to sports bodies, only Sachin wrote back’
Wheelchair Cricket India (WCI), which has 16 state teams, was founded by international para-athlete and national awardee Pradeep Raj in 2011 after a visit to Korea where he met wheelchair cricket delegations from Bangladesh and Pakistan. Raj believes that the sport will gain popularity just like the Paralympics.
“When Paralympics was started, no one in India knew about athletes with disabilities. It’s the same case with wheelchair cricket.”
Ruing the lack of infrastructure and support from the government, national and international cricket bodies, Raj said the association has written to the sports ministry and BCCI several times to provide infrastructure support, but to no avail. “The only person who wrote back was Sachin Tendulkar, who had words of encouragement for the team,” added Raj.
The association’s consistent efforts have also led to the formation of the Asian Wheelchair Cricket Council (AWCC), with Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan and India as its members. The first meeting of the AWCC was held at Brahmanbaria in Bangladesh on November 4, 2017, where it was decided that India would host the first Wheelchair Cricket Asia Cup in October, 2018.
WCI vice-president and DPS Rohtak principal Hector Ravinder Dutt said that the Indian team has 14 players from across India, including states like Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Punjab, Maharashtra, Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. These states also have their respective teams, which played the first-of-its-kind National Wheelchair Cricket Tournament in 2017, where UP emerged the winner.
“The national team was selected at a three-day camp at DPS Rohtak held from March 23-25. 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,” said Dutt.
The national team captain, Somjeet Singh, is a 21-year-old from Lucknow, who started playing cricket three years ago for rehabilitation purposes. Somjeet, who was born with a spinal tumour, has always used a wheelchair to facilitate his movement. But it was only after he was introduced to WCI that he started working on the game not just as therapy but as a means to building his 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,” said Somjeet, an allrounder, who dreams of unfurling the National Flag at Dhaka. “I am confident that we will win this series,” he added.
Coach Attry (22) said that the rules of the game are similar to the ones in international cricket, except for the ball that is a few ounces lighter. “Players need wheelchairs customised 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 added.
The players admit that the road ahead is long but say that they feel truly alive while playing the gentleman’s game.
“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 will come out of their houses to make India truly accessible,” said Abhai.