Blind women’s cricket in India gets a boost
In spite of challenges along the way, the Karnataka blind women’s cricket team has much to cheer about
Varsha U. is the Miss Dependable of her team. The 19-year-old cricketer, who made her debut at the first Women’s National T20 Tournament for the Blind in December, is an all-rounder. Deft with both bat and ball, she gave her team—Karnataka—an early advantage in the final match against Odisha. As the teams faced off in the freezing cold of Delhi, Varsha took two wickets in quick succession. Eventually Karnataka lost, but she was adjudged one of the players of the series.
This is a commendable achievement by any sporting standard, but more so for Varsha, who is visually impaired. In the jargon of blind cricket, she is a B1 category player, one who is completely sightless (B2 players are partially blind, with visibility up to 3m, while B3 players are partially sighted and can see up to 6m).
“Varsha is the star of our team," says Shika Shetty, sports coordinator for the Karnataka blind women’s cricket team, which is run under the aegis of the Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled, headquartered in Bengaluru. “She is a real quick learner, considering her relative lack of experience with the sport."
Like many of her teammates, Varsha comes from an agrarian family. Her father is a farmer and her mother a homemaker from Chitradurga district in Karnataka. In December, she, along with 10 other girls between the ages of 16-25, travelled by plane—for the first time in their lives—to Delhi to play at the national level. It was a steep learning curve for the team, put together in less than a month by Shetty, who scouted for potential members from schools and colleges across Karnataka.
“Exams were on at the time and it was difficult for many of the girls, most of whom come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, to travel to Bengaluru for the camp," Shetty says. The schools were also hesitant about safety, which made the families even more apprehensive about sending their girls—it’s tough enough to be a young woman athlete in rural India, being blind makes matters worse. “Some of the girls who applied to join the team did not know any of the rules of the game—they had never even held a bat before," Shetty adds.
The girls were fast to pick up, though, fuelled by big dreams and undaunted by their handicap. “I was inspired by normal people cricket," says Kavya N.R. from Tumkur, Karnataka. A B3 player who is good with the ball, she is also a marathon runner, and has experience of wall-climbing in Kashmir. “My favourite player is Ajay Reddy (the captain of the national blind men’s team)," she says. “We, too, want to play at the international level, like the boys."
The Indian blind men’s national team was formed in 2011 by the Cricket Association for the Blind in India (Cabi), which is affiliated to the World Blind Cricket Council (WBCC). Cabi is a subsidiary of Samarthanam, which was co-founded in 1997 by Mahantesh G.K., who lost his vision due to typhoid when he was six months old. Currently president of the WBCC, he is closely involved in setting up the rules and regulations governing the game for the blind. It was his proactive interest, along with the support of donors and stakeholders, that finally made the blind women’s team a reality.
“We have spoken about blind women’s cricket since our first annual general meeting to discuss blind men’s cricket in 2011-12," Mahantesh says when we meet at the office of Samarthanam in Bengaluru. In 2012, the Indian blind men’s team defeated Pakistan in the T20 World Cup, leading to a sudden spike in interest in blind cricket. “Soon after, when I met girls during school and college visits, they complained we were not doing anything to enable them to play the sport," he adds. Logistical and financial support were lacking, till the Australian consulate general in Chennai stepped in with a grant of ₹8 lakh last year.
“It’s hard to get people to appreciate the importance of any sport in India—more so for blind women’s cricket, especially when conversations about mainstream women’s cricket have just begun to get traction in the last few years," says Kumaraswamy, who handles corporate relations at Samarthanam. The Australians were not disinterested donors, though—they also remain concerned about the overall well-being of the team. The Australian cricket icon and former player Steve Waugh came down to spend time with the girls, for instance (the former West Indies player Brian Lara and Smriti Mandhana, who plays on the Indian national women’s cricket team, were also present at the inaugural blind women’s national tournament in Delhi in December).
While some states (like Odisha, which won the tournament) have had a blind women’s cricket team for some years now, for Karnataka it is the beginning of a rocky road. The team doesn’t have a dedicated stadium or a ground where it can meet for regular net practice. Limited funds make it difficult to transport players from different parts of the state or host them in Bengaluru for weeks at a time. Yet, the newly put-together team, some of whose members were total greenhorns in the sport, showed remarkable fortitude when faced with an aggressive Delhi team in the early rounds in December. And in spite of facing inclement weather during the finals, they emerged as runners-up.
A series of warm-up matches against Kerala had boosted the morale of the Karnataka girls, but they were unprepared for temperatures dropping to 7-8 degrees Celsius. They struggled to release the ball correctly. “We ended up bowling far too many wides, though the girls showed excellent coordination as a team," says Shetty. “As most of them come from a running background, they have excellent physical stamina as well."
Skipper Sunita Dhondappanavar, a B2 player from Belgavi, led the team ably, devising strategies with Shetty on the eve of every match and taking quick decisions on the field. Renuka Rajput, a B2 player from Vijayapura who skipped her college exams to travel to Delhi, proved an agile keeper, swift at the stumps, though sometimes a little forgetful about the elaborate rules of blind cricket.
Chuffed by their maiden performance, team Karnataka are aware of the work that lies ahead of them. “I urge them not to be quiet but fight for their rights—on the field and off it," Shetty says. Hopefully, many more stakeholders will step in to cheer these spirited girls along the way.