Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Pakistan, England pioneer inclusion of disabled players in cricket

From The National in Arab Emirates:

The sight of Matloob Qureshi (pictured) at the crease would please any cricket connoisseur. There is a lazy elegance to his batting. He looks unhurried with his faultless footwork and his timing is exquisite as the ball flies off his bat. That he does this with only one hand amazes everyone who has watched him.

"The way he is striking the ball, it doesn't look like he is playing with the use of only one hand," said Haroon Lorgat, the chief executive of the International Cricket Council (ICC). "It is amazing."

Lorgat's remarks came after watching Qureshi bat during the recent series between the disabled cricket teams of Pakistan and England in Dubai. The contest, the first of its kind, has brought many such amazing talents to the fore.

Pakistan's Farhan Saeed, who was struck by polio at the age of two, bowls medium-pace on crutches; England's Callum Flynn, voted Britain's Kindest Kid last year, has battled bone cancer and plays with a titanium knee.

Hasnain Alam lost his right foot in a mine blast while serving in the Pakistan army, but that failed to diminish his love for cricket. Jahanzaib Tiwana was born with a leg deformity, but bats in the manner of his idol, Shahid Afridi, and once smashed a 36-ball 98.

"In short, it has been indescribable," Lorgat said.

He revealed that physical disability cricket will be on the agenda at ICC's next Chief Executives' Committee meeting.

"It is a part of the game that perhaps we don't pay as much attention to as it is not as flashy as the big boys when they play their first choice teams or female cricket in recent times," he said.

"But credit to those who have persevered and the management of the two teams deserve an enormous amount of credit. The teams have opened our eyes by displaying the skill, talent and passion they have over the past two weeks and the players deserve credit for playing the game in the spirit in which they have."

These words must be music to the ears of Saleem Karim and Ian Martin, the two men whose untiring efforts led to the first series between two national teams of physically disabled players, where both line-ups are recognised and endorsed by the governing body of cricket in their country.

"I have brought disabled cricket to this stage and only I know how I have managed it," said Karim, the Pakistan captain, who formed a team of disabled cricketers in 2007 and has been working since to get recognition for it. He spent from his own resources to bring the team to Dubai for this series.

"Now I hope there will be more support. These players have shown they are not inferior to any able-bodied person in any way."

"This is a massive breakthrough for disabled cricket," said Martin, the England Cricket Board's national disability manager.

"Being able to bring two sides to a fantastic facility, with both sides being recognised by the governing bodies of cricket in each country, it's a massive breakthrough. I really hope it will encourage other countries to get involved in disability cricket.

"What this series will do is evidence the possibilities and the opportunities that cricket presents for people of all types of disabilities to come and get involved in sports at the highest level.

"People with disabilities are playing sport all over the world, but up until now there hasn't been a pathway for cricketers. So what I hope this series will do is show to the world that people can choose cricket as a sport that they can play internationally."

The thought of creating a team for physically disabled cricketers came to Karim's mind early in his life, when he was regularly left out of a team by friends, in favour of able-bodied players.

"When you are a kid, playing on the streets, you know how emotionally charged those matches are and you want to be part of it," said Karim, who suffers from polio. "But for me, they would always pick another kid, even if he was not as good at cricket as me, simply because he could field.

"I would feel very disappointed because I wanted to play those matches. Then I started thinking that if all the players were like me, then I would not have to sit out."

Karim, 47, sat on that idea for two decades, first concentrating on his studies and then raising a family. But in 2007, the cricketing bug returned, and he discussed the idea with one of his friends, Amiruddin Ansari, who is now the honorary secretary of the Pakistan Disability Cricket Association.

They decided to hold trials, advertising the event in newspapers. They waited for more than two hours without anyone showing up. Disappointed, they were about to leave when the first player walked in. Gradually that number reached 11 - enough to form their own cricket team.

"It's just God's grace that we were able to find a wicketkeeper among those first 11, a few batsmen, an off-spinner and a leg-spinner, and a fast bowler," said Fareeduddin Ansari, one of the Pakistan coaches. "So we had a proper team on the first day itself."

Pleased with their efforts, Karim and his team started looking for sides to play against. There were no other disability cricket teams around, so they started against the youth teams of different clubs and academies.

"Within six months, we were really organised," Karim said. "Inside a year, we had disabled teams in eight different cities. Now we have 12 teams and every team has anywhere from 50 to 80 cricketers with them.

"So I salute them. It is due to their courage that we are seeing this series."

Tiwana is one of the players who came to disability cricket after learning about it through the newspaper. Immediately, he started "dreaming about playing on the international stage, in the best stadiums of the world with people watching us in awe and amazement".

He was doing well at the junior level in his native Multan and decided to go for the regional trials. He emerged the second highest run-scorer in those trial matches, but was turned down because of his disability.

"We were having regional [Multan] trials for the Under 19 team and I went there, but Manzoor Elahi [a former Pakistan international], he turned me down because I was disabled. 'You cannot play alongside normal players', he told me.

"He told me the PCB [Pakistan Cricket Board] cannot spend a lot of money on me because of my disability. 'No doubt you are a good player,' he told, 'but the PCB will not spend any money on you. Don't get disheartened and keep playing'. I was the second-highest run scorer for Punjab at that time, during the trials. I played as a keeper-batsman. I took around eight catches and five stumpings as well. I was really happy with my performance and thought I would get a chance, but felt really disheartened not to be selected.

"I left cricket after that and started focusing on my studies."

After his rejection at the trials, Tiwana's mother, who never approved of his cricket, took his kit bag away, urging him to focus on his studies. His late father and his elder brother were both lawyers and his mother wanted Tiwana to follow in their footsteps.

"I did not like that, but now I believe a lot of good came out of my mother's actions," Tiwana said. "During that period, about 18 months, my full focus was on my studies and that has really helped me. I now I have a degree."

Tiwana is now a law graduate and is preparing for the judiciary exams. He wants to be a civil judge in the future, but for now, disability cricket is his focus and he has got his mother's approval as well.

"I was disabled by birth," he said. "I had an operation, but it was not successful. When I was growing up, the other children would not allow me to play because I was considered weak because of my handicap.

"But I never got discouraged. I kept playing whenever I got an opportunity. Then, when the Pakistan Disabled Cricket Association [PDCA] adopted me, when we started playing matches and appearing on TV, people started coming to my house to call me to play. They wanted me to play for their clubs, alongside normal cricketers, and gradually I became a pride of their teams. Without me, they would not play.

"So I am really thankful to the PDCA for bringing us to this level, introducing us to the world. They allowed us to show we can play like able cricketers."

Saeed faced similar rejections, but he is now a star in his town, Korangi, and youngsters come to him for bowling tips.

"There has been a lot of positive changes in my life since I started playing cricket for the disabled team, especially where I live," said Saeed, whose favourite cricketer, rather surprisingly, is India's Ishant Sharma. "Earlier, nobody would respect us or pay any attention to us. They would look at me and think I cannot play because I am a handicap.

"But since I have come into this disabled team, the same people come to me asking for tips on bowling. They want me to teach them. They want to know how I bowl because I am a respected bowler now. They say, 'we saw you on TV today, or in the newspaper'.

"So the attitudes have changed. People love watching us and they enjoy our cricket.

"Some people when they see me bowling with crutches, they feel really concerned; they tell me, 'you will fall down'. But I have full confidence in myself and the way I bowl, it's unbelievable."

Watching Qureshi bat leaves you with a similar sense of disbelief. Having lost his right hand in an accident at the age of five, the Multan native got hooked on cricket after watching Wasim Akram on television. Later, Mohammed Yousuf became his favourite and you can see where his batting inspiration comes from.

"My father had a shop in the market and I had come there from school," Qureshi said. "I was going to the ground to play. Just ahead, a truck was taking a turn and I was hit by the rear bumper. I fell down and the truck drove over my hand.

"The hand was completely crushed. The doctors tried their best to save it and they kept trying for months, but the hand kept turning black and they had to eventually cut it off.

"I was just a kid then and the craze for cricket came much later. I used to love watching Akram bat and bowl, and that really hooked me on to cricket. I like Mohammed Yousuf a lot as well and I used to watch him a lot on TV. He is also one of my favourite players, so I guess I just try to bat like him."

Like Saeed and Qureshi, there are many inspiring tales on the England side as well, but none as stirring as that of 17-year-old Flynn.

Growing up in Leigh, Lancashire, Flynn was a talented cricketer and dreaming of playing at the professional level. But on his 14th birthday, he was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. Over the next two years, he underwent a gruelling course of chemotherapy and major titanium knee replacement surgery.

"All the players' have got different stories and they are all inspirational in their own different ways," Martin said. "But I think the one that stands out for me is Callum Flynn. He is 17 years old now and he was diagnosed with bone cancer when he was 14. He's been through the treatment.

"He's had a complete knee replacement and here he is, less than a year after finishing his treatment, representing England abroad.

"It's a phenomenal achievement. A very brave lad and hopefully his story can serve as an inspiration to others with similar disabilities."

Flynn has also been busy raising money for the Bone Cancer Research Trust, collecting £15,000 (Dh87,450) last year through different initiatives. The gesture saw him awarded Britain's Kindest Kid title last year, run by the Charities Aid Foundation and 5 News.

"I burst out crying when I found out I got cancer, it was the worst moment of my life," Flynn said. "But when I found out I was playing for England, it was the best time of my life. I cannot put it into words.

"Two years ago, I never thought I would play cricket again and then when I did start playing again, I just always wanted to play for England and now I am and wearing the Three Lions. It's just unbelievable."

Both Martin and Flynn now hope disability cricket will only grow after this groundbreaking series, and eventually lead to a world championship.

"The challenge has been, I think, getting the authorities to realise that people with these types of disabilities can play a very high standard," Martin said.

"Through this series that we've got here, we've been able to display that at the highest level. That's been the beauty of this series; it's been able to showcase the abilities these players have.

"In the short term, what I would like to see is this series again perhaps in two years' time, with the addition of another country or maybe two.

"But certainly in the long term, it would be to have a World Cup of physically disabled cricket."