Game on: Where there’s will and willow, there’s a way

New Delhi: It was a rare sight when 11 people on wheelchairs, wearing Team India’s trademark blue jerseys, stepped onto the ground at Bal Bhavan School in Dwarka for a friendly tie against men in khaki uniforms.

These men in blue, representing the Indian Wheelchair Cricket (IWC) team, was in Dwarka on June 18, 2019 to play a six-over match against Delhi Police to mark the beginning of a four-day cricket tournament, Indian Wheelchair Cricket Premier League (IWPL). There are 8 teams comprising 120 players representing different states in the competition that has been modelled after the Indian Premier League or IPL.

“The tournament is in its second year now. In its first year, we had 6 teams competing against each other. We hope to expand it further next year,” said tournament organiser Vinod Thakur. The 29-year-old is a disabled dancer and athlete who had shot to fame after his participation in television dance reality show NachBaliye.

Thakur, who has been associated with IWPL since its inception, said the biggest challenge was to bring together disabled people to showcase their talent. “No sponsor wants to invest in wheelchair cricket because they are not sure of the returns they will get. But wheelchair cricket is growing across India and 16 states have their teams now. These matches ensure visibility and change the perception society has of disabled people,” Thakur added.

Even though the men playing in the tournament admit that the fight for recognition and dignity is far from over, for many of them playing cricket has been a way of reclaiming their lost self-confidence.

Radheshyam (29) is playing for Delhi in IWPL. He remembers losing sensation in his legs when he was just eight. His muscles began to weaken and he was confined to bed for a few weeks before he was diagnosed with polio. “I was paralysed waist-down because of polio. After I lost my legs, people began to doubt if I will achieve anything in life,” said Radheshyam, who is from a small village in Madhya Pradesh. He was selected for the Delhi team by IWPL organisers who set up camps in different states to scout for talented sportsmen.

For the other men, too, playing cricket is a way to assert that they are capable of achieving much more than what people believe. Devender Kumar (23), who was selected from Haryana to represent Uttar Pradesh, said when they began playing four years ago, there used to be no spectators.

“We came to know of wheelchair cricket from social media almost four years ago. At that time, we did not even have a state team. But several NGOs got together to provide us support. They got us wheelchairs and raised awareness. When we first began to play, nobody came to watch. We were the spectators, cheerleaders and the trainers. We learnt by watching YouTube, but things have changed since then and today we manage to change the mindset of people with each match,” he said, adding that IWPL is a platform for state-level cricketers to get selected for the Indian team.

Wheelchair cricket has gained popularity over the last few years. The Indian wheelchair cricket team recently went to Nepal to play the Asia Cup, which began on May 15 and saw Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and India compete. India lost to Pakistan in the final held on May 19.

Ramesh Sartrape, the captain of the Indian team, who is also heading Team Mumbai in IWPL, had led the Indian side during the Asia Cup. Sartrape, who has been playing in the national team since 2015, was paralysed waist-down due to polio. But he says he has managed to leave behind his fears and inhibitions by playing for India.

Sartrape, who also helped form the wheelchair cricket association in Maharashtra in 2017, is confident that wheelchair cricket will gain popularity in India. “People often doubt disabled people. We faced many challenges but we have managed to put all of that behind us. With every match, we give out a message: Never give up,” he said.

Tuesday’s (June 18, 2019) match had IWC set a 47-run target for the Delhi Police team, which won the match in the last over.

Source: The Times of India