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Thursday / July 18.
HomemitwocentsAs I See It: An Ear on The Ball

As I See It: An Ear on The Ball

Geoff Lawson recently returned to Australia from a cricket coaching stint in India and was reminded of the stark differences between the two vast countries. But on his return, he also re-discovered blind faith in the form of Australia’s vision impaired cricketers.

After a few months on the sub-continent coaching some of the most promising able bodied young cricketers in India, I returned to a cold and very wet Sydney. The weather is a world away from the 40 degrees and cloudless skies of pre-monsoonal central Maharashtra, the cultures are separate (but may be merging), the concept of personal space is not.

As our new PM’s policy direction veers diametrically from her predecessor’s, emphatically stating that Australia already has enough people, my perspective on the almost deserted roads of some parts of Sydney could not be more opposite. Australia is vast and spacious and we have the famous ‘dead centre’.

India is big and crowded and very much alive. The cultural and socio-economic demographics could hardly be more disparate. The world of cricket is also poles apart.

As the new PM’s policy direction veers diametrically from her predecessor’s, emphatically stating that Australia already has enough people my perspective on the almost deserted roads of Sydney could not be more opposite.

Aussie Blind Cricketers

After spending time with elite talent in India, I dropped into the School of Optometry and Vision Science at my alma mater at UNSW to check in with another elite cricket team. This time it was the Australian Blind Cricketers who were having some final vision assessments before heading off to the Caribbean for a series of one day games and 20/20 games against the West Indies teams.

Cricket for blind or partially sighted people began in Australia back in 1922 when an Ashes series was celebrated by the locals by putting some rocks in a can and trying to hit that with an old cricket bat. The idea caught on quickly and an interstate rivalry between NSW and Victoria began in 1928. One which is still played with a special fervour, just as are the Sheffield Shield clashes between the traditional rivals.

Today, the ball of choice is a hollow plastic ball, white of course, with loose gravel or bells inside to make the noise so necessary for the partially sighted to focus on. Woven cane balls with bells inside are still used in the lower standards, as the ball is rolled underarm toward the stumps. The pitch is the normal length of 22 yards (20.12 metres). All the usual rules apply, including LBW.

The skill level required to judge the line and length of the delivery and then hit it are amazing. Try it for yourself by closing your eyes and trying to hit or catch based mostly on sound… not easy!

The style of cricket provides a competitive and recreational activity played by the partially slighted or completely blind cricketers is wonderful to watch. Test matches with New Zealand have been since 1987 and a Blind Cricket World Cup began in 1998, the last being in Islamabad when India played Pakistan in 2006. There is even a Blind Cricket Ashes series between the oldest of cricket rivals with unfortunately England holding the trophy… for the time being anyhow.

Each team consists of three categories B1, B2, and B3. The B1 category is totally blind, much the same way in which the Special Olympics basketball, murder ball teams are constituted. Various levels of vision form the eleven players. The squads are often complemented with a runner with sufficient vision to complete the runs after the batsmen have hit the ball.

To be categorised in an officially recognised manner each team member must complete the battery of tests. The UNSW School of Optometry and Vision Science provided the facilities and the staff for the team to be screened and appropriately categorised.

Classification and Testing

The Visual Classification testing was carried out by Optometrist Mitasha Marolia of ICEE who is the only person in Australia with accreditation from the World Blind Cricket Council. The classification and testing helps produce a “level playing field”. Partial sight comes in many degrees, just as the disabilities at the Special Olympics have numerous categories for the athletes. However, blind cricket has just one national team and one international tournament, outside individual series such as this one to the West Indies. The players are super competitive and are out there to win as much as Ricky Ponting’s men or Alex Blackwell’s ladies. They want an even competition where performance is rewarded with success rather than playing well and not having a chance to win owing to the “handicap” of a team with better vision.

While cricketers in Australia at the elite levels are paid enormously well (up to AUD$2 million per annum) and are supported in all travel and accommodation costs (even for their WAGs and families!), the Australian Blind Cricketers must pay for their own costs. For a trip such as the one just carried out in the Caribbean that becomes quite a burden on top of the complicated travel requirements.

Australia is predicted to have about 100,000 legally blind inhabitants by 2020 (apart from another 800,000 or so with affected vision which may be corrected as simply as an eye exam and spectacles – the ageing Australian population will need all manner of presbyopic corrections!!). Recreation and work for balanced and quality of life is important to all Australians. For those with disabilities such as the visually impaired, the national past-time of cricket can provide that release and an element of satisfaction that comes from representing your country if you are good enough and the ambition is high.

It is a pity that the authorities that run the fully sighted versions of the game don’t support the less glamorous, but thoroughly deserving.