Excellent fare

K. KEERTHIVASAN

Former Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga gives away the Petro World Cup Trophy for the Blind to the Pakistan skipper Abdul Razaaq (middle) and coach Nafees Ahmed. At right is the Association of Cricket for Blind in India Chairman George Abraham.-VINO JOHN

GEORGE ABRAHAM, the Chairman of the Association of Cricket for Blind in India (ACBI), knows only too well about the state of the visually challenged in the country. As one who suffered a retinal damage when he was a 10-year-old, he knows the challenges and obstacles they face in society. A Post-Graduate in Operations Research from St. Stephen's College, New Delhi, Abraham, has been fighting a long battle to change the perception that the blind cannot achieve anything. "They have the same talent and ability. Eyesight is only an apparatus of our body to collect information. That does not mean the blind do not have emotions. They have the right to play the game they love," said Abraham. "But seldom do we accept that they too can be performers."

The (second) Petro World Cup cricket championship held in Chennai, and sponsored by IOC, GAIL, ONGC, threw up quite a number of performers, which would have made Abraham and his ilk proud. The championship, many said, was an improvement on the first World Cup held in New Delhi in 1998.

From the last World Cup, New Zealand was the only country, which did not turn up. But the other countries — Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, England, Australia and South Africa — more than made up for the absence of the Kiwis. Diving and throwing themselves on the field, the visually handicapped cricketers gave an excellent account of themselves, making some wonder whether their visually able counterparts would have shown so much commitment and dedication.

After five league matches, followed by the semifinals, Pakistan and South Africa clashed in the final at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium. Put in to bat, South Africa was restricted to 255. In reply, Pakistan, guided by an unbeaten 87 (96b, 5x4) from M. Ashraf Bhatti, coasted to a five-wicket win.

The Pakistani players on a victory lap after defeating South Africa in the final.-VINO JOHN

The biggest asset of the Pakistan team was its all-round superiority, be it in fielding, batting or bowling. If analysed closely, it was the determination and the fiery spirit that helped the team overcome all odds. Tariq Samuel, M. Ashraf Bhatti and Muhammad Fayaz chipped in whenever the team was struggling. Bhatti, who was adjudged the `Man of the Match' in the final, has been an important figure in the Pakistan scheme of things for some time now.

The 24-year-old sociology graduate ran up scores of 10, 30, 109, 96, 42, and 97 prior to the summit clash. And when Pakistan toured England in August 2002, Bhatti's performances were 172 not out, 44, 162 not out and 150 not out in the four ODIs. "I learnt my basics from captain Abdul Razzaq and chairman (PBCC) Agha Shaukat Ali," said Bhatti, who can see only through one eye. Bhatti also said that they get the recognition and approbation from everyone concerned. "We get good coverage from the press. Whenever the `real' team does badly, we are compared to them. We have the ability, that's why they compare us with them. That feels good."

South Africa, too, has similar strength as Pakistan. But, unlike Pakistan, it chose to experiment with its batting line-up in all the league matches and emerged unscathed. Another highpoint of the Proteas was its close-in fielding. None of the teams had the courage and foresight to execute such a plan. With the bowling being underarm, and with most of the runs coming through sweeps, South Africa intelligently fielded four BI (totally blind players) on either side of the batsman, a ploy that saved the team a lot of runs.

Pakistan's star batsman Mohd. Ashraf Bhatti (left), who was declared the 'Man of the Match' in the final, with skipper Razaaq.-VINO JOHN

South African captain and coach Rory Field emerged as the saleable star of the tournament. With a physique and a build, which is as good as any normal international cricketer, the 28-year-old Marketing Manager for the Cape Town Society for the Blind, proved an ideal ambassador with his genteel demeanour on and off the field. The youngsters in the team such as Adrian Maartens, Raghunathan Naidoo and Paulus Prins look up to Rory.

The opposition teams heaved a sigh of relief when they learnt that Scott — Rory's brother — had not come for the tournament. Scott, who notched up big scores in the 1998 World Cup, has reportedly taken to swimming in a big way. But that was only a minor consolation as South Africa had a long tail.

Compared to 1998, this World Cup, by Rory's standards, was pretty average. Unlike in New Delhi, where he emerged as the `Player of the tournament' with 953 runs, this time he was able to score just one century.

Australia quietly worked itself up the ladder, powered by N. Haydar's magnificent performance. He scored three centuries, all coming in crucial matches. But unfortunately his century (112) in the semifinals went in vain as South Africa won by four wickets.

Shekar Naik (middle) emerged as the top-scorer for India with an aggregate of 220 runs from five matches. Here he guides team-mate Rajendra Verma to the crease during the match against Sri Lanka.-VINO JOHN

Host India opened its campaign on a losing note. Despite a fine century from Sushil Gourd, one man — Nathan Foy changed the script of the game. The 22-year-old, who is completely blind, smashed an unbeaten 152 as England cruised to an eight-wicket win. With a lone win over Sri Lanka, India required a victory and a bonus point in its last league match against Australia to qualify for the semifinals. India won the match, but failed to grab the bonus point.

From an Indian point of view, 16-year-old Shekhar Naik emerged as the one to look forward to the future. The Std. VIII student of the Government School for blind children, Mysore, was in the limelight when he made 163 for Karnataka against Delhi in the final of the National championship for the blind in February this year. In the World Cup, Naik did not disappoint, emerging the top-scorer for his country with an aggregate of 220 runs from five matches. He was later awarded the `Philips Indian player of the tournament'. "He (Naik) is a treasure which we would cherish," said Abraham. Other Indian players who made a mark were Gourd and wicket-keeper-batsman Vishal Kumar.

One of the main reasons for India's poor show was its poor running between the wickets, and against good fielding sides such as Pakistan and South Africa it proved to be crucial. Coach Uday Gupte attributed the team's poor show to running between the wickets and to the fact that the team had not played as a unit since the last World Cup. While India finished third in 1998, it came a poor fifth this time.

The captains of the participating countries pose with their respective national flags during the Opening Ceremony.-VINO JOHN

A young-look Sri Lankan team won the hearts of many who got to interact with them. Media-shy, the Sri Lankan team, which comprised mostly players from poor economic background, endeared itself to one and all with its simple nature. With an abandoned match and three losses, the team pulled off a surprise, defeating England by seven wickets in its final league contest. The 22-year-old Lankan captain Chandana Kumara Suriyaarachchi, employed with the Rural Bank at Galle, struck an unbeaten 94 to guide his team to a famous victory.

On the flip side, extras sometimes became the top-scorer. Numerous overthrows, wides and no balls showed the drawbacks inherent in blind cricket. But that did not come in the way of these cricketers putting their best foot forward. There were some poignant moments too. When a shot was hit towards the long on, Pakistan captain Abdul Razzaq ran towards the other end, and the shouts of his players made him change the direction and chart the right course. There were some sensational run-outs and delightful catches. One which stood out was Shekhar Naik's direct throw from the deep to dismiss a South African player.

On the organisational front, the tournament was a grand success. But, despite the rapid strides made by blind cricket in the last 10 years, it is a pity that the BCCI has not extended full support. ACBI, under the guidance of Abraham, has been trying hard to get recognition for blind cricket, but BCCI is yet to relent. "It is unfortunate that the BCCI does not recognise blind cricket. The day will come when it will do so," Abraham said at a press conference the other day. He also felt that though the government was heeding the ACBI's request, more needs to be done. "We have to go to the government with ideas. They need our help." Abraham feels that in the years to come, the importance of visually challenged cricket is bound to increase.

While the 11-day championship turned out to be an excellent advertisement for the visually challenged, it also raised some disturbing questions. There was loose talk about the validity of the blindness of a few players. When this was pointed out, Abraham said, "I too heard about this. We had such allegations in the last World Cup also." Speaking to The Sportstar, Abraham said "within two years time", a standard format called sight classification form (with the photograph and the nature of the blindness) will come into effect. He also said if further suspicions about the candidate persist, then the technical committee will do a "random checking" which, he believes, will act as a deterrent. While insisting that it is wrong to link good performance to the level of eyesight, Abraham said the spirit of blind cricket should not get tarnished because of the faults of some people. The championship produced some wonderful moments, some heartbreaking results. The encouragement the visually challenged received from the media, officials and spectators will, hopefully, make them more confident to face the world. The tournament brought home the eternal fact of life: Handicap exists not in the body, but in our minds.

Final: South Africa 255 for eight in 40 overs (Nathan Meyer 59, Riaan Liebenberg 51, Petrus Le Roux 34 not out) lost to Pakistan 256 for five in 37.2 overs (M. Ashraf Bhatti 87 not out, Muhammad Shahbaz 28, Abdul Razzaq 30, Muhammad Fayaz 25 not out). Man of the match: M. Ashraf Bhatti.

Semifinals: Pakistan 393 for eight in 40 overs (Tariq Samuel 76, Muhammad Shahbaz 34, M. Ashraf Bhatti 83, Amir Ishfaq 87) bt England 282 in 32.5 overs (Nathan Foy 40, Timothy Guttridge 104, Adam Benjamin 43).

Australia 328 for three in 40 overs (N. Haydar 112, C.J. Baskstorm 73, M. Horsey 26 not out) lost to South Africa 329 for six in 38.1 overs (Rory Field 104, Adrian Maartens 29, Pieer Van der Berg 86, A.E. Primo 27 not out).

Other awards:

Man of the tournament: Nathan Foy (England); Man of the tournament (Category-wise): B1: Timothy Guttridge (England), B2 (partially blind): Rory Field (South Africa), B3 (partially sighted): M. Ashraf Bhatti.