They need every form of encouragement

S. DINAKAR

THEY were visually challenged, but opened the eyes of the normally sighted. Their spirit soared as high as the clouds in the sky.

The jubilant Karnataka team with the trophy.-S. MAHINSHA

The HSBC National cricket championship for the blind in Chennai revealed the strength of mind of these boys, who have had to surmount daunting hurdles before realising their passion - playing cricket.

At the end of four stirring days (February 11 to 14), Karnataka overcame holder Delhi by three wickets to regain the title after seven years, yet every single boy who competed was a winner.

Cricket for the blind is played with a modified set of rules. The bowling is underarm, the ball has to pitch before the middle of the wicket, the metal stumps are bound together as a single unit.

And the plastic ball is filled with metal bearings so that the sound can be picked up by the batsman and the fielders. The audio signals between the batsman and the bowler are also very important here.

The sense of sound of these cricketers was astonishing; they invariably managed to connect the ball, and often threw themselves on the field to effect sensational stops.

Three categories of blind cricketers comprise an eleven. Six of them are totally blind, two partially blind, and three partially sighted.

At least one totally blind cricketer must be at the crease before all the six are dismissed. And the runs scored by the totally blind batsmen are counted as double.

The final at the SPIC-YMCA ground produced some engaging cricket. Delhi ran up a sizable 291 in the 40 overs, however, Karnataka found its hero in the 15-year-old Sekhar Naik, a class VII student from Shimoga.

Naik, managing to meet the ball quite amazingly, scored 161 to take the game away from Delhi. Though Karnataka lost a few wickets late in the game, the winner of the contest was never in question.

Naik, consistent right through the tournament, peaked on the right occasion. Cricket is his life he says, and the young lad manages to practise three hours every day.

Karnataka, a closely-knit unit, was also well served by strokeful batsmen Mahesh, Vishal Kumar, Ravikumar and Manjunath. It was Manjunath and Ravikumar, who provided the side with a lifeline in the crucial league encounter against Gujarat.

Their team was close to defeat, at 138 for nine, chasing 198, but, Ravikumar (32 not out) and No. 11 Manjunath (27 not out) raised 61 runs amid tension for the last wicket. Karnataka had managed a escape act.

The scenes that followed this special victory stayed in mind. The Karnataka players ran in to the field, chaired their heroes, and for a moment one forgot that these boys were visually impaired. The human spirit knows no bounds.

The boys' familiarity with the cricket field was striking. Even the totally blind cricketers would walk quite easily to their positions on the field, and we could only watch in stunned disbelief.

Delhi ruled supreme in the league phase, winning all three games. Mahender Singh scored 93 against Bengal, and skipper Ramkaran Sharma and Sunil Kadyan had their moments.

The team also possessed the fastest bowler in the competition - Sushil Kumar Gaud. His is a tale of courage. Sushil is an albino by birth - his skin lacks pigmentation, and he is close to blindness.

Sekhar Naik was consistent and scored a century in the final.-S. MAHINSHA

His sensitive skin turns blood red after a day under the sun, but he carries on manfully. Cricket is more than a game for him. "I can die for cricket. It's everything for me," he says. The game has opened up avenues for boys like Sushil, for whom life is a challenge.

Among the other sides, Gujarat, that finished third, battled well. Ramesh Bhola was the star-performer for the side, and his 60 and three wickets against Bengal fetched him the Man of the Match award. The tight game against Karnataka cost Gujarat a place in the final.

And Bengal, without a couple of key players, managed to put up a fight in most games. Tapas Maity was consistent with the bat for his side.

The field placings in the tournament were also interesting. It was not uncommon to find two fielders, wearing protective gear, standing side-by-side at short-leg, who would fling themselves in the manner of a soccer goalkeeper as soon the ball was delivered.

The ploy was to check the flow of runs square off the wicket, since the sweep and the pull shots were most common when the bowling was underarm. And the close-in fielders were fearless.

Indeed, the character displayed by these boys was the highpoint of the tournament, and they do deserve every form of encouragement.

Cricket for the blind needs sponsorship, but sadly, that doesn't appear to be happening. Job opportunities are welcome too. HSBC Bank came forward to support the Chennai Nationals, and CricInfo chipped in with organisational help, but so much more can be done.

Chennai is likely to host the World Cup for the blind in December 2002, and one hopes things would, by then, change for the better.

Surely the corporates can contribute towards a worthy cause. These brave boys do deserve it. They have learnt to smile through testing times, and their zest for life is extraordinary, really.

As George Abraham, chairman, Association for Cricket for the Blind in India, said: "Disability is God-given, handicap is man-made, children are children."

The scores (final):

Delhi 291 for nine in 40 overs (Ramkaran Sharma 65, Pratap Singh Bisht 39, Sanjay Kadyan 40 not out, Manjunath three for 33) lost to Karnataka 292 for seven in 38.1 overs (Sekhar Naik 161).