Aug 16, 2019

Did you know we just had a disability cricket World Cup?

Dinesh Kumara's left arm once had a bullet fly through it; with his right arm, he bowls pace. In December 2005, when he was serving in the Sri Lankan navy, who he also played cricket for, someone in the LTTE shot at him from 75 metres. That bullet means he no longer has full use of his arm.

Kumara is just one of many former armed-services personnel playing for the Sri Lanka Physically Challenged cricket team. Many of the players were injured in combat but still want to play the game they grew up with. According to Kumara's team-mates, he is the second quickest of the physical disability players in Sri Lanka. Kumara is 38 now but one player said he is still not a pleasure to face.

Since 2015, the Sri Lanka Cricket Association for Physically Challenged has sent the side on international tours. It is now made up of more than just retired navy men; many young physically disabled cricketers have joined the team.

Disability cricket has long been part of the game. In the 19th century, a team of one-armed and one-legged navy men played the game for charity in England. There have been such matches dating as far back as to 1766. There were also games between teams of deaf players in the 19th century. And blind cricket goes back to the early 20th century.

Just this week a World Cup for physical disability cricketers ended in England. India won. Kumara should have been opening the bowling for Sri Lanka, but he wasn't there - not because he wasn't good enough or because of team selection but due to the very confusing structure of disability cricket.

For one, despite Kumara calling it a World Cup, there is no actual World Cup.

"Who here knew that the England disabled cricket team won the World Cup this year?"

A couple of years ago Ian Salisbury, the former England legspinner and now coach of England's physical disability team asked this question at the annual Cricket Writers' Club dinner in London.

It was so quiet you could hear the few murmurs in the room. No hands went up. Had he asked who Derbyshire's T20 wicketkeeper was, you might have seen more hands raised.

Salisbury pleaded for the room to cover physical disability cricket more, but in the two years since, coverage has received no noticeable bump. Sure, there was some when Liam Thomas fielded a ball after his prosthetic leg came off, but disability cricket struggles for any kind of significant attention. After Salisbury's speech I approached the ECB, looking to write something about the team that had won the tournament. I didn't receive a response for three months, and when I did, it was an offer to face the blind team.

"The ICC has no role in disability cricket. It hopes that these amateur organisations all over the map will somehow get strong enough to force their national boards to give them official status"

Things have changed now. Ian Martin is the ECB's first Head of Disability cricket. He has been with the ECB since 2007 but only recently has his role acquired heft. Martin is not a regular cricket administrator; he is specifically a disability advocate - a rare position within cricket.

The official title of the tournament India have just won is the Physical Disability World Cricket Series. Legal reasons prevented it from being called the World Cup, but it also only involves five teams, England, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. There was no sponsor, and until recently the Indian team's participation was not even guaranteed.

Physical disability cricket exists all over the world. Teams and leagues are spread out over the cricket map. But a major problem is that disability cricket is multi-layered.

Australia, England and South Africa have learning disability teams, for instance. Nepal are in the blind and deaf events but not in the physical disability event (which is for those with physical disabilities that don't involve visual and hearing impairment, or the use of wheelchairs). England hosted this latest tournament but did not have teams at the blind or deaf events.

India are the only team appearing in all three major events, but they have no official learning disability teams. There is also wheelchair cricket, and table cricket for those in powered wheelchairs. And most disability cricket is for men; factor in women's teams and it swells again.

Even when there are good-news stories, it isn't enough. After the Bangladesh physical disability team won a series once, they got cash rewards from the government. Which was fantastic, except that the government money was only given to the winning team and not to disability cricket in Bangladesh in general.

The diversity and inclusion page on Cricket Australia's website talks about cricket for all. And there is a section on disability programs, where it talks about "National Disability teams for Deaf, Blind, cricketers with an Intellectual Disability". There is no mention of physical disability.

There are so many forms of disability cricket, not to mention different organisations in the same country claiming to be the real representative body, that there are complexities that do not exist in mainstream cricket.

When you visit the Deaf International Cricket Council website, for example, it looks professional enough. But once you hit the contact page, where you can send them "your massage", that impression wears away. At the top it says, "example of a contact page" and there is dummy text all over. A message sent using their Facebook page has remained unanswered for months. The World Blind Cricket Council's site has no contact page, and does not appear to have been updated since the 2014 Blind Cricket World Cup.

This is not to shame the volunteers out there who are doing their best to grow their sport. They are often people on the front lines, making sure players have adequate ground facilities, that new players are found. They chase sponsors and look for government money. But they need assistance. Cricket is not poor - it is a billion-dollar sport but it looks the other way.

In late 2018 there was a Deaf World T20 played in India. Sri Lanka won it. There were eight teams, including Nepal. The Test nations who didn't send a team were Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Ireland, Afghanistan and West Indies. The tournament was run by the Deaf International Cricket Council, which is not part of the ICC. It was their third World Cup. Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Australia, Nepal and Sri Lanka played in the Blind World Cup the same year, which India won. Again, it was not run by the ICC.

The ICC has no role in disability cricket. It believes - or hopes - that these amateur organisations all over the map will somehow get strong enough to force their national boards to give them official status. That's quite the dream, but there is a precedent in women's cricket - which formed a global body, ran a World Cup (before the men did) and looked after itself for generations until the ICC took control of the women's sport in 2005.

The ICC taking over the disability World Cups would not change much for average disability cricketers, but for the organisers, they would be put in touch with sponsors, have professional management, be funded, have marketing help and with it the ability to spread the message. That would be incredible but disability cricket is more vast than women's cricket. It is not easy for these organisations to come together, let alone be global.

Privately the ICC already admits how far behind disability cricket is compared to the women's game. Not only does the ICC not run the World Cups nor provide professional guidance to these organisations, it also does not have a chief of disability cricket, which comes under the much larger banner of "development services" and is therefore grouped with Associate and women's cricket. Essentially, anything that is not major men's cricket is off in a corner.

At the moment the ICC is working on their new strategy document, which will be about "cricket for all", and they continue to encourage each nation to create an environment where disability cricket is promoted. It's a lovely sentiment but it's not really doing anything for disabled cricketers.

The cricket team that Dinesh Kumara plays for, Sri Lanka Physically Challenged, is an unofficial team. It is part of the Sri Lanka Cricket Association for Physically Challenged. That body's chairman, Lakshan Fernando, is also their key benefactor. Fernando puts in money to help their players buy equipment and rent cricket nets. Their coach is a volunteer.

"Physical disability cricket exists all over the world. Teams and leagues are spread out over the cricket map. But a major problem is that disability cricket is multi-layered"

Despite Sri Lanka being a cricket-mad country, Fernando is not obsessed with the game. He comes from a background in social work, and before setting up the physical disability team, he was involved with a karate programme for kids with learning difficulties. It is people like him who keep disability cricket the world over alive.

Getting government funding is not always easy, especially in a place like Sri Lanka, where the minister of sport changes regularly. And then there is the cricket board.

There are many ways national boards are involved: the BCCI helps fund an existing organisation. In England, the ECB runs the disability cricket organisations itself. On the other hand, the Sri Lanka Cricket Association for Physically Challenged is not run by, or funded by, Sri Lanka Cricket.

In 2016 the ECB sent an invite to the SLC to send a physically disabled team to their world championship. It wasn't until two years later that they received a reply, saying that SLC would not be sending a team. Despite the fact that there was a Sri Lankan team. "They [Sri Lanka Physically Challenged cricket team] are not affiliated to SLC," the SLC CEO, Ashley de Silva, first replied. "We have received no request from them pertaining to a World Cup."

Fernando said he had constantly been talking to SLC about the World Cup. "We went to see the Sri Lankan cricket board to see if they could register us with them, and they told us, 'There is no facility to register a disability cricket in Sri Lanka cricket board,'" he said. "We told them that England, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have done it."

The Sri Lanka Physically Challenged cricket team played a Bangladesh side once, in a series sanctioned by the BCB. India have also sent a team to Sri Lanka to play, which was the only time SLC helped the Sri Lanka disability team with funds. So SLC has funded a team, and a Sri Lankan team has played against an official BCB physical disability team, but SLC say they have no physical disability team.

The boards and governments say these are not real leagues because the ICC is not involved, and the ICC will not take charge until these organisations are better. How can these leagues look legit if they are not part of the ICC structure to begin with? If you are not the official Sri Lankan team, sponsors are less interested and the press will cover you less. When asked directly why the Sri Lanka team was not made official, or even just allowed to take part in the world series, de Silva declined to comment.

The Sri Lanka Cricket Association for Physically Challenged is registered under the Paralympic Committee under the Sports Act of Sri Lanka. That allows them to officially ask for money from the Sri Lankan government, which they have received infrequently.

It is a commonly held belief by many among those who only follow the major men's teams in cricket that there is no need for cricket at the Olympics. That is an elitist view, and it is overlooking what cricket in the Olympics could do for the Associate teams, women's cricket, and the disabled cricketers of the world.

The Paralympics are the major showcase for disabled sport, but disabled sport rarely gets attention outside it. A presence at the Olympics leads to increased funding of sporting bodies by governments. Keeping cricket out of the Olympics is short-sighted for the sport; to those outside of cricket's mainstream, it's a horrendous decision.

At the Ministry for Sport in Colombo, Bhanuka Rukshan wears a blue polo shirt with a yellow collar and the Sri Lankan emblem on the front. At first glance it looks like an official cricket top, but then you realise it's not. He's a real Sri Lankan physical disability cricketer, but this is just a shirt you could buy in shops across Colombo.

When Rukshan was born, the doctors thought he had died in the womb, so instead of pulling him out gently, they yanked at his body. It turned out he wasn't dead, and that yanking meant he does not have full use of his right arm. He always played cricket as a small boy. He had no special training. He was just a kid who played with his friends, and then played for his school. Before 2015 he didn't even know physical disability cricket was a thing. Rukshan is the left-arm fingerspinner for the Sri Lanka disabled team.

The doctors ruined his chance of ever playing for the Sri Lanka men's team, but thanks to the Sri Lanka Cricket Association for Physically Challenged, he now represents Sri Lankan cricket. Just not officially, and not at a World Cup. Because there is no Sri Lankan physically challenged team, according to the SLC, and there is no physically challenged World Cup, according to the ICC, and the event in England was one his side did not go to anyway. Rukshan is still training, though. He is, like most disabled cricketers, used to overcoming long odds.