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What must it be like to play cricket if you’re visually impaired?
It was a thought preoccupying me on the walk up to the Indoor Cricket Centre at Yorkshire County Cricket Club to watch a taster session run by Yorkshire VICC.
I’ve written about VI cricket before with Cricket Yorkshire but it has been a few years now since I went along to Yorkshire play Sussex in a county cup game at Eggborough – so what kind of shape is the county game now in?
The purpose of this hour in the sports hall was to introduce those who are blind or partially sighted to cricket – the VI rules which are very different to the conventional game.
Players have their sight classified from B1 with no light perception in either eye to B4 who are those who have substantial or permanent sight impairment.
If you didn’t know, a cricket team is made up of those with a blend of sight ranges and the ball used is a size 3 football with ball bearings inside to allow totally blind players to track its path).
A huddle of newcomers are being greeted by John Garbett (above), a former England international who is captain of Yorkshire VICC and also Development Director for Blind Cricket England & Wales.
Lola, a black labrador with beguiling eyes is the guide dog to one of the Yorkshire players, Dean, and patiently sits next to a bowling machine.
The coach for the session, Martin Wilson, takes the half a dozen or so adults through some gentle warm up exercises while I chat to John about VI cricket in the county.
Yorkshire VICC have been through considerable change since I last saw them in action back in 2011 and their fortunes have waned through a combination of injuries, retirements and key players moving away from county cricket.
By all accounts, the 2016 season was a bit of a struggle mainly because of a lean, less experienced squad that meant juniors were drafted in and results were often bruising.
Yorkshire want to be challenging for honours again in the next few years. They were only formed in 2008 but have been runners up in both league (2011 and 2013) and knockout cup; their proudest moment when they won the T20 cup in 2011.
It’s not all about past glories by any means. They did get to BCEW David Townley Memorial Twenty20 Cup Quarter Finals in 2016 but lost by nine wickets to London Metro.
There’s also the encouragement of Yorkshire’s development squad coming second in their league which points to a player pool who could come through the ranks and play senior cricket, if they’re not already.
Yet, we’re early into the conversation when the importance of player recruitment for 2017 and beyond chimes out loud and clear.
Here’s the exciting bit. There is an opportunity for those that want it to play county cricket.
If you are struggling to play mainstream cricket due to failing eyesight, there is another game out there for you.
Equally, if you know of anyone who you think it might be of interest to, the county are keen on fresh talent and enthusiasm.
It’s a chance to pull on your county shirt and to represent Yorkshire in national competitions, as well as a clear pathway through international development training groups.
Who knows, you could even go on to the full England squad, who play both T20 & 40 over world cups and other one day series around the world.
At Yorkshire, they have two county teams, one in national league and the other in the North & East Regional League and the game is open to players of all ages & abilities and both sexes.
Of course, the struggle for players in Yorkshire, as with elsewhere, is in part due to the delicacy around those with failing eyesight admitting they have a sight problem.
Cricket clubs can also help and I’d encourage them to get involved. Why not host Yorkshire VICC in 2017 at your club?
You can be introduced to VI cricket, help spread word of the game to your area and maybe end up having one of your lads or supporters linking up with the Yorkshire squads.
Cricket clubs or potential players can email John Garbett, if you think you can help or want to get involved.
There is also a shortage of coaching resources working with Yorkshire VICC.
In fact, they didn’t even have a county coach for the season just gone (although Mark Beckles Wilson is their Head Coach when available and brings his Level 3 qualifications to bear) so for cricket coaches wanting to link up with a Yorkshire county squad, it’s a unique opportunity.
Back on St Michael’s Lane, those at the taster session are having a laugh as they take it in turns to drive the ball and practice bowling – no mean feat even to grip, let along bowl, with a ball that size.
It culminates in a game that goes remarkably well given no-one had played this format before.
It’s not long before those who had struggled to bowl anywhere near the batsman have settled into a rhythm and when someone is bowled out, it provokes high-fives all round.
The ultimate aim is to find a few players who are potentially good enough to play for their county…you never know when the next Peter Blueitt will materialise.
Yorkshire batsman Blueitt (above) represented his country back in September for England’s tour of Australia that saw them draw the two-match Twenty20 series.
After the cricket at Headingley, I talk to Brian Poole, one of those who came to try something new despite having not played cricket since his school days.
This introduction to VI cricket came through Leeds Vision Consortium; a joint venture in the city with the charity Action for Blind People.
For Brian, his sixty minutes of cricket had a number of benefits and he’d definitely come again:
“It was very enjoyable and builds up your confidence being able to track the ball and connect with the ball. It’s nice having the association with the others too.”
He was born short-sighted and it gradually got worse over the years: “It was about nine years ago when the optician said, ‘sorry, I can’t help you anymore.’ “
He goes on to describe how things are for him: “I went to the clinic and they diagnosed advanced glaucoma (a damaged optic nerve) and cataracts (when the lens of the eye becomes less transparent over the years causing clouded vision).”
A subsequent operation with laser surgery offered a respite but the glaucoma worsened and took away peripheral vision and his left eye is very blurry while his right also has problems.
Brian’s return to cricket after many years for this session meant that fuzzy vision – that he likened to peering through a fog – hindered his batting with the ball reaching him much quicker than he’d accounted for.
He wears a pair of glasses with orange tinted lenses – a bit like Netherlands football midfielder Edgar Davids used to for the same eye condition back in the Nineties.
For someone who is fully sighted, it was these kind of details, teased out from a morning that give the merest inkling of what it must be to live with no sight whatsoever or your vision severely compromised.
There are all kinds of obstacles both literal and acoustic to overcome. Listening back to Brian’s interview, it was striking how loud the sound was of a batsman in the far net using a bowling machine.
On the face of it, background sounds are innocuous but if you’re listening out for the ball bearings in a VI cricket ball/football to gauge direction then competing sounds become potentially disorientating.
At the end of the hour, folk scattered to the four winds to do their own thing and I was planning on scooting back to the office to write this up but I’m glad I didn’t.
John, Dean and the coach Martin were off for a bite to eat at Carnegie Cafe and I said I’d join them. So, this was two men with white sticks and another with a guide dog who were all very independent but I acted as John’s guide with him holding my elbow for assistance.
While I was happy to help and keen to spend more time with them anyway, what this did was put me in a position of trying to alleviate things in the way like scattered chairs, describe what was on the menu and therefore get a small sense of what it must be like to be blind.
When we were settled at the table, discussion turned to mobile phones with speech software – some have a built-in screen reader and text magnifier and the technological advances now means there’s better choice – though the first smartphone specifically aimed at those who are blind was only created in 2012.
With thoughts on rail connections, John’s wristwatch sparks into life and pipes up with the time; a speaking watch being another tech tool that I’d never seen before or had to think about – though virtual helpers like Apple’s Siri or Google’s Assistant have now become commonplace.
The journey accompanying the three of them into Leeds was an eye-opener. Wince.
I kept finding myself using sight-related language without meaning to. I’ll just go and have a look. Watch out for the kerb. Fumbling faux pas aside, they didn’t seem to mind and have probably heard it all.
In fact, I took a photo of John back at the sport hall and he said how weird it was not being able to see what he looks like after years of sight loss.
He’s actually older than I am but I let him know he was 21, tanned and with rippled six-pack. That elicited a chuckle.
Like I say, the response of others to three partially sighted/blind men, a guide dog and a skinny cricket journalist, was fascinating.
Some were patient; others were anything but in the hive mentality of Leeds railway station during the afternoon rush. One elderly couple nearly trampled us en route to the exit.
I had helped John onto the train at Burley Park, warning of the massive gap between the train and platform edge.
‘Mind the gaping chasm’ doesn’t have quite the same ring about it or marketing potential.
I was also quietly observing how guide dog Lola coped with everything and she was a bit of a legend. Unflappable and content to flop down and lick my trainers whenever there were five minutes spare.
I negotiated John to the door of the Kings Cross train and we said our goodbyes. All being well, he got down to the capital and isn’t still rattling around the UK transport system.
To return things to cricket….the Yorkshire VI game needs your help and I hope there’s enough players, coaches and companies out there who step forward to take an interest in blind cricket.
So this is my beat of the drums; a call to action to support Yorkshire Visually Impaired Cricket Club as they strive to get new players, coaching and financial support.
These cricketers obviously can’t drive to games so it’s the train, begging lifts or a team bus which proves costly as away trips can require clocking up the miles down to the likes of Somerset with games generally on a Sunday.
There are pots of funding floating about in amateur cricket, The Primary Club, have been supporters of Yorkshire VI cricket in the past but travel is generally not an aspect squads can apply for with grants.
Anyone want to donate or loan a minibus? Well, if you don’t ask…
If you’re interested and want to watch/participate then VICC training dates arranged so far are as follows:
Sunday 27th November: 2pm – 4pm : Wakefield City Academy
Sunday 22nd January: 1pm – 3pm : Headingley indoor cricket school
Sunday 11th February: 12 noon to 2pm : Wakefield City Academy
Sunday 26th February: 2pm to 4pm : Wakefield City Academy
Sunday 12th March: 1pm – 3pm : Headingley indoor cricket school
Training and matches from April onwards will take place at Old Sharlston CC near Wakefield, whose new clubhouse opened in October.