How Kohli & Co put blind cricket into mainstream

Alison Mitchell is bowled over by the T20 World Cup for the Blind which attracted 25,000 to the India-England match

England’s Visually Impaired (VI) team arrived home from India having reached the semi-finals of the second ever T20 World Cup for the Blind, organised and hosted by the CABI, the Cricket Association for the Blind in India.

It could be said that in the way CABI hosted it, they played a blinder too. Crowds in excess of 20,000 regularly watched the home team and defending champions work their way to the final, where they beat Pakistan to lift the trophy at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore.

When England, led by captain Luke Sugg, played India in Indore, the noisy crowd peaked at 25,000. It may have been bolstered by a few busloads of excitable school children but England’s VI players had never experienced anything like it.

More than this, though, the event was watched on television, and a sense of intrigue and excitement was built up before the tournament had even started.

How was this possible for a minority sporting event in a country obsessed with the allure of the IPL and Bollywood? You could say the country is first and foremost obsessed with cricket, but that doesn’t automatically translate into crowds for cricket outside of the mainstream. Compare the ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup staged in India in 2013 and hosted by the BCCI. No marketing campaign, very little publicity, and grounds were very quiet, even for India’s matches.

The BCCI doesn’t have a hand in the running of blind cricket in India. It was the CABI who bought in help to passionately plan and carefully execute a marketing strategy to turn the Blind World Cup into a national conversation piece before the first ball was even bowled.

It started with a sprinkling of stardust and the recruitment of former India captain Rahul Dravid as official Brand Ambassador for the tournament. They then produced a high impact billboard and poster campaign featuring six members of India’s superstar sighted team, including captain Virat Kohli.

Kohli, Gautam Gambhir, Ashish Nehra, Ajinkya Rahane, KL Rahul and Umesh Yadav were all photographed posing in black polo shirts with black blindfolds over their eyes. It is a striking image.

Kohli then featured in the video for a powerful T20 Blind World Cup anthem, with the strapline, ‘Beat The Ordinary’. The stars of the video, however, are members of India’s blind team, filmed playing the game and showcasing not only their skills but also highlighting the features of the game which stand it apart from regular cricket; the quick and skiddy underarm bowling, the hissing sound of the ball bearings inside the ball, the sweepshot which is so common in this form of the game and the bowler feeling for the stumps at the non striker’s end so he can line himself up before he bowls. The video is upbeat, energetic and cool.

Admittedly the World Cup anthem was totally India-centric, with no mention of the other teams involved, but it spoke to its target audience and has set a high benchmark for how a minority cricket event can be marketed and promoted to its home nation. The opening ceremony was a loud and proud affair, with Indian players walking down a catwalk arm in arm with stars from the world of Indian TV and fashion.

The CABI presented their players as superstars, and superstars they became. By the end of the World Cup, the Indian team were being feted by the State President of Karnataka at his residence and receiving tweets of congratulation from Bollywood superstar (and IPL owner) Shah Rukh Khan.

The whole strategy reminded me of the Channel 4 ad campaign in the lead up to the 2012 Paralympics ‘Meet the Superhumans’, which introduced us to the stars of the London Games months in advance of the event. It was Channel 4’s biggest marketing push in 30 years. It was bold, unapologetic and central to challenging perceptions of disability. It helped London 2012 become the first Paralympic Games to sell out.

Blind Cricket was invented in the early Twenties in Melbourne. It started at a workshop for the disabled where a number of workers with visual impairments were involved in basket weaving. They wanted to play cricket during their lunch break and had the idea of putting nuts or stones inside a jam tin to fashion a ball that they could track through their hearing.

The game has since evolved so that at international level it is played on a full length pitch, with a plastic ball filled with tiny ball bearings. A typical delivery will involve the bowler reaching out for the stumps with his hand at the non-striker’s end to gauge where to bowl from. Once ready, he will call out to the keeper. The keeper shouts out the bowler’s name two or three times so that the bowler can use his hearing to judge his line. The bowler shouts “ready?”, the batsman replies “yes” and the bowler shouts “play” as he lets go of the ball. The bowler can be no-balled by the umpire if the call of “play” is deemed to have come early or late.

The ball must be delivered underarm. There is a line marked half way across the pitch and depending on the category of bowler and batsman, the ball has to bounce a minimum number of times each side of the line before it reaches the batsman.

Cricketers are categorised into different levels of sight. Local organisations can vary in their categorisations but internationally there are three, and the higher number indicates a greater level of sight.

B1 players are totally blind and wear white wristbands so the umpire can identify their category. Some players may have a slight perception of light, so all B1 players will wear dark glasses to ensure fairness. B1 batsmen all have runners and runs count double. B1 fielders can take a catch on the bounce.

B2 players (red wristband) might only see two metres away what a fully sighted person would see at 60 metres. A B2 batsman can have the option of a runner.

B3 players (blue wristband) might see at 10 metres away what a fully sighted person would see at 60 metres. They might have a field of vision of less than 20 degrees in their best eye.

In India, attention will now turn to the upcoming edition of the IPL. In England this summer the ICC Women’s World Cup is an event that has the opportunity to attract crowds and be talked about if it is marketed and promoted in the right way. Perhaps not catwalks for the opening ceremony, but there is certainly something to take away from the loud and proud attitude that India’s Blind World T20 took on. It is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, February 17 2017

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