How England’s elite disability teams are providing opportunities and inspiring new playersSeptember 7, 2020
Inspiration in sport takes many different forms.
At the magnificent Arundel Castle Cricket Ground on the last Sunday in August, some of the country’s most dedicated and determined cricketers took part in a match that was hugely appreciated by the spectators who turned out to watch the game.
An England Disability XI took on the Duke of Norfolk’s XI in a 40-over match that showcased the talents of players from four of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s elite disability teams.
The ECB’s four international teams comprise of Physical Disability, Learning Disability, Hearing Impaired and Visually Impaired, and the game is thriving throughout the country.
“We have around 35,000 disabled players playing regular club cricket every weekend,” says Ian Martin, ECB Head of Disability Cricket.
“In total there are circa 70,000 disabled people playing the game, which includes our disability specific interventions and different pathways that these players play in.
“We’ve just formed a fantastic partnership with the Lord’s Taverners to build on some of the participation programmes that they have put together.”
Last year the Learning Disability team won their Ashes series 8-0 in Australia. It was Kester Sainsbury’s first overseas trip with the team and had a profound impact on his life.
“You get shivers when you put the shirt on,” he said. “You go out there and bowl your first ball, just with the team it’s great, it really is. Cricket means a lot to me, it keeps me alive, it’s everything.”
Kester’s father Graham, who is also a cricket coach, was among the proud spectators at Arundel.
“The opportunity that disability cricket has given to Kester has changed his life completely. He went to Australia and has come back a different person.
“It’s given him confidence to do other things. I’d like to thank the ECB for giving him the opportunity to do something we never thought was possible.”
There are many stories to be found among the players which highlight their determination to succeed, including Liam O’Brien, who represents the Physical Disability team. He suffers from bilateral talipes, which means he was born with feet facing inwards.
O’Brien went through the Sussex county route until his disability held him back, so from there he entered the Physical Disability pathway and has never looked back.
Umesh Valjee has been deaf his whole life and learned to play cricket with the father of former England captain Nasser Hussain at the Ilford Cricket Centre.
Tim Shutt, from the Arundel Castle Cricket Foundation, was delighted to be able to stage the game at the end of a summer that has seen the fixture programme decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Typically we have several hundred disabled children playing here every year,” Shutt explains. “They come down from all parts of the south-east, lots from London, but of course at the top end of that we are big fans of elite disability cricket through our partnership with the ECB.
“The standard is very good, these guys work very hard at their skills and you wouldn’t know they were disabled, they are that good.”
That opinion was backed up by the players on the day, who proved there was little difference in standard between the two teams. The match was a tight affair, with the Duke of Norfolk XI prevailing by just eight runs.
“I think sometimes when we think of elite disability sport we are blinkered by the Paralympics,” Martin adds. “Whilst the Paralympics gives disability sport a massive platform every four years, it isn’t the be all and end all of disability sport. The cricketers are all elite players and athletes in their own right.
“In England we have been the world leaders for a number of years. Cricket is strong enough as a mainstream sport to be able to sustain a disability programme.
“What I’d really like to see is Disability World Cups sitting off the back of the ICC Champions’ Trophy or the T20 and 50-over World Cups. I am quite sure that can be arranged and there will be enough disability participants globally to make that a sustainable option.”
It is also clear that these England disability players are role models and can play a huge part in inspiring generations to play cricket. Martin is keen to stress how accessible the sport is to participants with different disabilities and wants to see an even greater take-up of the sport.
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