‘People don’t understand until they’ve seen it’: the power of disability sport

Disability is no bar to excellence – that’s the message of those working to bring physical disability cricket to a wider audience

Hit hard, flat, true and with a whip-crack report, the ball is still gathering pace as it thuds against the back wall of the training centre.

Heads nod amid whoops of approval and excitement at what this talent could bring to England’s cricket team. Not the bunch currently scrapping in the World Cup, or the team that will face Australia later this summer, but the gaggle of richly talented amateurs united by two powerful things they have in common: sport and disability.

“Our most improved player over the last couple of years,” says Liam Thomas, the vice-captain of England’s physical disability side, of the ball hitter, Matt Askin. Ditching his prosthetic arm has liberated Askin. He now flourishes his bat like a cheerleader’s baton, larruping the ball further and faster than ever. “Hitting sixes with one hand, eh?” adds Thomas. “Amazing.”

Teachers, tilers, students, water workers and biscuit exporters by day, the men gathered here for a weekend training session are the elite among 60,000 people with disabilities playing cricket at one level or another.

There is a burgeoning range of sports for people with disabilities: the Paralympics is just the tip of the iceberg. From football – there are varieties for both frames and powerchairs – to wheelchair rugby, or blind and visually impaired tennis, disability sport is enjoying something of a boom. There is even table cricket: a specially adapted version of the game requiring no little skill, the national title of which was contested by more than 300 schools.

Chris
 Chris Edwards, captain of England’s learning disability team supporting pupils at Millwood School Photograph: Claudia Janke

Roughly one in five people in the UK report a disability and, according to a Sport England study in 2015-16, those who do are more than twice as likely to be physically inactive.

“A 26-year-old lad got in touch,” said Neil Bradshaw, the operations manager for England disability cricket. “He was injured in service, is registered disabled and used to play for the army cricket team. He’s not been confident enough to reach out previously. He’s coming for a trial in August.”

At the training session at the National Cricket Performance Centre in Loughborough, everyone has a backstory – teenage bone cancer, amputation, club feet, missing limbs – but sympathy is neither sought nor required. Respect and a stage to perform on: that’ll do. That’s why they’re here. That and the chance to inspire the next generation to get involved.

Joining the physically disabled elite at the weekend training camp are their counterparts from England’s deaf squad. This innovative joint residential jaunt has been designed to bring together four sides – those with physical disability (PD), deafness, learning disability and visual impairment – under the overall disability umbrella.

Sizing each other up in open-net sessions lends proceedings a keen edge on the cusp of a pivotal season, for the PD group in particular. Later this summer, England stages the first physical disability world cricket series, duking it out with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe across nine days of T20 action in the West Midlands.

The hope is that exposure, and the seeing-is-believing nature of disability cricket, will help achieve what the likes of Anya Shrubsole and Steph Houghton have done for women’s sport. There are, as yet unconfirmed, plans to stream the games live. Millions would watch on the subcontinent. India’s involvement, backed by the all-powerful cricket authorities there, could be a gamechanger.

“The number of blind cricketers alone in India would drown the number of visually impaired athletes in Paralympic programmes across the world,” says Ian Martin, the head of disability cricket at the England and Wales Cricket Board. “And I think people often miss cricket’s appeal to people with all disabilities – we aim to include, not exclude. At grassroots level, we can be proud to say we welcome anyone.”

Martin appreciates the game’s potential reach so keenly because the story is also autobiographical. A lifelong and passionate club cricketer diagnosed with the muscle- and nerve-wasting condition Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome, he has singlemindedly pushed the disabled game forward over the past decade.

“When I pull on my suit and look at the three lions on it, I’m able to think back to the dreams that I had as a kid about representing England at cricket and realise that I’ve achieved the dream and then some, just not in the way that I planned.”

Toby Howe of England Lions runs into bowl during a England Physical Disability T20 match between England Seniors and England Lions.

This summer is a watershed for Martin and Bradshaw, both backroom veterans. Martin brokered the first PD international, between England and Pakistan in 2012. Bradshaw, who knits logistics together across the board, finally gave up his Matalan warehouse shift manager’s gig to go full-time last year. His initial involvement, a decade back in Cheshire, was done as a favour. “I got into it simply because I fancied a pint at a cricket club,” he chuckles. “I saw 10-12 disabled kids running their own warm-up, so just started helping out.”

Martin and Bradshaw are a tight partnership despite a bitter footballing rivalry (one is Everton, the other Liverpool). They have hundreds of shared miles under their belts building patiently for this moment. As Bradshaw sees it, fate just dealt these cricketers a different path: his remit is to push the envelope in search of validity.

“That’s where our frustration lies,” he says. “This isn’t a sympathy setup because these lads can’t get access to their cricket anywhere else. The standard’s really high.

“It’s educating people – getting away from the ‘oh, bless them, isn’t that nice?’ attitude. People don’t understand the game until they’ve seen the game.”

Liam Thomas and Liam O’Brien at England disability cricket training, Loughborough
 Liam Thomas and Liam O’Brien at England Disability Cricket training, Loughborough Photograph: Steve Morgan/The Guardian

Watching the training underscores his point: there is serious ability here, as evidenced when left-hander Thomas nails a succession of sweet shots against a bowling machine, deploying immaculate footwork. (His right leg ends just below the knee.)

The coaching staff comprises ex-England Test cricketers Ian Salisbury and James Kirtley. The performance analyst, Chris Highton, is on hand to crunch the numbers and go through footage. Muscles and tweaks are tended by Scott Gormley and Richard Olejar, the latter physio a quietly spoken Slovakian taekwondo international known as “the assassin” for reasons that later become clear.

After a couple of hours power-hitting in front of the bowling machines, there is a performance analysis seminar with Highton, who urges the players to embrace the data and make it work for them.

“It’s about making strengths super-strengths and weaknesses strengths,” he says. Then it’s down to the nitty gritty: batters v bowlers in a series of T20 scenarios. Fielding and catching drills complete the afternoon’s work.”

The competitive instinct kicks in when the different teams come together to test out their skills. There is an eye-catching exchange when deaf fast bowler George Greenway, capable of whistling it down at almost 80mph, takes on Liam O’Brien, who is not given to taking backward steps.

“Make sure you say he didn’t get me out,” he says of the tussle. He’s only half joking.

Honesty, friendship and integrity, winning on and off the pitch: these are constantly recurring themes across the weekend. Saturday evening is spent at the campus bar enjoying a couple of well-earned drinks, during which the squads start to mingle. Salisbury doesn’t bang the drum about curfews. He doesn’t have to: several of the players retreat to their digs before last orders.

Sunday morning brings the opportunity to discover first-hand why Olejar has his nickname. Breakfast is at 7.45am. At 9am sharp, both squads – and, at Salisbury’s insistence, your 50-year-old correspondent – warm up with Olejar. For 45 minutes, we are put through a series of hops and/or leaps up one, two, and then three steps. The theme to Rocky blares out as we pound the concrete.
Then it’s rigorous stretching inside before getting down to work again.

By about 4pm we are done. Everyone goes their separate ways, back to the day jobs. There is a wistful, end-of-school-term air as the players drift off. Liam O’Brien and spinner Fred Bridges plot their podcast listening on the journey back to Sussex.

Dan Hamm, joker in the pack, alights upon Askin’s discarded prosthesis. “Look!” he says, waving it like a triumphant detective cracking a case, “we’ve found this – which must mean… there’s a body somewhere!” Askin, clearly familiar with this sketch, smiles and shrugs his shoulders.

I mention that time has raced by: 48 hours gone in five minutes. “Yeah,” Askin concurs, smiling broadly. “I never want to go home.”

• A version of this article appeared in Wisden cricket monthly

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/03/power-disability-sport-no-bar-cricket