It starts with a cry of “Bowler, bowl”, echoing around the large and dusty school playground. The small band of on-lookers then hear a rattling sound of a small old bell before a thwack followed by all manner of excited shouting and general mayhem. Welcome to a very unusual, and truly inspiring, form of cricket: this is Sierra Leoneon blind cricket.
The Blind and Visually Impaired Cricket Club gathers twice a month to play out keenly fought matches in Freetown, the capital of the small West African country of Sierra Leone. Each side has six overs to work the rattling ball for as many runs as possible. On the wicketkeeper’s call (“bowler bowl”) the bowler sends the ball rolling towards the other wicket (wides are harshly judged!) and the batsman, listening as closely as possible to the noise, tries to put bat to ball.
Most of the shots were a kind of brushing, paddle sweep (with shades of Eoin Morgan reverse sweeping?) although the odd partially sighted player does have a go at a drive-come-slog.
When there is contact the most manic and – in the nicest possible way – most fun part of the proceedings start. Fielders have to listen for the ball, spread their hands out as though they were polishing the floor, trying to locate the bloody thing. And the batsmen have to judge which direction the other wicket is as they try and get some runs.
But for all the smiles and laughs, the players are serious and determined. Ismael, for example, went blind only in the last few years and the club is now an important part of his life, showing that he can keep going with his life.
The team captain, Henry, is demanding and eager to win (he does win the game we watch). And for all the players there is a palpable excitement and sense of pride; they are ecstatic that some travellers from England, “cricket’s homeland”, have come to see them.
The coach, Mohamed, himself a “handy allrounder” has grand plans to extend the game out into the country’s provinces and create a mini league. He may yet be held back by a desperate shortage of kit and equipment, but his ambition and drive remain undimmed.
As we stood watching the game, joined by a small group of local kids who looked absorbed but also slightly bemused, it was easy to forget that we were watching some people who face some of the biggest challenges of anyone in the world. Not only are they blind (with many going blind only later in life, as a result of prevetanable diseases like measles), but they live in one of the poorest countries on earth.
It was just 13 years ago that Sierra Leone finally escaped a vicious civil war. After the British army intervened, a group of rebels, the Revolutionary United Front, renowned for amputating hands and arms, were beaten back and the country started to rebuild itself. This recovery and reconstruction has been difficult enough for ordinary Sierra Leonians, but imagine if you were blind as well.
I have been lucky enough to watch some of the greatest cricketers of our times. I’ve been to some of the best grounds and even watched the 2010/11 Melbourne and Sydney Ashes Tests. But in its own way watching this wonderful, if slightly peculiar, game of cricket on the West African coast was a match for all of this. It spoke to the role that sport, and cricket in particular, can play in bringing joy to some of the most forgotten and most hard done by people in the world.
By Will Paxton