How blind cricket in the UK is finding its feet again

8:56 AM

"There's so much danger in your local high street, even around your own home," says Nathan Foy. "Where else can I run around in any direction, and the worst that's going to happen is, I run into an umpire?"

A cricket legend is blind. He has been the central personality of England's visually impaired cricket team for two decades and counting, including a period in the mid-2000s when he was the best player in the world.

He is doing a fielding drill at Edgbaston, throwing himself bodily this way and that, pouncing on a stream of plastic balls filled with rattling ball bearings that offer his only clue as to what is coming towards him.

The VI squad is in the middle of a two-day training camp in the indoor school, as it continues its re-emergence from a period of stasis during the Pandemic. Even if he is starting to creak at the seams, he is nowhere he would rather be.

He says he used to be able to do things with his body. I do them despite my body. I did the triple jump and the long jump when I was younger. I look like an Olympian from the waist down, but up top I have a dad bod.

In the mind of a man who has alpha status in his extraordinary, nuanced, sport, Foy enjoys a freedom that he doubts he could have replicated in any other walk of life.

He says cricket has been a big part of his life. Without my guide dog, I struggle to walk down the street. I feel like I'm part of a team here. Not everybody gets that chance.

Nobody in the VI community has had that opportunity in the past year and a half. Covid wreaked havoc with mainstream sporting schedules, but it was nothing compared to the debasement of the disability programme. There are tentative plans for another World Cup in 2023, but nothing so ambitious can yet be set, as England's VI squad suffered the postponement of theAshes in consecutive summers in 2020 and 2021.

There's not much expectation that normality will return in a hurry next summer despite some optimistic noises. "We got our hopes up briefly earlier this summer," says the team's vice-captain and opening bowler, Justin Hollingsworth. Everyone got back together for a couple of outdoor training sessions, and then it was called off again. It is what it is.

England's visually impaired squad are training.

John Cook, England VI's head coach, has found the enforced downtime to be beneficial. If blind cricket is ever to take the sort of mainstream leap that the Paralympics managed at London 2012 it will need to bridge the gap between India and Pakistan, because excellence may be the benchmark by which he and his team ultimately seek to be judged.

The void that Covid created in the VI schedule has provided a chance to re-examine the human aspect, and to broaden the base of a game that has always seemed one step removed from the more familiar versions played by England.

Cook says that most people in society can be engaged by taking care and consideration. It might be a simple case of saying hello and goodbye, being polite and encouraging, but for us it's also about the environments that cricket is played in. It's not easy to spread the game and make it more accessible, but it's easy to find a way to do that.

Ed Hossell, England's captain, took to VI cricket in a way that shows how easy it can be to misplace opportunities in the sport. Hossell was diagnosed with Stargardt's disease when he was a teenager. It meant that his involvement with mainstream cricket was going to end, but a chance encounter with a small advertisement in a supermarket transformed his relationship with the sport.

He says cricket was the last thing on his mind. "My mum found a flyer for the visually impaired cricket team." Give us a call. I turned up, and I loved it, and I've never looked back.

Cook says that the sport's obvious alterations are not heresy. These are people who want to play cricket. It should be as simple as that. It can be difficult for some players to get to a club because it can take them three-quarters of an hour in the opposite direction on public transport before they can get there.

Cook has invited 40 community coaches to Edgbaston to observe the training session and absorb the sport's nuances, and then to return to their clubs with ideas for broadening the sport's base.

He says there were only two of them trying to prepare the team for a world tournament. With the help of 40 other people, it can only be a better thing for people with disabilities and for those who want to support them as well. It's hard to imagine the possibilities.

England's blind World Cup campaign will be led by Justin Hollingsworth.

A VI cricket team has players from three categories sight, ranging from partially sighted B3s and B2s to total blindness, B1. Four players of that last kind are required in any given XI.

Each delivery is required to bounce at least two times, once in each half of the pitch, to cause the ball bearings to rattle and give off aural clues to the waiting batter.

The tactics in a contest are almost refreshingly discriminatory, as noted by assistant coach Jason Wood. Tailoring your shots to pick out the B1s in the field is an advantage when batting. If you can get enough scuplture to force the ball bearings to grip the outer casing of the ball, it will increase your chance of deception mid-flight.

Wood says it's a ruthless, sneaky game. Some of the guys are very good at it. We would love to have a training ball with multi-coloured ball bearings that we could see inside and get a better idea of what goes on. The ability to swing or spin the ball means that the batter is unable to judge where it's going visually.

Not that any of the tricks that were used to hold back Foy in his pomp ever seemed to hold back him. In this format, runs scored by B1 players count double, which means that any team that can build its strategy around its most disadvantaged players can get a head-start. In the 2002 Blind World Cup, Foy scored two centuries, including a career-best 232 against Pakistan, which helped England to a victory over the most decorated team in the format.

"I hold lots of world records for run-scoring in blind cricket, and a lot of that comes down to training myself very specifically to listen to the ball," says Foy. People talk about hand-eye co-ordination. I believe in hand- ear. I've taken catches, which is hard for a B1, but when the ball is in the air, it's like I can see it in my mind. You don't just want your hands to be co-ordinated, you want to feel it in your whole body, because that's so important for the game.

There has been controversy regarding Foy's prowess. The Australian media accused him of not being blind enough despite the fact that all B1s wear glasses to ensure a level playing field. To hear his life story is to be reminded of how hard it is to create disabled champions.

"I have a congenital form of the eye disease," says Foy. When you're 60-plus, it's a gradual build-up of pressure in the eye and it starts to damage the optic nerve. I was blind by the time I was a teenager because I got that in the womb. The world looked very bright to me, but I was able to tell the difference between light and dark, so I was able to get around.

Nathan Foy is a member of the England team that will compete in the World Cup.

I detached my eye about three years ago. I went from a world that was bright to a world that was dark. My ability to be a parent was affected when I swapped one kind of blindness for another. I found that very difficult.

Even though he's powerless, Foy keeps going because of the sense of liberation and the fact that his refusal to be defined by his limitations is what takes the sport beyond being a pastiche of able-bodied.

Wood says that everyone in blind cricket looks to the B1s for guidance. It's not always obvious what the difference is between those players and others. The skill base that these guys have developed is what makes them able to do things that we can't. If we can turn that perception on its head and make our B1s into match-winners, that will give us a huge advantage.

The secret to Foy's long-term success is his homespun batting technique, which involves staying low to the ground and then chopping at the ball, almost as if wielding an axe.

There is a small amount of time to decide the line of the ball and how fast it is going. I use my bat like I'm chopping down a tree, and try to hit the ball at the very end of my bat with maximum speed. If I miss that and the ball hits the stumps, that's it.

To build up his resilience at the crease, Foy's regime includes sessions in which he is hit with plastic balls to make him not fear being hit, and that wholehearted approach also applies to his goalkeeper-style fielding. He says that if you don't get down quickly, you can leave a gap under your arm. I like to think that fielding is half the fun of the game. Nothing will get through if you use your entire body.

It's a far cry from the traditional background that many of England's B2s and B3s brought with them to the sport. It's inspiring because many of these players have sight loss and are on a journey with only one destination. When they progress to B1 status, the lessons will hold them in huge stead.

Hollingsworth can be taken for instance. At the age of 12 he was part of the youth set-up of the county. During a night-game, the bowler kept hitting me on the thigh pad, and I realized I was not seeing it. I had to leave and that was the end of it.

Ed Hossell is at the Blind World Cup.

Hollingsworth was initially classified as a B3 but has since been classified as a B2 by England. "That comes with its own challenges, as people get used to the fact that I'm no longer good with the bat or in the field," he says. I'm more of a bowler now.

Hollingsworth says that front-foot drives and forward defensives are not going to work in this format. "But catching and fielding is the same with minor adjustments, so you can generally tell the guys who've come from a cricket background, because they have that basic knowledge."

"It's a really interesting game," Hossell says. I think it's a great spectacle, regardless of being a disability sport. The scoring rates are really high and the bat noises are very pleasant. It makes you view your sight in a positive way, not to get too sentimental about it. All the guys will say they are lucky to do this.

Hossell's seven years as an England cricketer have included two World Cups, in South Africa in 2014 where the pitches were close enough to Table Mountain even for us to see it, and in India in 2017: where the crowds were so passionate.

"That tour was amazing," Hossell says. It was nonstop. That is the kind of experience that we could never have imagined without the support for disability cricket. They are some of my most cherished memories.

It is hoped that the memories could be added in the summer of 2022. The disability programme has been scaled back due to the lack of overheads in the intervening 18 months, despite the painful round of funding cuts that the England and Wales Cricket Board had to endure in the wake of the 2020 lockdown.

The players in the pocket were all amateur, from university lecturers to financial analysts to policy writers. Most of the services don't involve the dog at all, says Foy, who works full-time for Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. We have more children's services than adult's, so that keeps me busy.

Cook says that the Pandemic has given them a chance to take a deep breath. We've rearranged the way that we want to win and the style that we want to develop. We just wait and be prepared to take those opportunities off when they return to our timetable.