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Cumbria continues Blind Cricket growth with game in Keswick

24th August 2016

Keith Richardson reports for the Carlisle Evening News on the importance of the game of blind cricket, demonstrated at Keswick CC at the end of July, and which gave one local youngster 'the best day' of his life.

Cricket can be a complicated game, to watch or to play. But I would ask you, after reading this paragraph, to close your eyes for a couple of minutes (no longer will be necessary), and try and imagine what it must be like to play cricket - or in fact to do anything, let alone play sport - when you are blind, and all that remains of your sight is perhaps a flickering image and flashes of colour.

A game of cricket was played out on Keswick CC's award-winning Fitz Park ground this week which involved a demonstration of the variation of the game as played by blind cricketers where they rely on sound as much as vision in order to compete.

Cricketers of all ages from Durham and Yorkshire played against a team from Cumbria that consisted, in the main, of fully sighted local club cricketers, wearing special eye masks to impair their vision, and two blind youngsters from West Cumbria.

 

How much this meant to all the blind or partially sighted players taking part was summed up by 13-year-old Arran Hewitt, of Little Broughton in West Cumbria, who said: "Playing cricket at Keswick gave me one of the best days of my life."

The other youngster, Joe Girling, 16, from Workington, top scored for the Cumbria XI with 14 runs and was applauded from the field. What, exactly, that meant to him can only be imagined. But as he was escorted back to the cricket pavilion, he was probably thinking along similar lines to the thoughts that Arran had expressed earlier.

Arran, who was at the match with members of his family, including dad Graham and little sister, Samantha, had just completed his first year at a special school for the blind in Worcester and was looking forward to his seven-week summer holiday at home. The blind cricket match at Keswick made for a perfect start.

"Blind cricket is a lot different to normal cricket but it's fun," said Arran before going out to bat. "At school I do other sports as well, judo and swimming. But cricket stands at the top for me because the game we play is actually made for blind people.

"People should try this, they really should. Even sighted cricketers should give this a go because it is different and it's a real challenge."

I found listening to 13-year-old Arran and watching him play cricket a total inspiration. Here was a young lad who was dealt such a cruel blow early in life - he was born blind - but yet here he was, absolutely positive, full of enthusiasm and talking such a lot of common sense.

His dad, Graham, also taking part in the match alongside his son, added: "It's great to be able to take part with Arran in a sport.

“It's really good and I hope that blind cricket is developed more in this area. There's very little for visually impaired youngsters in this part of the world.

"If more visually impaired people got together through sport I think that would be really helpful and very positive."

John Garbett, 52, now totally blind after being increasingly affected by a degenerative eye condition, is Development Officer for Blind Cricket England and Wales [BCEW].

He was also playing in the match and explained that there are now 22 county cricket teams in the UK made up of blind or partially sighted cricketers compared with only seven teams eight years ago.

They compete across four division and leading players compete at international level. He now hopes that a team can be formed in Cumbria.

Blind cricket has certainly worked wonders for John. Before his condition struck he was a regular club cricketer and, being from Yorkshire, the sport was second nature.

"Once I was pensioned off from my job I sat around for six months and wondered what to do - my sight had gone and I couldn't even see the sport I loved, let alone play, and I got quite low," he said.

"I am a positive person but it's a massive shock to become blind. Then someone suggested that I try blind cricket and I eventually took part in a visually impaired cricket match. Six months later I am the national development officer for blind cricket for BCEW and then I went to a few sessions with the national team and they asked me what I was doing in December.

“I said 'nothing much.' And they said 'do you want to come and play cricket for England in Australia?' We ended up beating Australia at Sydney in the Blind Ashes.

"So there you are, sitting on the plane wondering how this happened? You're 42 years of age and you're playing for England and it's great. I've played a few series now. It's a great regime, all backed by the ECB, and the team has everything they could want - dieticians, nutritionists, physiotherapists, the lot.

"I'm now more involved in working around the UK starting up new clubs and teams. Until we get a Cumbria team fully off the ground some of the players here can connect with the team in Durham and get invaluable experience."

When I mentioned John Garbett's story to young Arran he responded: "That would be good - I'll try and see if I can get to that level."

Keswick Cricket Club volunteer Ellie Hodgson recently completed a BA Hons degree in sports development at university near Liverpool and is keen to work in the field of sports disability.

"It's amazing to see how happy and enthusiastic these players are about the game of cricket," she said. "We complain about little things, such as a sports injury, but these guys, who cannot see, are totally non-complaining. They're exceptional."

Another of the players, Geoffrey Brian Smith, from London, has played 25 times for England, and was part of the team that defeated Australia 3-2 in the first blind Ashes in 2004. He has played in two World Cups and has been responsible, as Secretary of the World Blind Cricket Council, for organising tournaments.

One of his roles was also to develop blind cricket in the West Indies.

"That was no real hardship I have to tell you," he said, with a smile.
An effervescent character, now retired from any official position, Geoffrey was simply enjoying the game as a player, so much so that his enthusiasm spilled over into one or two cartwheels on the outfield.

"It's very good here at Keswick to play with fully sighted players and for them to see what blind people can do," he observed. "To me blind cricket has always been a positive portrayal of what blind people can do.

"Cricket has always been accessible to blind people through TMS (Test Match Special) on the radio. And blind people have often been very interested in the game but here is an actual opportunity to play the game and we have adapted the game to suit the needs of blind people."

That adaptation involves larger than life cricket stumps, a bigger ball - more football size - that contains a number of ball bearings. The umpire at the on-striking end and the bowler actually tell the batsman when the ball is being delivered and the batsman and the fielders rely on the sound the ball makes in order to hit or field it.

Local umpire Doug Beebe, of Keswick CC, played a key role in the organisation of the event in the Lake District and now officiates at blind cricket matches all over the north of England together with his colleague, Chris Parkes, of Wakefield.

This event was largely down to the work he has carried out in the background with ECB officials and he is to be applauded for his efforts.

The result of the game at Keswick on Tuesday of that week?
Immaterial. The smiles on the faces of two young blind cricketers, Arran Hewitt and Joe Girling, from West Cumbria, told you everything you needed to know.

** All photos courtesy of Ben Challis **