With no official support or funding, Maharashtra's wheelchair cricket struggles to spread its wings
Winners of the first ever Indian Wheelchair Premier League in 2018 and 2018 national champions, the Maharashtra wheelchair cricket team ranks among the top cricket teams in this category in India. Pretty incredible considering that the team came together recently.
In May 2018, the Wheelchair Cricket Association of Maharashtra put together a team of 15 players for the state. These are players not just from Mumbai but also smaller towns like Kolhapur, Nagpur, Satara, Dhule etc. The players are 70 to 90% physically disabled.
"The players do batting, bowling, fielding and running on wheelchairs", says Rahul Ramgude, Vice-captain, Maharashtra Wheelchair Cricket Team. "There are some players from Maharashtra who play for the national side as well".
Wheelchair cricket in India is a relatively recent entrant. Pioneered by the Disabled Sporting Society (DSS), the first international match was against arch rivals Pakistan in 2018 in Malaysia. Tournaments have also been played against Bangladesh and Nepal as well, and league matches held in India.
Yet official support has been slow in coming leaving the DSS entirely dependent on funding corporate houses, donors and NGOs. The Maharashtra team does not have the support of the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) either.
There are around 400 wheelchair cricketers at the national and international levels and it is unfortunate that the government and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) does not recognize our cricket. I think we need to get more sponsors to be able to play more wheelchair cricket matches and to provide better facilities for players. - Ramesh Sartape, Captain, Maharashtra Wheelchair Cricket
Playing wheelchair cricket in a country like India where accessibility is a major barrier is no small achievement. From stadiums to rooms to washrooms to transport, there are many barriers wheelchair cricketers come up against.
"Some places are accessible in India but they are beyond the means of our association", says Ramgude, who started off playing cricket on a skateboard as a child. "It is too expensive to provide these facilities to our players when there is no support from the board. The Centre's funds are directed to the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) for disabled sports but wheelchair cricket does not fall in that category so PCI does not support us either".
Support of the Indian cricket board would also enable the players to look at wheelchair cricket as a career option says Manish Sharma, Coach, Maharashtra Wheelchair Cricket Team. Sharma is not disabled and has been coaching the team since 2018.
"Wheelchair cricketers do not get match fees and sometimes they get traveling fees if the association that organises the matches pays them. I feel motivated and inspired watching them play and find them more dedicated than the able-bodied players. If wheelchair cricketers were to get financial support from BCCI the future is very bright for this cricket", adds Sharma.
Given the financial clout and muscle of the BCCI, its support is critical for the growth and future of wheelchair cricket. In a short span of time, Indian wheelchair cricket has organized three international tournaments and a national tournament as well. It's high time these sportsmen were given their due.