December 04, 2005.
IN THE baking heat of an Islamabad morning, two cricket teams are taking up positions for the start of a game. In the crowded pavilion, a vocal crowd is waiting eagerly.
In this cricket-mad country, it could be a scene from the recently completed Test series between Pakistan and England.
It's the opening ball that reveals that this game is very different. The bowler steps up to the crease and rolls an underarm delivery on the ground straight at the batsman.
There is no thwack of leather against willow. Instead the hollow ball filled with plastic pellets rattles loudly. The batsman crouches and, with his bat on the floor, uses his hearing to detect the balls's approach.
The ball is sent scuttling through the outfield with fielders trailing in its wake. In the stands, a crowd of largely blind or partially sighted students whoops as a sighted commentator relays the action.
This is only a show match between Islamabad's blind cricket team and the city's school for the visually handicapped, but the fervour greeting every run is real. Such is the standing of the game in Pakistan that blind cricket has become a major force in the slow integration of visually impaired people into mainstream society.
It's for this reason that Sight Savers International, the charity supported by Scotland on Sunday for its Christmas Appeal, is sponsoring a national tournament next year. But as well as raising the issue of blindness, it highlights the work that needs to be done to prevent future generations of Pakistani children from a similar struggle for acceptance.
Donations to Sight Savers will help cover the cost of a £27 sight-restoring operation for a child with cataracts - £17 for an adult - a major problem of poverty and poor nutrition in many developing countries. The charity also funds free spectacles and other aids for the partially sighted. While only 50p a pair, these are unaffordable in a nation where more than a third of the 150 million people live on less than 60p a day.
Going hand in hand with preventing blindness, however - 80% of cases can be helped with the right treatment - is making life easier for those whose condition is irreversible.
Arshad Abbasi, in his early 20s, has been totally blind from birth but feels he has been liberated by being able to play his beloved cricket. He became a creditable all-rounder for Islamabad, the national capital, and now does as much as he can to promote the game.
"You have to have an iron will to survive as a blind person in Pakistan but man is greater in adversity," he says stoically. "People used to think that if parents had a blind child then they must have committed a great sin, but thankfully that is dying out."
During the last national census, many parents refused to reveal their blind children, simply through a misplaced sense of shame.
But blind cricket appears to be playing a major part in changing attitudes. When Pakistan's team won the Blind Cricket World Cup, the government dropped its ban on blind people applying for civil service jobs.
"Cricket has helped us a great deal," said Abbasi, who recently completed a Masters degree. "We established that we are 'can do's' by winning the World Cup. It means we are regarded now on much more of an equal footing."
Hasan Minto, Sight Savers International's low-vision adviser, said: "It is extremely important to give people with blindness the chance to play at national level. When you tell those with normal sight that blind people can play cricket they are astonished.
"Getting the game talked about means blind people are being absorbed into the mainstream of society. Even in the smallest villages in the remotest areas where blindness tends to be hidden, people are inspired."
The pitch where the show game was played is on the fringes of this green city, which escaped relatively lightly when the earthquake in October killed more than 70,000 people further to the north.
As well as supporting eye care clinics nationwide, the charity is raising funds for a new eye department for a hospital razed by the earthquake
in the remote North West Frontier Province. With government health care resources stretched and being poured into quake-damaged areas, it is feared that other services could be cut.
"Of course money is needed for the earthquake region," said Sight Savers' Pakistan programme officer, Niaz Ullah Niazi. "But if we are to continue with our programmes in other areas then we need money also."
Source URL: http://sport.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=2349292005.
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