Hundred rising reporter Harshini Mehta joined Durham's Visually Impaired Cricket Team at Lord's, hearing the players' very personal stories, learning about the equipment they use and rules of their games, and discovering how the club is breaking down barriers and helping form friendships
Saturday 3 September 2022 08:58, UK
It was an honour for me to be a part of the Sky VIP event that was hosted at Lord's with the London Spirit team.
Not because of the venue, or the access or the talent we were able to play against. It was because of the prize-winners of the competition - Durham's Visually Impaired Cricket Team.
Sky VIP had a competition on their platform for a team to win a masterclass at Lord's, where the winners would be able to meet some of the players, partake in drill-based sessions with MCC coaches, and have a mini tour of the Museum and Long Room.
Having been put forward by their former coach Louise, the team had been ecstatic when they had heard the news that they would be able to come to the Home of Cricket for two days and also watch Spirit take on Welsh Fire.
As I saw them arrive at the Indoor School café at 9am, their smiles and laughs were evident as they settled in for some breakfast. Sky had also brought along audio describers Jenny and Kenny to help enhance the team's experiences and add more information wherever they could.
They were handed their VIP bags in which they had a water bottle, a cap, a Lord's sports radio, some bath and body gifts, as well as their very own Hundred jersey.
As they brought their equipment along to the Nursery Ground, we were met by four MCC Coaches who started warm-up drills with the team. As I looked at the gear that had been bought along, it was unlike any I had seen before. Another one of their former coaches, Chris, came over to me to explain.
"These are the stumps - they aren't the same as sighted red-ball cricket as they are wider and taller. They are also brightly coloured (usually white or orange) and don't have removable bails as it is safer for us. They are free-standing too."
He brought over two different cricket balls for me to have a look at.
"We usually play county cricket with a size three football which contains a set amount of tiny carbon balls to produce sound. They allow the fully blind players to hear the noise and hit the ball, judging on the distance.
"The size allows partially sighted players to see the ball. It has to be bowled over-arm, but this small hard ball is played in international cricket and has to be bowled under-arm."
The MCC coaches, I could tell, were also adapting to the new way they had to train these players. They weren't familiar with having to describe their every movement, and my personal favourite was when one of them declared for the team to "put their ankle behind to their buttock" in their exercise routine!
I also noticed a mixture of coloured bands on the players' wrists - black, red, purple, yellow and green. When I asked Louise about this, she said it was for coaches/umpires' purposes.
"We have B1 to B4 which are the variant levels of visual impairment or total blindness. Black and purple are for those with no sight; red is for those with high partial sight loss; yellow is for low partial sight loss and green is for the midpoint. They allow coaches and umpires to know the difference in the sight loss for all the players.
"However, some of their sight loss can't be differentiated into bands because some may also have tunnel-vision, where they can't see to their left/right."
The rules for visually-impaired teams are different to sighted cricket. The blind players have to wear shades and when batting, they have a runner alongside them instead of having to make a sprint themselves.
Verbal signs are used by the umpires and players; the bowler must shout "Play!" as they release the ball, and the delivery must bounce at least twice if bowled to a completely blind batter (once if bowled to a partially-sighted batter) but must not be rolling.
Totally blind batters cannot be out due to being stumped and must be found to be lbw twice before going out - they also get double runs if they hit a boundary. Blind fielders are allowed to take a catch on the bounce.
Louise, 36, and Chris, 39, are married and managed the team for three years until coronavirus hit and the Durham Cricket Board took them over. They still partake in training and coaching the team, alongside Bryan, 81.
The range of ages in the team is extraordinary yet, as I watched them, they all felt like one big family. Nathan Jameson, who plays professionally for England at the age of 29, believes the same.
"They aren't just my team-mates; they're like my family. It isn't every day that you get to be at Lord's but to be here alongside them is just incredible. With everyone's different sight levels, you just naturally become really close to them."
When Nathan told me his story of how he was diagnosed, I was in disbelief. His entire life had changed in just 24 hours.
"I used to drive and work. One day, I went to work as usual and just couldn't see the screens. I couldn't read or see anything on the computers at all. I told my manager who sent me home and I went to see many doctors, specialists and Great Ormond Street came to see me.
What they said was that it went down as unexplained but basically the wires from my brain to my eyes just didn't work anymore." It was an entire life-change. I went from driving to not being able to. I lost friends. But having these guys makes up for it."
Louise had also bought a Vine Simulation package - a training pack that enables others to understand the difficulties faced by people with sight problems - for us and the MCC coaches to try on. It included 10 pairs of spectacles replicating the different sight loss levels in which one of the coaches, Becks had a go.
She was stunned at the difficulty of it all. They all donned the glasses and played some cricket with the bowlers clapping (for the batter's judgement) before they delivered the ball to the coaches.
After an incredible lunch, the team were treated to a tour of the Museum in which they were told the great story of the Ashes and handed a mini replica for show. They were also allowed to have a look at some brilliant historical pieces such as Ben Stokes' bat and MS Dhoni's wicketkeeping gloves.
Next, they made their way to the Pavilion, where they stood in the Long Room and heard about the many marvels of the ancient ground.
Lord's was the only ground where cricketers had to walk through spectators to the pitch and with over 3,000 paintings in their art collection, players were asked when they retired if they wanted their portrait taken to add.
With over 18,000 members, there was a waiting list of 29 years, and the protected building wasn't even allowed to get double-glazing, meaning many windows had been broken in their time.
The last joy of the day for the team was to play some quick cricket with London Spirit. They were lucky enough to meet the likes of Ravi Bopara, Megan Schutt, captain Charlie Dean, Daniel Bell-Drummond and Mason Crane.
The Spirit players donned their simulation spectacles and played some great matches with the Durham team. Having taken many pictures and had a lot of fun, the visually impaired team were still telling me how in awe they were, playing cricket at Lord's.
Nathan spoke about wishing for more exposure to their game as many have never known or heard about visually impaired cricket before - me included. Well, we hope we can shed that special light upon the astonishing game for everyone.
Finally, having asked Emma, 46, what she would say to those who wish to play cricket but feel they are at a disadvantage, she responded, "I'd say give it a go! When I first started, I didn't go anywhere by myself and lost a lot of work friends. I didn't have much of a social life.
"When I phoned the cricket club, they said they trained half an hour away and I thought I wouldn't be able to do it because I couldn't expect my mum to take me there and back.
"But straightaway, they really helped my confidence with travelling, because they asked me if I could get to a train station and then they would meet me there.
"There is always ways around the barriers so just go for it! You'll enjoy it, you'll make friends, and it is a great game to get into!"
Harshini Mehta is a rising reporter for London Spirit in The Hundred, writing match reports and features. She is also a Content Academy Ignite Programme apprentice at Sky.