For 26-year-old Sujit Munda from Jharkhand, winning the T20 Cricket World Cup 2022 was the highest moment of his life. He met President Droupadi Murmu and Union sports minister Anurag Thakur in New Delhi wearing his blue pride, and made headlines too.
Then, everything was over. In his hometown Ranchi, there was no grand welcome, no visit by an official or political leader, and no felicitation ceremony organised by the government. It was a painful realisation. He is not a member of the Indian cricket team. He is a member of India’s blind cricket team, which won the T20 World Cup for the third consecutive time, defeating Bangladesh by 120 runs.
“Even winning the World Cup did not change my life. I don’t know what else I can do,” said Munda, as he swung his arm back to throw the ball into the sunset, practising for his next game. His black and green coloured kit bag read ‘believe, become’.
People in his area call him Jasprit Bumrah of Jharkhand because he too throws the ball at 140km speed.
Before going for the T20 World Cup in Bengaluru in December, Munda met Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren and state sports minister Hafizul Hasan in Ranchi, and made three requests — better education for his two children, a place to live, and a government job under the sports quota.
“The chief minister had promised to fulfil all my demands and I had promised to come back victorious. They used to say that once we win the World Cup, everything will change. Now I have won the World Cup, but there is no change in my condition,” he said, sitting in his one-room hut. His wife boils rice as he spoke about his dreams and despair.
Ace cricketers like Sujit Munda continue to excel but somehow remain on the margins of the insane fame, glamour and riches that accompany the members of the Indian cricket team. Fans don’t extend the same adulation for either the women’s cricket team or the blind cricket team. Without the fans, they don’t get the instant recognition, lucrative endorsement contracts, sponsorship and celebritydom.
Munda lives with wife and two children in a one-room hut in Ranchi’s Dhruva area. A framed certificate citing his contribution to cricket—a gift from a local organisation—is the only adornment on a cracked kitchen wall. An old ‘man of the match’ trophy he won several years ago in a district tournament stands precariously on a blue fridge.
A few journalists had tracked him down, but they too disappeared. He got recognition from the local schools. But there was no respect from the government. “Everyone gave love and respect. The government just gave assurance. I am angry,” Munda said.
He knows that he is as good as his last game, and now, he is preparing for the next match in Tamil Nadu on January 25 for Nagesh Trophy that will see 28 states participating.
Munda had travelled to the US in 2011 to participate in javelin and shot put, and has played cricket in South Africa, Dubai, and Bangladesh.
But every time he returns, he has to come back to the same hut and face extreme heat in summer and extreme cold in winter.
“I always wanted to do something for the country, and I did. I will continue to play for the country. This has not broken my morale,” said Munda, who studied till Class 12 at a school for blind in Ranchi and joined the Jharkhand cricket team in 2014. He played his first cricket match against South Africa in 2018.
But cricket doesn’t pay the bills. Munda relies on government aid like pension for the blind (Rs 1,000 a month) and borrows from his brothers who are labourers to support his family.
Playing and paying price
When he left Ranchi for the T20 World Cup, he was full of hope. His entire neighbourhood saw him off at the airport. It was a celebration, but for Munda it was an opportunity to change his life.
On 17 December, when they won the final against Bangladesh, supporters in Bengaluru’s M Chinnaswamy stadium hoisted the flag. Munda was ready for the next chapter of his life.
Other players had similar dreams, which are now gathering dust. “We wrote to the Karnataka government to give Rs 10 lakh to the players and coaches. But nothing happened. Everyone clicked pictures, said nice things, and went,” says Asif Pasha, who coaches the Indian blind cricket team, in a telephone conversation.
Bitterness seeps into his voice when he compares his team to the national cricket team led by Rohit Sharma. “If they had won the World cup, the entire country would be dancing around them. But nothing for us,” he says.
Members of the Cricket Association for the Blind in India (CABI) share a similar sentiment.
“Players have worked very hard for this, and the government should do something for them. People like Sujit Munda come from very poor backgrounds and play honestly. They should be given at least Rs 2 lakh as an honour,” said a member of CABI who did not want to be named.
CABI is run by the Differently-Abled Cricket Council of India (DCCI), along with the cricket played by the deaf,
The problem isn’t limited to Jharkhand. Other players in Munda’s team are experiencing a similar enigma of homecoming.
From Haryana to Karnataka, blind players returned home as winners but are waiting for the government to recognise their talent and achievement.
“No leader or official came to see me. I did not receive any reward from the government,” said Deepak Malik, a blind cricketer from Haryana.
In 2018, Malik got a government job through Haryana’s policy of recruitment of outstanding sportspersons. Today, he works as cricket coach for Rs 30,000 a month.
Unlike Malik, Prakash Jairamaiya from Bengaluru works as an accountant in a private health clinic. He had joined the blind cricket team in 2020. “I earn Rs 11,000 a month. For the World Cup, I took 20 days of leave. They cut my salary and I got only Rs 3,000 that month,” says Jairamaiya.
Another bone of contention is recognition from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). According to Jairamiya, the women’s cricket team is recognised by the BCCI, but not the blind cricket team.
“BCCI doesn’t give us any financial support. They provide us with stadiums, grounds, some logistics support but no financial support,” says CABI North Zone president Selender Yadav. He added that some states like Haryana and Kerala provide government jobs to their players, but more often than not, blind cricketers are left to fend for themselves.
“BCCI is yet to recognise CABI, but we try to give our players what we can. Each player gets Rs 3,000 for every international match. We also get some funds from the Samarthanam Trust but nothing from the BCCI or the government,” says Mahantesh G Kivadasannavar, president of CABI.
He also highlights the disparity in the way the Indian blind cricket team is treated in comparison to their counterparts in other countries. “The teams in Pakistan and Australia are in better condition whether in terms of financial support or branded kits. They come under their respective national boards,” he added. The Pakistan blind cricket team is run by the Pakistan Blind Cricket Council, which is a member of the country’s national cricket board.
Other players, too, have experienced these differences. “I’ve played against Pakistan and Australia. They treat their teams better,” says Munda.
There’s still some hope
Munda is hoping that the game he loves and plays professionally will help extricate him from the cycle of poverty. In September last year, the Soren government rolled out a new Jharkhand Sports Policy 2022, aimed at “reducing bottlenecks from the path of sportspersons”. On paper it hits all the right notes from improving infrastructure to providing a platform for athletes and securing their future when they retire from sports.
“I have worked closely to understand the interest, awareness and inclination towards sports among the youths of Jharkhand,” Soren had said while announcing the policy in Ranchi.
State sports minister Hafizul Hasan also made similar promises including reservation in educational institutions. But so far, Munda has yet to see its benefits. Hasan told ThePrint that cricket comes under the purview of the BCCI.
“But the CM and I will make arrangements for Sujit Munda including providing him with a house. There is no rule regarding this but the CM will do something,” he adds.
Munda’s wife Anita Tigga, 26, is a former cricketer herself, but took a step back after marriage and motherhood. She finds the government apathy inscrutable. “I am still waiting, maybe they are busy,” she said, while arranging colourful bed sheets on a small cot.
When Sujit is on the road, she takes care of the houses and their two children—a seven-year-old daughter who studies in a nearby school, and a five-year-old son. The daughter wants to become a police officer and the son wants to be a cricketer, just like his parents.
“I will also play for my country one day,” he said.
(Edited by Prashant)