“You know, that’s the first time it’s happened playing cricket,” says Liam Thomas, 22 years of age, site supervisor for Yorkshire Water, England Physical Disability cricketer and global sensation.
During the final of the ICC Academy Dubai Invitational T20 Tournament last month, offspinner Dan Reynaldo was swept behind square for what looked a certain boundary. England, having batted first, needed to squeeze as much as they could in the field in order to defend a target of 138 against their rivals, Pakistan.
Running around, just inside the rope, Thomas dove and slapped a strong palm on the ball before getting up to hurl it back. Just before he got back to his feet, however, he realised one of them – his prosthetic right – had come off. He gathered the ball, returned it to the keeper’s end then hopped back to retrieve the strewn limb.
Since the video of that moment was released on Sunday morning, his phone has been abuzz. His heroics have received blanket coverage on social media, breakfast TV and the news. He has had to make his excuses at work to field calls for countless interviews – “they’ve been really understanding,” he says – and even landed himself a bat sponsorship deal for 2017. He has been hailed as inspirational by England legends past and cricketers present. Yet for Thomas, there is one aspect of the video he is not overly chuffed with. The camera does not pan back to the stumps.
“It were quite a good throw, that,” he tells ESPNcricinfo. “Right to the keeper, next to the stumps. Thing is, I’d thrown a couple of dollies in previous matches. Everyone’s focusing on the leg, but that weren’t too bad.”
That Thomas was in the outfield anyway is its own story. Last year, he decided to take a break from the game, worn out by the demands of international duty and a high level of club cricket for Gomersal Cricket Club in the Bradford League. A keeper by trade, his place behind the stumps had been taken by Hugo Hammond, a keeper from Hampshire. Thomas understood that Hammond had the place for keeps – “he’s such a pure gloveman” – but his ability to scamper along the boundary, as seen by millions, allows him to offer protection in the deep. It’s a role he is embracing: “Hugo won’t mind me saying that his mobility isn’t as good as mine. He’s got club feet.”
Thomas is without the lower part of his right leg. Underdeveloped in the womb, a further operation to amputate from the knee down was carried out when he was just one. In his own words, “he has never known anything else”. A keen footballer, he would often have to reattach the prosthetic limb when his enthusiasm got the better of him. “It’s funny that it has been such a big deal. The first thing I do every day is get up and put my leg on. I’ve never known anything else. That’s just a part of my life.”
It is part of his game too. As a left-hand batsman, his right is his front foot and, as a result, he has to ensure he gets far enough forward and does not simply plant his foot on the wrong line.
“I’m a front-foot player, so I really need to watch the ball and pick up the length as early as I can. Sometimes my hands get me out of trouble. But I shouldn’t be relying on them too much. Technically, I need to be bang on with my footwork.”
Head coach Qasim Ali is the man charged with ensuring that Thomas has everything he needs to iron out the creases in his batting. And he does so, he says, from the back seat.
“Every cricketer is different. The way you set up, the way you play the ball, the way you react. No two are the same. So you can imagine how that is amplified with working with cricketers with physical disabilities. My job, in essence, is to get the players to really embrace their own technique. We – myself and, say, Liam – have to find a way that is comfortable for them but also can be secure and sound so that they can be really productive in what they are trying to do.”
Having joined the England PD side as the assistant coach to Chris Ellison, Ali became head coach in May 2014. The following year, England, led by skipper Iain Nairn, won the inaugural International Committee of the Red Cross T20 World Cup (ICRC T20) held in Bangladesh – the first PD cricket series to feature more than two sides.
While Ali’s mantra of “ensuring players maintain their creativity” is evident in the way Thomas plays his cricket, it slaps you in the face when you consider the case of Matthew Askin, a right-hand batsman from Shropshire who, through a congenital birth defect, was born without his left hand and part of his left arm. While the prosthetic arm offered Askin the control of a rock-solid top hand, it limited how much elevation and force he could impart on the ball.
After the Dubai series against Pakistan in 2014 – Ali’s first as head coach – Askin came to him with a request. Recognising that disability cricket was moving more towards T20, he wanted to develop into a power hitter.
“At the time, there was a player for Pakistan with one hand,” remembers Ali. “He’s just got his bottom arm. You ask any cricketer, a dominant bottom hand leads to the ball going up in the air or to cow corner. But this lad hits balls all along the floor through extra cover. There was Matt’s inspiration.”
At first, the change seemed unconquerable. Gradually, as the pair worked together throughout the winter, with drills skewed towards besting spin, it started to come together. Ali’s role was to “egg him on”, as Askin worked on his alignment, footwork and swinging through the line. In his first match of the 2016 season, playing for the England Lions, Askin hit the first six of his life. Later that season, in a match against Sefton Park Cricket Club, he hit his second – high and handsome over some trees at mid on. “Mate, you should see him hit the ball,” says Ali. “He smashes it!”
“It were quite a good throw, that. Right to the keeper, next to the stumps. Everyone’s focusing on the leg, but that weren’t too bad”
The difficulty for Askin is that he is competing with more international-ready batsmen than there are places available. Ultimately, he will be selected on what else he can provide for the team, something he and others are very aware of. That, simply, is a sign of the exciting times. The sport has come a long way since Ian Martin, head of disability cricket at the ECB, answered an advert looking for disabled cricketers in 2000.
Returning home from the first Gulf War in 1991 with the Navy, Martin injured his ankle ligaments playing football. While undergoing rehab after an operation, his physiotherapist noticed that his muscle strength was not returning as expected. After seeing a specialist, Martin was diagnosed with Charcot Marie Tooth Syndrome – an inherited, progressive condition that makes everyday tasks increasingly difficult.
Martin would go on to spend four years working in the community with disability sports while still volunteering within cricket. In 2007, when the ECB was looking for a full-time officer, he got the gig. Since then, Martin has not stopped.
“When I started in disability cricket, all we had was a domestic competition made up of eight counties. There was no international cricket whatsoever.” In 2016, there are 30 teams from 19 counties. Next year, by the ECB’s estimations, that will increase to 36 teams from 25 counties and regions.
The pathway from county to international cricket is bridged by a regional system, with centres in the north, midlands and the south. Counties are consulted to establish their best players, who are then put forward to regional centres. From there, the PD coaching set-up highlights the key talents who move on to the England Lions. Ali, while taking time to watch as many players has possible, now has a handful of scouts and coaches at his disposal to report on players across the country.
“What we’ve been able to do in England is shape our system so that it’s not just about being a talented cricketer,” says Martin. “It’s about how you conduct yourself, what your attitude is like. It’s about all the component parts that make a talented elite sportsman. It’s great that we have been able to develop it to that level where people have to work really hard to make it into our squad. That’s something I’m really proud of.”
The players have embraced the thorough nature of the system. For example, in the 12 months prior to the ICRC T20, they reported every injury and niggle, adhered to a gym programme that asked for three sessions a week, along with various nets and skill sessions to ensure playing levels were maintained. While they are amateurs – the ECB reimburses travel expenses – there is a hope that full-time support of some kind is not too far away.
Considering the system, it is perhaps no surprise that England won the first global PD competition. But as much as Martin and Ali’s jobs are to focus on keeping England at the forefront of the game, they regard it as their duty to bring the rest of the world with them.
For starters, due to the sheer number of disability groups across the world, Martin spends most of his time lobbying and liaising with various representatives. Luckily, he has seen enough good emanate from his belligerence not to deter him. Last year’s ICRC T20 had Martin’s bloody-minded prints all over it.
In 2014, the international committee for the Red Cross in Bangladesh realised cricket was the lifeblood of the local communities. Given they were working predominantly with disabled youngsters, cricket presented them with an opportunity to get them active and make them feel valued. A representative contacted the Bangladesh Cricket Board, who in turn directed them to the British High Commission in Dhaka.
Soon, Martin’s phone was ringing and, later that year, he and Ali went out to Dhaka to deliver a workshop to BCB-affiliated coaches who had no experience working with disabled players. Six months later, they had a PD cricket team, with 500 players attending open trials. Nine months later, Bangladesh hosted the ICRC T20. England would lose their opening fixture, against the hosts, before winning three on the bounce to make the final, where they beat Pakistan.
The competition was actually going to be repeated in Bangladesh this year, again organised by the International Red Cross. However, with the BCB focusing their energy on ensuring the senior tour with England went ahead, they were unable to assist. With the plans on the verge of falling through, Martin was able to get the tournament moved to the ICC Academy in Dubai. However, with the increased accommodation costs of the UAE, India and Afghanistan were unable to cover the costs and pulled out. It is worth noting that the India PD team is not under the umbrella of the BCCI.
Currently, there are only five international PD sides – England, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Afghanistan. The lack of representation from countries such as Australia, South Africa and West Indies frustrates Martin.
“You only need to see how Bangladesh put together a competitive side in the space of six months, with little infrastructure and a heck of a lot of passion. It can be done, it just needs support. You’re not telling me that there aren’t physically disabled cricketers playing grade cricket every weekend? All you need is a pathway and a bit of a push and you can do some pretty great things.”
The 2019 World Championship, whether assisted by the Red Cross or not, will be hosted in England. As well as the five established nations, Martin has extended invitations to Australia, South Africa and others, and given them enough notice that they can implement development programmes that could run for a few years prior to the tournament. His hope is that with greater participation and a better showcase for the sport, regular cricket fans will get behind the PD side. As the last few days have shown, the enthusiasm is there. “Let me tell you – I’m amazed and proud of everything I see from these lads. And I think a lot more people will be too.”
The importance of this week is evident to Liam Thomas too.
“It would be great if people drawn to disability cricket over the last week are keen to learn more about it. That a disabled kid watches that video and sees what they can achieve. That fans see just how high the standards are and want to come along and support us. I’ve enjoyed the coverage but, seriously, it’ll be great if something more worthwhile comes from it.”
Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo, the Guardian, All Out Cricket and Yahoo Sport
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