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Exclusive Interview with Suvro Joarder: The world’s first ‘blade’ cricketer & captain of the physically-challenged Indian Cricket Team

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(Photo courtesy: Suvro Joarder)

‘’The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’’

Man, by virtue of his very existence is pitted against external forces that are always lurking around to coerce and suppress him. No man, not even the stoutest and brawniest of all, can undertake the improbable task of thwarting the unforeseen and alter the course of what Providence has preordained for him. It is in this perpetual tussle with his destiny that man must manage to clench his teeth together and try to score a point off the latter; passive submission to the vagaries of fate without showing any Stomach for fight is tantamount to driving a bayonet into your own belly.

A decade ago when Suvro Joarder, a budding cricketer of Kolkata plying his trade for the Excelsior club, embarked on a journey to pursue cricket professionally, he was deemed one of the most exciting prospects of Bengal cricket— a big-hitting batsman capable of hitting the ball a long way into the stands and tailor-made for the limited-overs format. A prolific club season (2007/08) ensued which saw him churn out 575 runs and grab 22 wickets in just nine C.A.B elite matches. Such a display was good enough to make the Bengal selectors take notice of him, and just when it seemed an Under-22 call-up was around the corner, fate intervened to deliver a lusty blow….his ambition of donning the Bengal jersey or perhaps even the Indian jersey someday, was brought to an abrupt halt by a bike accident in the city which took away his right leg [Curtains down].

 Act-II

 The show must go on….

Cut to 2017. An early November afternoon. The setting is Vivekananda Park— a ground which has been serving as the nursery for many an aspirant cricketer over the years. It is this very ground which has witnessed the evolution of Jhulan Goswami from a rookie pace bowler learning the rudiments of her trade into the pace spearhead of the Indian women’s team. The occasion is Maitree Cup, a bilateral T20 series involving the ‘differently-abled’ cricketers of India and Bangladesh, organized with a view to giving the players from both camps a thorough practice ahead of the forthcoming Asia Cup.Truth is stranger than fiction! The captain of the Indian team sporting shirt number 10, seems to be a spirited young man, whipped by the incongruities of life, though unwavering in his resolve. The same man for whom cricket appeared to be a distant dream when he lost his right leg nine years ago, is today leading a band of ten fine youngsters, all of whom have experienced the volatility of life at the expense of physical deformities. For Suvro Joarder, a life-threatening bike crash might have dashed his hopes of playing mainstream cricket once and for all, but it wasn’t probably strong enough to douse his passion for the game altogether.

He continues to play the game—in the streets, in local tennis ball tournaments and also for the Indian physically challenged team at various international venues around the country like the JSCA International Stadium Complex, Ranchi. ‘’The sheer joy of representing your country at the international level, albeit in physically-challenged cricket is inexplicable in words. That I could ever return to the cricket field after that horrendous accident, let alone captain the Indian team was beyond my wildest dreams. I think it was my undying zest for the game even during the darkest period of my life that spurred me on to not give up and crawl my way back to the cricket field within a year. Had this not been there, Suvro Joarder, the cricketer would have faded into obscurity by now‘’, said Suvro, smiling warmly and pointing at the prosthetic blade fitted to his amputated right leg, as he lifted the lid on his journey so far as the world’s first ‘blade cricketer’.

THE EARLY DAYS

We were supposed to meet at Image, a car accessories shop set up by Suvro in 2014, in addition to an already existing rent-a-car business. After a customary exchange of greetings, our conversation began with Suvro reminiscing his initial days in the game—his school-cricket days. An alumnus of Jagadbandhu Institution, Suvro enjoyed a massive reputation as a proficient medium-pace allrounder among his school-mates.It was not until he got picked for his school team that Suvro had any formal training in cricket. ‘’I remember one day when I was in the eighth standard, Dattatreya Mukherjee (former Bengal pacer) had come to our school to handpick a few candidates for the school team. Unfazed by the buzz surrounding the trials for the school team, I was busy playing tennis-ball cricket with some of my friends in close vicinity of the nets where the trials were being conducted. As I was rolling my arm over, I somehow caught the attention of Mr. Mukherjee and he came over to me and asked me if I had ever bowled with a leather ball before. I said no and soon found myself in the nets with a hard leather ball in my hand, puffed up and raring to play with the new toy I had been given. Impressed with my bowling skills, Mr. Mukherjee drafted me into the school side then and there and told me to turn up for the practice matches from the next day onward’’, Suvro recounted his experience with a broad grin on his face.

Following his selection into the school team, Suvro lapped up every opportunity that came his way thereon. Riding on the back of a satisfactory first season for the school side, he was made the school captain and a consistent showing at the school-level for the next few seasons won him several accolades; he was declared the best sportsman of his school for four years in succession.

2007/08—A SEASON TO CHERISH, AND ALSO TO FORGET….

Suvro’s rise through the junior ranks was steady but confidence-inspiring. Having passed out from high school in 2004, Suvro established himself as a pillar of his college (Heramba Chandra College) team in a very short space of time. Around that time (2003/04), Mahindra and Mahindra’s Scorpio brand had launched a ten-city talent hunt called the ‘Scorpio Speedster’, which aimed at spotting the fastest bowler in India among a host of young cricket aspirants. For the winner, there was a cash prize of Rs. 75,000 and a chance to attend the Australian Institute of Sports Cricket Academy, Adelaide on offer in the inaugural edition. Like many other co-contestants his age looking to showcase their skills on such a big platform, Suvro participated in the first two editions of the contest and even though he couldn’t win it, he ended up as one of the top ten contestants on both occasions. Suvro’s cricketing graph which had been showing a gradual progress all along, zoomed all of a sudden; thanks to his newfound penchant for continuous improvement. The next three years turned out to be very fruitful for him.

Successful stints at a number of C.A.B division clubs, dominance across run charts on the club circuit, a contract with Excelsior in 2007, followed by a prolific season with them, helped him establish his credentials as a young player and took him one step closer to playing first-class cricket for Bengal. ‘’There was a modest gap in between the league fixtures and the knockout matches that season. And it was during this break that I met with the accident’’, said Suvro, dwelling on the terrible evening of 11th March 2008, which has cast an overbearing shadow over the rest of his life.

HE BENT BUT DID NOT BREAK

The post-accident phase was agonizing and difficult to endure for Suvro and his family. A couple of days after the accident, it dawned on

him that his right leg had to be amputated. ‘’The accident plunged me into a state of severe depression and once I realized the fact that my chances of returning to mainstream cricket were wrecked forever, my depression compounded. Maybe if I had not been a sportsman, the impact of the loss wouldn’t have hit me as hard as it did’’, he said. For the next six months, Suvro underwent a spate of surgeries and after the amputation was successfully performed at the AMRI, Dhakuria, his doctors told him that he would have to go on crutches all the rest of his life.

‘’This came as a big blow to me as a 21-year old who had fallen headlong from a position of peak performance in less than half a year’s time. The world around me started to collapse; I had just completed my graduation and was all set to play for Jadavpur University in the impending season. An Under-22 call-up into the stateside also seemed like a real possibility, courtesy a robust season with Excelsiors which saw me hit sixty to seventy sixes for them in nine matches’’, said Suvro. As soon as he got back home after his discharge from the hospital, Suvro carried out an extensive search on the internet to check if there was any remedy available online that could help him revive his career as an athlete. He added, ‘’After sifting through various options online, I finally came across a UK based company called Endolite which specializes in the manufacture of artificial limbs. The concept of artificial limbs was still fairly new in India at that time, and so, there was limited knowledge about the whole thing among the public here in Kolkata. I wasted no time in contacting them through a video conversation and they enquired me about my lifestyle so that they could recommend a prosthetic limb to fit my requirements’’.

COMING TO TERMS WITH THE NUANCES OF PROSTHESES

However, a major impediment to using prosthetic limbs was that Suvro’s case was one of an above-knee amputation—a condition less favorable to wearing prosthesis as compared to a below-knee amputation. ‘’Before getting my prosthesis, I was told by the Endolite officials that these devices are better suited to the Western body structures than the Asian ones. But I have always been a headstrong character you know….’’, he quipped. Without suffering from any further procrastination, he decided to put on the prosthetic limb and within twenty days of its installation, he started walking with it. ‘’I was also advised by the doctors to refrain from playing cricket with the prosthesis on since there was always the threat of it getting damaged if exposed to rigorous activities. But I acted on impulse once again when I joined a few boys who were playing ‘gully’ cricket in our neighborhood, just a day after I had my first walk with the new leg’’, Suvro added.

By the time he had had his first experience of playing cricket with the newly-fitted prosthetic limb, it had become clear to him that he was still a novice as far as understanding the intricacies of prostheses was concerned. ‘’Initially, I would have great difficulty throwing the ball and standing firmly at the crease while batting. I even toppled over on a few occasions, as a result of which doubts began to surface in my mind’’, he candidly admitted. With the passage of time, however, things started getting better. It took him no more than six months to adapt to the adjustments induced by the artificial leg. Chance, which has been an all-pervasive presence in Suvro’s life, appeared yet again to play its part. Suvro was invited as a guest of honor at a tennis-ball cricket tournament in his locality and when one of the participating teams fell short of a player, he was requested by the tournament organizers to play for them.

‘’I keep hearing people talking about the ‘one big opportunity’ that made a difference to their lives. If I were to choose one such ‘big opportunity’, I think I would pick this particular instance’’, Suvro fondly recollected with his eyes glistening with an innate joy that betrayed no sign of any affectation. He further added, ‘’I played for this team and we went on to win the tournament with myself being adjudged the best batsman. The way I performed in this competition instilled in me a strong belief that if I trained hard, nothing could hinder me from rekindling my cricketing dream which had been forced into a torpid slumber by the accident’’.

AND THUS BEGAN THE STRUGGLE AGAINST ALL ODDS

At this point, our conversation was briefly interrupted by the entry of an old man, who walked in through the shop doorway looking for some spare parts for his car. As Suvro took some time off the interview to cater to his customer, my mind wandered over to observe the various items that the shop was decked out with. There were car accessories of myriad kinds—ranging across car interiors, car fresheners, bike gears, car batteries, car tyres and tubes, and of course wheels. Strangely enough, even after passing through so many upheavals in life, as dictated by the lacquered ‘wheel’ of Clotho, Suvro continues to share a good camaraderie with wheels. Outside the shop was parked his blue-black Pulsar 180, which akin to his tenacity, has stuck by him through thick and thin.

After a ten-minute hiatus, the conversation resumed again: ‘’When I got this artificial limb from Endolite, I was explicitly told at the outset that the psychological impact of an amputation should be addressed with as much care as the physical aspects of it. My family in this regard played an instrumental role in motivating me relentlessly towards reaching my goal. A lot of times it would so happen that I would feel distraught and vanquished with a cloud of nothingness hovering around me; but even in those crunch situations, my family would be there to comfort me— not with their sorrowing hands resting on my back but with a morale-boosting smile ever-lingering on their lips’’.

 

Despite meeting with a terrible bike accident which almost ended Suvro’s career as an athlete in 2008, his bond with his old chum, his Pulsar 180 remains as strong as ever. (Picture courtesy: Suvro Joarder)

Driven by his resolve and aided by his family thus, Suvro took baby steps towards commencing his second innings as an athlete, marked by his second homecoming at his cricketing bastion, the Vivekananda Park. He said, ‘’At first, I was in two minds about how to go about my business. But sensing the butterflies stampeding in my stomach, my coach Satish Bhatnagar, goaded me into stepping on the field and playing a practice game with some of his pupils. I was holding the cricket bat after a gap of some eight or nine months and naturally, I took some time initially to incorporate a few minor adjustments to my technique, especially my footwork. Bowling at me from one end was a boy who had already played for the Bengal U-19 team by then. You can call it an ‘ordeal by fire’ if you like [guffaws]! Once I had spent some time in the middle, my old confidence started coming back and I started to open up. With a dogged perseverance to enhance my game over the last few years, I think I am now in a position to match any first-class cricketer shot by shot’’.

EXPLORING NEW HORIZONS

By 2010, Suvro’s cricketing engagements had multiplied several-fold as he made his presence felt in various local and corporate tournaments within the city periphery. However, he had no inkling hitherto that physically-challenged cricket is recognized as a competitive sport in India. Later that same year, he came to know about the existence of the All India Cricket Association of the Physically Challenged (founded by former Indian captain Ajit Wadekar in 1988), and when he appeared for its trials, he became an object of derision. ‘’People looked at me cynically when I first went there. Maybe they thought to themselves, ‘How can a fellow without a limb even imagine of playing cricket?’I decided not to pay any heed to any of their mocking insinuations, and instead requested the administrators to give me a chance to prove my abilities in the trials. The trial went off well for me and I got selected immediately’’, Suvro added.

After playing with them for close to two years, one of the things that held him back from prolonging his stint with the AICPC was that they were playing with a soft leather ball. Suvro said, ‘’All this while, even after my accident, I hadn’t shied away from playing with a hard leather ball and hence the idea of playing with a softball failed to capture my imagination’’. His pursuit of playing against able-bodied athletes on a more regular basis led him to form a corporate team of his own called the ‘Joarder Enterprise Team’ in 2013 along with a few of his cronies, each of whom has played first-division club cricket at some stage in their careers. Then in 2014, Suvro made his second foray into physically-challenged cricket, this time with another association called the ‘Disable Sporting Society’, after making sure that it complied with proper ICC rules and regulations. ‘’Winning my first international cap was a dream come true. I didn’t stop dreaming, even in the grimmest of situations and was therefore amply rewarded with a selection in the national side’’, he added. Suvro made an immediate impact on the international scene with two half-centuries that saw visitors India whitewash hosts Bangladesh in his maiden series as an Indian international.

Suvro in action v/s the Sri Lankan physically-challenged team in one of the matches of the tri-series involving Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka in Bangladesh last year. He finished with a whopping average of 85 in that series. (Picture courtesy: Suvro Joarder)

OTTO BOCK, HEINRICH POPOW, AND AN OUTSTANDING FEAT….

Keeping his fervent passion for cricket intact, Suvro ventured into running in 2015. His strong performances across a series of top-flight marathons in the country earned him an opportunity to be a part of a training camp organized under the auspices of German prostheses supplier Ottobock and 2012 Paralympic gold-medallist Heinrich Popow in Mumbai. After the conclusion of a three-day training session with Popow, eleven athletes chosen by Ottobock,based on their performances in marathons across the country (Suvro was one of them) were asked to compete in a 50m sprint. To the astonishment of Popow and the others witnessing the proceedings, Suvro completed the challenge in a little over 6.50 seconds— almost 7 seconds adrift of the Paralympic qualification time! ‘’Heinrich seemed very impressed with my display and wanted to know whether I would be keen on doing a three-month training program with him in a bid to compete in the 2016 Rio Paralympics. He even offered to give me a prosthetic blade designed especially for Paralympians (which he himself was going to use in Rio) at a discounted price, but still, the cost of that limb was beyond my financial means’’, he frankly admitted. He also added, ‘’Since a prosthetic limb, at best, has a longevity period of six to seven years, I sought Ottobock’s help to provide me with a new blade which would facilitate high-intensity training. After a month’s practice with the new blade, my footwork started showing some obvious signs of improvement’’.

In order to spread awareness about the prevailing predicament of para-athletes in India, Suvro has become a regular feature at Kolkata’s top marathon meets like the IDBI Federal Life Insurance’s ‘Kolkata Marathon’ and the TATA Steel Kolkata 25K over the last few years.

The contribution of Ottobock in the resurgence of Suvro v2.0 is immense. A snap taken during his stay at the Ottobock Running Clinic in Mumbai in 2015, as part of a three-day training camp with Paralympic gold medallist Heinrich Popow. (Photo courtesy: Suvro Joarder)

‘’PHYSICALLY-CHALLENGED CRICKET IN INDIA NEEDS MORE MEDIA ATTENTION FOR ITS SUSTENANCE’’: SUVRO

Thanks to his awareness-creating drives at a number of such high-profile events, people have now become relatively more aware of the numerous challenges staring in the face of physically-challenged people of the country. ‘’I keep receiving messages from people on Facebook from time to time….mostly FAQs concerning the use of a prosthesis. This evidently demonstrates that my efforts are not going waste after all. I try to help them in my own personal capacity whenever possible.’’, said Suvro.

It becomes imperative here to mention the success of the recently-concluded Maitree Cup which raked in media attention like no other event for physically-challenged cricketers of the past. According to Suvro, developments such as this obviously come as good tidings for the sport he represents. ‘’During the course of the Maitree Cup, I was often confronted with a common question as to why don’t physically-challenged cricketers get the same recognition as their able-bodied peers, either from their apex body or the media in general. I think the kind of competition that was put up for show at the tournament really prompted the media to give due coverage to physically-challenged cricket. For this, I am greatly indebted to the media fraternity of Bengal in particular and also to those media representatives who had come to cover the tournament from outside’’, he added. Responding to the ripples created by Suvro and his boys in the cricketing circles, a host of NGOs and leading corporate entities in the city have come up to extend various kinds of financial and organizational support. The Government of West Bengal too has promised financial assistance to the team through Minister of State for Sports and Youth Development and former Bengal captain LaxmiRatanShukla, who was invited as the chief guest at the Maitree Cup.

Suvro informed, ‘’Laxmi da assured me that the Ministry of Sports and Youth Development headed by Mr. Arup Biswas is planning to hold talks with me regarding what role they can play in the overall development of physically-challenged sports in the state. Having known him for so many years, I know that Laxmi da is a man of his word and I am sure the Government of West Bengal will step in in near future to do the needful’’.

Suvro with former Bengal captain and current Minister of State for Youth and Development, Government of West Bengal, Laxmi Ratan Shukla during the Maitree Cup.
(Picture Courtesy: Suvro Joarder)

THE ROAD TO INDIAN CAPTAINCY

The last eighteen months or so have gone remarkably well for Suvro on the international front. In April 2017, the Indian team led by Ravindra Komboj ended up sharing the trophy with Bangladesh in a tri-series involving the Bangladeshi, Indian and Sri Lankan physically challenged teams on Bangladeshi soil. Suvro averaged 86 with the bat in that series and followed it up with an average of 35 in the Maitree Cup. His decent captaincy record for the Bengal physically-challenged cricket team and truckloads of runs across all tournaments over the last couple of seasons contributed to his elevation to national captaincy at the start of the Maitree Cup. Even though Suvro’s first assignment as the Indian captain culminated in a 0-3 series loss to Bangladesh, the die-hard Sachin Tendulkar fan has no qualms about the responsibility he has been entrusted with.

‘’I don’t think a solitary series loss should make much of a difference to the momentum we have been carrying together as a unit. Bangladesh is a top-notch side at this level and this is not the first time that they’ve got the better of us in a bilateral series. As a leader, my primary aim is to inculcate a team culture that would focus on playing firebrand cricket. There is a Punjabi lad (Mandeep Sran) in my side who can clock over 130 kmph consistently [Opens his laptop and demonstrates the bowling prowess of the aforesaid player to this writer with the help of a video]. Here, see how high he is getting the ball to bounce even on a lifeless Vivekananda Park surface! Don’t you think this lad has the potential to make the cut for his first-class side as well?’’, the newly-appointed Indian captain asked yours truly, while slowly stroking his chin.

He added on, ‘’Apart from Mandeep, there are a couple of more players in my side I rate very highly: one of them is Jeet Bhowmick from Bengal, our wicket-keeper batsman, and my opening partner, and the other one is Gulamdeen from Punjab, an explosive all-rounder who clinched the ‘Man of the Series’ award in the Maitree Cup.I feel blessed to be able to lead a team comprising so many gifted individuals. Nothing can beat this feeling….I can vouch for that!’’

An Indian batsman, wearing shirt number 10, is seen doing a shadow drill in this picture. But hey, it’s not Sachin Tendulkar.
The captain of the Indian physically-challenged team is an ardent fan of the Master Blaster.

ON CARRYING THE TAG OF ‘THE WORLD’S FIRST BLADE CRICKETER’….

What is the first name that flocks to your mind when you think of a ‘blade runner’? Oscar Pistorius in all probability?

Well, it may surprise you to learn that the first ‘blade’ cricketer of the world is an Indian, or more precisely put, the now captain of the Indian physically-challenged cricket team— Suvro Joarder. Following his interview with a top Indian sports website in 2015, a Google search revealed that Suvro, indeed, is the first physically-challenged cricketer in the world and also the first athlete in West Bengal to make active use of the prosthetic blade on a cricket field/athletics track/marathon surface.

Unfortunately, though, Suvro became a victim of misreporting late last year, when a reputed Calcutta-based English daily claimed a certain Afzal Khan, who participated in the ‘Champions with Disability’ race at the 2017 TATA Steel Kolkata 25K meet, as ‘’the city’s first ‘blade runner’’’. What is even more amusing to note here is that the reporter who penned down this story is the same reporter who earlier in 2015, described Suvro as ‘’the first ‘blade runner’ of the city’’ in a follow-up report on that year’s TATA SteelKolkata 25K.

When asked about his reactions to such factual errors regarding his name, the usually sedate Suvroreplied with a tinge of disillusionment in his voice, ‘’You see….I have never quite wanted to brag about this tag of mine….a tag not self-chosen but attributed to my name by the media….as the world’s first ‘blade’ cricketer. But in the present milieu and under current circumstances, where physically-challenged athletes like me hardly receive any acknowledgment of their efforts, I reckon from now on, the media houses should be doubly careful with their facts before reporting any story on us’’.

Suvro running the 2016 TATA Steel Kolkata Marathon. Thanks to his awareness-creating drives at a number of such high-profile events, people have now become relatively more aware of the numerous challenges staring in the face of physically-challenged people of the country. (Photo courtesy: Suvro Joarder)

WHAT NEXT?

So how does he expect the future to shape up for physically-challenged cricket in India? For the first time, over the course of the forty minute-long conversation, did Suvro sound a bit melancholy: ‘’If you ask me about the current state (of physically-challenged cricket), I would say it is in a shambles. Lack of funds and absence of proper infrastructure have truncated the growth of the sport in our country. Those running the sport ought to realize that the massive gulf between able-bodied and handicapped players, in terms of facilities provided, is dissuading many a talented handicapped player from taking up the game. The bitter truth is that in spite of devoting all our focus and energy to the game we love, at the end of the day, we have to depend on other jobs to earn our livelihood’’. Unlike the England Cricket Board and the Bangladesh Cricket Board, the BCCI has yet to give affiliation to physically-challenged cricketers. But like Suvro opined, ‘’things are heading in the right direction’’. In keeping with the Lodha Committee’s recommendation, the Disable Sporting Society started a central contract for its players in May 2017. When asked if this monetary boost can be a real solution to the financial problems plaguing the handicapped cricketers representing India, he answered, ‘’This is a welcome initiative on the part of the Disable Sporting Society. That said, for the overall upliftment of physically-challenged cricketers, it is important for the BCCI to overtake the Disable Sporting Society as soon as possible. If you go through the entire Lodha Committee report, you’ll find that it has spelled out recommendations for what I am suggesting’’.

Notwithstanding the extraneous challenges confronting Suvro and company at present, 2018 is going to be an ‘acid test’ for the Indian team from a purely cricketing point of view. A veteran of twenty-five internationals and many battles of life, Suvro has his eyes firmly set on the eight-team Asia Cup for disabled cricketers, which is slated to take place in March/April later this year.

Also in the pipeline is a potential Indo-Pak bilateral series, which is likely to be organized in Kolkata, just after the Asia Cup. ‘’Talks are on with the Disable Sporting Society’’, Suvro informed, ‘’over hosting a series between India and Pakistan in Kolkata in 2018. I am optimistic about getting the nod from the Ministry of External Affairs for that’’. ‘’If everything goes well’’, he added, ‘’you may also get to see the first ever World Cup for the physically-challenged taking place in England, right after the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup. Fingers crossed for that’’.

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