Batting Silently

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After an accident in childhood left him deaf and dumb, Umar started playing cricket. By now he has won laurels in 92 national and international matches and has helped his family pick-up and communicate non-verbally, reports Shams Irfan

For Umar Ashraf Baig, 22, who originally hails from Sultanpora, Baramulla, life is a roller-coaster ride ever since an accident, at the age of three, left him deaf and dumb. Youngest among four siblings, Umar started playing cricket once he turned eleven.

“It (playing cricket) helped me forget about my disabilities,” translates Umar’s cousin, Qurat-ul-Ain, who is pursuing  master’s at University of Kashmir, decoding his sign language.

A student of Deaf and Dumb school Rambagh, Srinagar, till Class 12, Umar started playing school level cricket in 2006.

His first major break came in 2008 when he was selected for J&K’s deaf and dumb cricket team to play in Delhi.

At Rambagh school Umar learned non verbal communication using signs. “Basics I picked up in Rambagh,” recalls Umar. Then his mother sent him to a Jammu school to perfect the skill. “It (sign language) is like chatting on whatsapp. There are shortcuts for every word or expression,” conveys Umar.

The method of teaching at school helped him improve his communication skills later on. Umar recalls how his teachers used to bring objects like pen, book, apple, pears etc. to help them recognize things. “This method was good but there are even better ways to teach,” said Umar.

It was only when Umar moved outside Kashmir that he learnt that courses are crafted keeping in view individual capacities and disabilities.

Umar feels ‘suffocated’ when people around him keep quite because of his inability to hear. Instead, he wants them to talk, using sign language or simple gestures. “He tells us to talk to him all the time. When we don’t, he gets irritated,” said his cousin and translator.

Because of this, almost everyone in Umar’s family, including his siblings, cousins and friends, picked up the basics of sign language, so that they can communicate with him. “I don’t want my disability to become a hindrance,” said Umar.

Simultaneously, Umar’s cricket career started picking up and he got selected for national level tournaments in Delhi, Bhopal, Varanasi, Nagpur, Punjab and Haryana. He represented the state’s deaf and dumb team as an all-rounder.

In 2016 Umar went to Dubai and played a match against Pakistan’s U-19 deaf and dumb team. “This was my most memorable match. I was playing against Pakistan. I still recall I scored 59 runs.”In 2017, Umar was part of the team that won Asia Cup (2017) final against Sri Lanka. “It was great achievement career wise for a person like me.”

But Umar is disappointed by the kind of welcome he got back home after winning the trophy against Sri Lanka. “While the Sri Lankan government showered their runner up team with gifts and money, nobody even bothered to greet us here in Kashmir,” regrets Umar.

Later, he met Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and gave her a letter with suggestions that can help improve condition of deaf and dump sportspersons. “She took the letter, promised action, but so far I got no response,” rues Umar.

Immediately, he takes out a recent Urdu newspaper cutting, which has a picture of him shaking hands with governor N N Vohra at Rajbhawan. “He gave me a Rs 1 lakh. Rest, nobody ever came to my help,” said Umar.

Umar, who has so far played 92 matches, both national and international level, response from the local government is heartbreaking. “They don’t appreciate our efforts as sportspersons. We have brought laurels to Kashmir, but nobody seems to care.”

However, despite indifference from the local sports authorities, Umar is all set to play deaf and dump premier league matches in England later this year.

But for Umar, who considers Kashmir as the best place to live, continuous shutdowns and the news of innocent killings, drains him off, both mentally and physically. “It really saddens me to see what is happening in Kashmir.”

Interestingly, his disability has not prevented him from understanding the divide in Kashmir politics. He has assigned sings for every separatists and Unionist politician in Kashmir.

On his first visit outside Kashmir Umar was apprehensive, both about his disability and about people. But the fears faded once he landed for a training camp in Delhi.

“I have learned a lot by interacting with people from outside Kashmir.When they come to know that I am a cricketer from Kashmir, that too deaf n dumb, they show respect,” said Umar.

But back home Umar is aware that his inability to listen or talk can land him in trouble, especially with government forces, as respect here is too rear. “While travelling between Srinagar and Baramulla, he is often asked to come down from the vehicle by government forces. I try to show them with signs that I cannot hear or speak. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Ask him about his future plans and he takes a long pause before responding in signs. “I never imagined I could go this far in my life and achieve so much. I believe in destiny. I have left it on Allah. Let him decide what else I deserve,” said Umar.

However, if given a chance and proper resources, Umar wants to coach youngsters with disabilities.

“I have seen a lot of them sit at home,” said Umar. “Some of them are highly talented. I want to train them and help them achieve their dreams.”

Umar is angered by the kind of ‘different’ treatment he gets in every sphere of life, especially in Kashmir. For example, Umar, who is good behind the wheels, cannot apply for a driving license like a normal person. “Those who can hear and speak, are often involved in accidents, but still get a driving license. I drive safely but am not allowed to get a license!”

Besides, Umar feels people like him are deliberately pushed to the wall by the ‘system’ as there are no jobs for them! “We have to struggle to remind the society that we too exist. Everybody seems to have forgotten us,” said Umar.

There are forty friends with whom Umar stays connected via whatsapp. “They all are like me,” he said. “And they all want to prove normal people wrong about themselves, but lack opportunities.”

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