'Drew inspiration from Sachin to pursue my dreams', says India’s para-cricket captain Keni

New Delhi, Feb 18 (IANS) The Indian physical disability cricket team secured a 3-2 T20 series victory over England at the Narendra Modi Stadium ‘B’ ground in Ahmedabad from January 28 to February 6, in what was also the visitors’ first visit in the country since 2019.

Para-cricketer Vikrant Keni, who plays as an all-rounder, captained the Indian team to the noteworthy series win over England. Co-incidentally, Keni had captained India to a 36-run win over England in the Physical Disability T20 World Series final in 2019.

In an exclusive conversation with IANS, Keni talks about the series win over England, learnings from it, his cricketing journey and more about promoting para-cricket in the country.

Q. How did you initially feel upon learning that India would be hosting its first-ever para cricket series against England?

A. Discovering that para cricket in our country is receiving increased support and recognition, brings a sense of accomplishment. The announcement of course created excitement for para-players all over the country as the tournament marked a significant milestone for differently-abled cricket in India.

Being a para-athlete, I have had the opportunity to represent India at the national level multiple times, so this tournament felt immensely significant. We extend our gratitude to DCCI, BCCI, and Svayam for creating a huge impact by organizing the first-ever international para cricket series to further enable para cricketers to compete at an international level.

This has been a big win for us, and we are committed to striving for more such triumphs in the future. Having received the title of Svayam Batsman of the series, I feel proud to have been a part of this significant moment.

Q. Can you talk about your life journey and what sparked your interest towards playing para- cricket?

A. I have always been a cricket enthusiast but due to polio, I was hesitant to pursue my interest initially. Since 1993, I have been playing cricket, however, I started playing para-cricket post-2013 and eventually started participating in regional and college-level matches.

Throughout my career, I have had the honour of receiving several titles for Man of the Series for significant matches such as during the India vs Pakistan match held in Delhi in 2015, and India vs Afghanistan T-20 series hosted in Kabul.

Additionally, I was awarded the Man of the Series title in the 2016 match against Bangladesh, and the Best Man of the tournament in this year’s Physical Disability Cricket Tournament against England.

I have always been fond of Sachin Tendulkar, and I drew inspiration from him to pursue my dreams. It was because of the unconditional support I received from my family and the people around me that helped me achieve new heights.

Q. You have been affected by polio, and could you explain how you manage to play para-cricket with this condition?

A. Polio did affect me in many ways, but I was determined to turn my disability into ability. For 5 years, my problems used to affect me mentally however, I tried to draw inspiration from other para-players who were strong enough to lead their lives with problems that of course seemed bigger than mine. Accepting my condition as a permanent aspect of my life, I redirected it towards becoming one of my greatest accomplishments.

Q. Apart from cricket, what work do you do and how supportive your employers have been of your playing career?

A. Today, corporates are playing a crucial role in supporting and empowering players to represent India on a global stage. Organizations are acting as catalysts for positive social change in society and are also in a unique position to influence mindsets through several initiatives.

For the past 9 years, I have been working with a home furnishing brand in Mumbai. During this time, I was fortunate to become a member of the para cricket team, supported extensively by my corporate employer.

Through their immense support, I started leading the team as a captain and played against corporate companies. It is because of their efforts and trust that I have been able to reach here, and I am sincerely grateful to them.

Q. For this series against England, how was the preparation and how you managed to bond with the team?

A. We were going to play against England after almost 4 years. So, our training was quite intense, and we started practicing for the matches during our regular practice sessions as well. However, we began training rigorously for this series from October onwards.

England as a team has immensely powerful and great players and considering that we prepared ourselves well through rigorous training sessions, this helped us gain victory in the series.

Q. What are your thoughts about playing and promoting para cricket in the country, considering it gives a new lease of life to people who have disabilities?

A. I believe that society has always thought that differently abled players are not capable enough and several mental barriers further discourage budding players from even participating in sports.

Differently abled cricketers are now gaining recognition in the country and there is an increase in participation at the ground level. Mainstreaming of para-sports has further added to this growth by promoting inclusivity and diversity, changing perceptions, driving policy and infrastructural changes for better accessibility, and providing financial assistance to the players.

Government intervention, sensitization programs to spread awareness around the sport, and championships in collaboration with corporates, NGOs, and local communities can give a boost to para cricketers nationwide.

Sometimes, accessibility is also a major challenge in terms of travel and infrastructure barriers at sporting events. Enhanced accessibility can help build an inclusive environment for para players and foster increased participation.

We as a team are glad that Svayam, the Associate Partner for the series are rooted in their intention to make India inclusive and safe for people with reduced mobility and has helped take differently abled cricket to new heights.

Q. A word from you on the role of DCCI & the support from BCCI in promoting para-cricket. Also, are you aware of plans for series like this in future to get more game time for you and your team against various countries?

A. I am extremely grateful to DCCI and BCCI to work collaboratively to promote para cricket across the country. This will further motivate para cricketers nationwide to pursue their interests in sports.

With the help of government interventions and support from such organizations, para-sport is becoming mainstream in India by bringing inclusivity. We are looking forward to representing our country on different platforms to reach new milestones when it comes to differently-abled cricket.

Our team is also aiming to participate in the Physical Disability World Cup 2024. Our goal is to secure a place in the World Cup, and we are fully committed to giving our best effort to achieve it.

Q. What have been the learnings for you and your team from this T20 series against England?

A. From the T20 series against England, one of the key learnings for our team has been the importance of proper planning. We realized the significance of emphasizing on the need for meticulous planning and goal-oriented focus in our own game, as it can lead us toward our goal in a much more structured way. Along with that, we realized the importance of setting clear targets and aiming towards them with precision and determination.

Q. Svayam was an associate partner for this series. How important was it for an organisation like them to come on board for the England series?

A. Svayam is playing a pivotal role in promoting accessibility and mobility for all and has been supporting DCCI for the last 3 years. Svayam believes in providing equal opportunities for all and has been playing a crucial role in bringing inclusivity in sports.

By sponsoring match fees and prestigious awards like “Man of the Match”, “Best Bowler”, and “Best Man of the Series”, Svayam is sending a powerful message that financial constraints should not be a barrier to achieving your goals.

This significant contribution is fostering a positive environment for aspiring para-players who want to pursue their dreams in sports. Moreover, Svayam’s initiatives at the grassroot level create opportunities for increased participation among players in rural India, serving as a motivational force for them to actively take part in sporting activities.

–IANS

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