“There’s so much danger in your local high street, even around your own home,” Nathan Foy says of his day-to-day existence. “Where else can I run around in any direction, and the worst that’s going to happen is, I run into an umpire?”
Foy is a blind cricket legend. He has been the central personality of England’s Visually Impaired Cricket team for two decades and counting, including a period in the mid-2000s when he was indisputably the best player in the world.
And now here he is conducting a fielding drill at Edgbaston, flinging himself bodily this way and that, pouncing on a stream of plastic balls filled with rattling ball bearings that offer his only sensory clue as to what is coming towards him.
Foy is taking part in a two-day training camp in the indoor school, as the VI squad continues its re-emergence from a period of stasis during the pandemic. It’s clear from his commitment, there is nowhere he’d rather be, even if – at the age of 41 – he’s beginning to creak at the seams.
“I used to be able to do things with my body,” he says. “Now I do them in spite of my body. I used to do the long jump and the triple jump when I was younger. From the waist down I look like an Olympic athlete, but up top I’ve just got a dad bod now.”
Right up at the top, however, in the mind of a man who has attained alpha status in his extraordinary, and extraordinarily nuanced, sport, Foy enjoys a freedom that he doubts he could have replicated in any other walk of life.
“Throughout my life, cricket has been a real rock to me,” he says. “I struggle to walk down the street without my guide dog, he keeps me safe. But here I can roll around on the floor, and just feel a real part of a team. Not everybody gets that opportunity.”
For the past year and a half, however, nobody in the VI community has had that opportunity. Covid may have wreaked havoc with mainstream sporting schedules, but it was nothing compared to the blanket debasement of the disability programme. England’s VI squad suffered the postponement of the Ashes in consecutive summers in 2020 and 2021, and while there are tentative plans for another World Cup in 2023 – at which the squad hope to improve on their run to the semi-finals in India four years ago – nothing so ambitious can yet be set in stone.
And so, despite some optimistic noises about next summer’s schedule, there’s not yet much expectation that normality is returning in a hurry. “We got our hopes up briefly earlier this summer,” says Justin Hollingsworth, the team’s vice-captain and opening bowler. “Everyone got back together for a couple of outdoor training [sessions], and then it was all called off again. But it is what it is.”
And yet, for John Cook, England VI’s head coach, the enforced downtime hasn’t been entirely without its benefits. Excellence may be the benchmark by which he and his team ultimately seek to be judged, and bridging the gap to the subcontinental titans, India and Pakistan, will be crucial if blind cricket is ever to take the sort of mainstream leap that the Paralympics managed at London 2012, and become recognised as an elite sport in its own right.
But the void that Covid created in the VI schedule has provided a chance to re-evaluate the human aspect, and to broaden the base of a game that – with its oversized rattling balls and underarm bowling actions – has always seemed one step removed from the more familiar versions played by England’s Physical Disability, Learning Disability and Hearing Impaired squads.
“Most people in society can be engaged just by taking some care and consideration,” Cook says. “It might be a simple case of communication – saying hello and goodbye, being polite and encouraging – but for us it’s also about the environments that cricket is played in. We’re not trying to say it’s easy to spread the game and make it more accessible, but actually it’s easy to find a way, and we’ve just got to go about finding that way.”
The route that Ed Hossell, England’s captain, took to VI cricket epitomises how haphazard opportunities in the sport can be. As a teenager Hossell was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, a degenerative condition that affects sharp, central focus. It meant that his involvement with mainstream cricket was inevitably going to come to an end, but a chance encounter with a small advertisement in Sainsbury’s transformed his relationship with the sport.
“Cricket was the last thing on my mind, really,” he says. “But then my mum found this flyer for Somerset’s visually impaired cricket team: ‘Trials here. Give us a call.’ So I turned up, and I loved it, and I’ve never looked back… excuse the pun.”
“It’s not heresy, it’s just different,” Cook says of the sport’s obvious alterations. “These are cricketers, looking to play cricket in cricket grounds. It really ought to be as simple as that. But what can be complicated, as we’ve found out, is that some players might live a mile away from a club but logistically it can take them three-quarters of an hour in the opposite direction on public transport before they can find their way in.”
To that end, Cook has invited 40 community coaches along to Edgbaston, to observe the training session and absorb the sport’s nuances, and ultimately to indulge in a bit of myth-busting when they return to their local clubs with ideas for broadening the sport’s base.
“Previously there were just two of us trying to prepare the team for a world tournament,” he says. “But with the help of 40 other people, surely that can only be a better thing – not only for the inclusion of people with disabilities, but for those who want to support them as well. It’s mind-boggling to think of the possibilities.”
A VI cricket team comprises players from three sight categories – ranging from the partially sighted B3s and B2s to total blindness, B1. There need to be four players of that last kind in any given XI.
The quickest bowlers in the format tend to reach underarm speeds of 65-70mph, and each delivery is required to bounce at least two times, once in each half of the pitch, thereby causing the ball bearings to rattle and give off aural clues to the waiting batter.
However, as assistant coach Jason Wood notes, there’s no quarter given in the cut-and-thrust of a contest – the tactics, in fact, are almost refreshingly discriminatory. When batting, for instance, there’s a clear advantage in tailoring your shots to pick out the rival B1s in the field. And for bowlers, if you can impart enough centrifugal revolutions to force the ball bearings to grip the outer casing of the ball, it effectively goes silent for crucial split seconds and increases your chance of deception mid-flight.
“It’s a ruthless, sneaky game,” Wood says. “And some of the guys are very, very good at it. We’d love to develop a see-through training ball with multi-coloured ball bearings, so that we could really see what goes on inside and get properly scientific about it. But really it’s no different to mainstream cricket, where the ability to swing or spin the ball means that the batter is unable to judge where it’s going visually.”
Not that any such trickery ever seemed to hold back Foy in his pomp. In this format, runs scored by B1 players count double, which means that any team that can build its strategy around its most disadvantaged players can secure itself a considerable head-start. At the Blind World Cup in 2002, Foy proved just that with two mighty centuries, including a career-best 232 against Pakistan and an unbeaten 152 against India, which sealed what remains England’s only victory over the most decorated team in the format.
“I hold loads of world records for run-scoring in blind cricket, and a lot of that comes down to training myself very specifically to listen to the ball,” Foy says. “People talk about hand-eye co-ordination. Well, I believe in hand-ear. I’ve taken catches too, which is really hard for a B1, but when the ball’s in the air, it’s like I can almost see it in my mind. And you don’t just want your hands to be co-ordinated, you want to feel it in your whole body, because that’s so important for the game.”
Foy’s prowess hasn’t been without controversy, however. In the 2008 Ashes, accusations started flying around in the Australian media that he “wasn’t blind enough”, despite the fact that all B1s wear blackout glasses to ensure a level playing field. But to hear his own life story is to be reminded of the extraordinary hardship that goes into creating disabled champions.
“I have a congenital version of glaucoma,” Foy says. “Most people get glaucoma when they’re 60-plus, it’s a gradual build-up of pressure in the eye and it starts to damage the optic nerve. But I got that in the womb, so by the time I was a teenager, I was effectively blind. The world looked very, very bright to me, but at least I could tell the difference between shades of light and dark, so I was able to get around quite well.
“But then, about three years ago, I detached my retina. And I went from a world that was far too bright to just dark… really, really dark, almost black. I had swapped one kind of blindness for another kind of blindness, and it affected things like my balance, and my ability to be a parent. And I found that really hard.”
And yet, in spite of such apparent helplessness, Foy keeps pressing on with his place in the sport – not only because of the sense of liberation it still gives him but also because his refusal to be defined by his limitations is exactly what takes the sport beyond being a pastiche of able-bodied cricket, and lends it an identity all of its own.
“Everyone in blind cricket looks to the B1s for guidance,” says Wood. “Sometimes, when you look at other impairments, it’s not always obvious what the difference for those players is. But here, you very quickly realise, wow, these guys can do stuff that we just cannot do, because of the skill base that they have developed. If we can turn that perception on its head, and make our B1s into match-winners, that gives us a massive advantage.”
Part of the secret of Foy’s long-term success is his homespun batting technique, which involves staying low to the ground – primed for the sweep-dominant technique that the underarm trajectory demands – but then chopping at the ball, almost as if wielding an axe.
“At that moment when the bowler bowls, there’s such a small amount of time to decide the line of the ball and how fast it is going,” Foy says. “I use my bat like I’m chopping down a tree, and try to hit the ball at the very end of my bat with maximum acceleration. If I mistime that and the ball’s hitting the stumps, that’s it.”
To build up his resilience at the crease, Foy’s regime includes sessions in which he is pelted with plastic balls to ensure that he’s not scared of being hit, and that wholehearted approach manifests itself in his goalkeeper-style fielding too. “If you don’t get down quick, you can leave a gap under your armpit,” he says. “For me, fielding is half the fun of the game. If you use your entire body, nothing’s going to get through.”
It’s a far cry from the traditional backgrounds that many of England’s B2s and B3s brought with them to the sport. But it’s inspirational too, because for several of these players their sight loss is a journey with only one destination. Therefore, to absorb these lessons now will hold them in huge stead, as and when they progress to B1 status too.
Take Hollingsworth, for instance. At the age of 12, he was part of Warwickshire’s youth set-up, competing alongside the likes of current first-team squad members Henry and Ethan Brookes. “But there came a point during a night-game, the bowler kept hitting me on the thigh pad and I realised, ‘I’m not seeing this at all,'” he recalls. “So I had to walk off and that was the end of that.”
Within three years Hollingsworth was playing for England’s VI team, initially as a B3, but he’s now categorised as a low-end B2. “That comes with its own challenges,” he says, “as people get used to the fact I’m no longer so good with the bat or in the field. I’m more of a bowler these days.
“When I first started playing, I started out with front-foot drives and forward defensives, but that’s just not going to work in this format,” Hollingsworth adds. “But catching and fielding is pretty much the same with minor adjustments, so you can generally tell the guys who’ve come from a cricket background, because they have that basic knowledge.
“It’s just a really interesting game,” Hossell adds. “I think it’s a great spectacle, irrespective of being a disability sport. It’s very tactile because you can really hear the noises off the bat on the ball, and the scoring rates are really high. But above all, it makes you view your sight in a very positive way, not to get too sentimental about it. All the guys will say we’re so lucky to do this.”
Hossell’s seven years as an England cricketer have encompassed two World Cups, in South Africa in 2014 “where the pitches were close enough to Table Mountain even for us to see it”, and, most memorably, in India in 2017, where the crowds were so passionate – not least for India’s victory over Pakistan in the final in Bangalore – that they had to be asked to be silent at the point of each delivery.
“That tour was an unbelievable experience,” Hossell says. “It was non-stop. And that is exactly the kind of experience that we could never have dreamt of having without so much support for disability cricket. They are some of my most cherished memories, and long may they continue.”
Covid spikes notwithstanding, it’s hoped that those memories could yet be added to in the summer of 2022. That delayed Ashes series is due to be reinstated, and though the ECB endured a painful round of funding cuts in the wake of the 2020 lockdown, the proportional scaling back of the disability programme has been mitigated by the sport’s sheer lack of overheads in the intervening 18 months.
The stasis certainly didn’t hit the players in the pocket – all of whom are amateurs with a range of diverse occupations, from university lecturers to financial analysts to policy writers. Foy works full-time for Guide Dogs for the Blind Association – “Most of the services don’t involve the dog at all,” he says. “We’ve got more children’s services than adult’s services, so that keeps me busy.”
“The pandemic has given us a chance to take a really massive deep breath,” Cook adds. “We’ve recomposed the way that we want to try and win, and the style and philosophy that we want to develop. So now we just wait with bated breath to see those opportunities return to our timetable, and be ready and prepared to take them off.”