Ghaziabad: Differently-abled cricketer Raja Babu, who scored a 20-ball 67 for Uttar Pradesh in a national-level tournament against Delhi in 2017, is now driving a e-rickshaw in Ghaziabad and selling milk to make ends meet.
The breezy half-century in the tournament named 'Hausalon ki Udaan' at Meerut earned Raja Babu a lot of accolades and the promise of getting rewarded through the sport. A local businessman even came forward and gifted the cricketer an e-rickshaw, which Raja now plies in Ghaziabad for survival.
Just when the left-handed batter was looking forward to more success, the Covid-19 pandemic struck, virtually ending Raja's cricketing career. The Divyang Cricket Association (DCA), a charitable organisation which supported disabled cricketers in the state, went defunct in 2020 due to the cash crunch, leaving players like Raja to fend for themselves.
"It really broke our back. For the first few months, I sold milk on the streets of Ghaziabad and drove an e-rickshaw. The rest of my teammates used to work as delivery agents and waiters at 'Disabled Dhaba' in Meerut during that time. It (DCA) was opened by Amit Sharma, the founder and coach of Dhaba Association," Raja was quoted as saying in Navbharat Times.
Raja, 31, is now running the gifted e-rickshaw on the roads of Ghaziabad earning Rs 250-300 a day driving 10 hours at a stretch to support a family of four, including wife Nidhi (27) and children -- Krishna (7) and Shaanvi (4).
"I ply the e-rickshaw between Baharampur and Vijay Nagar for about 10 hours a day so that I can earn only Rs 250-300. I can barely meet the household expenses and there is nothing left for the education of children. There are hardly any employment opportunities for the differently-abled," adds Raja.
Since DCA was not affiliated to the Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association (UPCA), it never got recognition and when the inflow of money stopped during the pandemic, Amit Sharma had to close it down.
"We started the association with the help and donations from some local businessmen. Transport and food expenses were covered during the tournaments. The DCA was neither under the BCCI nor the UPCA, so the players did not have a fixed income. Whatever money he (Raja) got as man-of-the-match award was his salary. He had lost a leg in an accident," said Sharma.
However, Raja is optimistic that things will change.
"In 1997, while returning home from school, I lost my left leg in a train accident. At that time my father was a Grade IV employee in the Railways and was posted in Panki, Kanpur. After the accident, my studies came to a halt as the family could not pay the school fees. The accident changed my life but I did not stop dreaming," says Raja.
Three year after the accident, Raja started playing street cricket at the age of 12. Soon he started training at the Aramina Ground in Kanpur and by the time he was 23, Raja was playing in district-level tournaments.
"In 2013, I played a few tournaments in Bijnor. At the same time, Sharma, who was then the DCA director, asked me to join the association. I got the best player award in Uttarakhand Divyang Cricket Tournament 2015. The next year I became the captain of the UP team."
In 2014 Raja got married and moved to Ghaziabad in search of a job.
"I started working in a shoe factory for Rs 200 a day. Money was necessary but it was becoming very difficult to balance cricket and factory work, so after six months I decided to leave the job and focus only on cricket."
Raja's exploits with the bat spread quickly and soon he became a sought-after player. He would show his skills by sometimes playing with crutches or sitting in a wheelchair. He won several awards in UP and Gujarat and in 2016 was adjudged 'man of the match' in a national-level tournament. The same year, the Bihar government honoured him as well.
"I got medals and respect but that was not enough to survive. In 2022, I started playing wheelchair cricket again for Madhya Pradesh but due to the pandemic, only a few matches could be played. We are also cricketers but during the pandemic we did not get any help from cricket organisations. We had to eat food on the streets distributed by some well-meaning people. When the lockdown was imposed, I had just Rs 3,000 in deposit. How many days will that last? I had to vacate the rented house twice as I had no money to pay rent."
UPCA (Divyang) chairperson Atul Srivastava says the cash-rich Indian cricket board should take steps for the betterment of disabled cricketers.
"BCCI should also take steps in this direction so that the disabled cricketers can play without worrying about money and jobs," said Srivastava, adding that in countries like Bangladesh, the expenses of disabled cricketers are borne by their cricket association.
The reports said that in April this year, the BCCI had given recognition to the Differently-abled Cricket Council of India (DCCI) to promote the sport amongst the differently-abled, deaf and wheelchair participants. IANS