© Wisden India

Ancil Rishi Pinto waits for his turn to have a go in the nets with his gentle inswingers. © Wisden India

You’ve heard about cricket for the visually challenged. Rahul Dravid was recently involved with the Twenty20 World Cup for the Blind, which India won, giving the game some well-deserved attention.

“They have exceptional qualities,” Dravid had said at one of the promotional events prior to the tournament.

What then of a hearing and speech-impaired person? What are the exceptional qualities we are talking about here? How different is the game for him or her? It’s not football or basketball, both high on oral communication (or, to call it what it is, shouting and screaming). There is no referees’ whistle. People of a certain vintage would remember the story of Damir Desnica, the star striker with HNK Rijeka, the football club in Yugoslavia (now in Croatia). It was 1984. Rijeka had won the first leg of the UEFA Cup clash against Real Madrid at home 3-1. In the second leg, at the Santiago Bernabeu, they lost 3-0 with three of their players sent off. Desnica was one of them. Early on in the script, he had been yellow-carded for time wasting. Then, midway into the second half and still only 1-0 down, Desnica was sent off after a second yellow card. Why? For playing on after the referee had stopped play. Fair call by the referee. But Desnica was deaf – he had missed the referee’s whistle. It must have happened more than once in his moderately successful career.

In cricket, you could miss the umpires’ shout for no-ball, and the repercussions would be nowhere as severe. No one is sent off for overstepping, unless we are talking S Sreesanth or Mohammad Amir, and then the punishment is worse than just a yellow card.

Thinking about it, running between the wickets and calls to a fielder to throw the ball to a particular end of the pitch, and the occasional ‘leave it’ or ‘my ball’ by the fielder, seem to be the only occasions (oh, and sledging!) where the lack of hearing or speech are impediments.

True that, signals Ancil Rishi Pinto, a deaf and mute cricketer who is fairly well known here in Bangalore.

Now in his mid-30s, Pinto was recently named captain of the Delhi team in the upcoming Indian Deaf Premier League. Born in Kerala, Pinto lost his parents early and was adopted by Bangalore-based businessman – and one-time Bombay Universities cricketer – Mohammad Ebrahim Ansari. He moved to the big city in the late 1980s, going on to study at Sheila Kothavala Institute for the Deaf later.

Cricket was his thing, and Ansari backed him all the way. His ‘father’ has since passed on, but cricket continues to be Pinto’s thing. There is a day job in the finance department of Dell EMC, the data storage company, but training with Irfan Sait at Modern Cricket Club has only served to drive Pinto’s ambition further. He hasn’t done badly over the years either. There was a short stint at MRF Pace Academy once in 1998 – when Dennis Lillee was in charge – and time spent at the Brijesh Patel Cricket Academy and the Imtiaz Ahmed Cricket Academy, as well as winners’ medals from the second Deaf Cricket World Cup in 2005 in Lucknow and the second Asia Deaf Cricket Cup in 2012 in Lahore.

We catch up with him as he trains under Sait’s watchful eyes among a sea of “normal players”, as Pinto calls them.

He’s a medium pacer. To the naked eye, he goes at between 120 and 125 kph. Later, through his mother-in-law’s spirited but not-very-able interpretation, he tells us that he used to bowl at 135-plus when he was young, pointing to his right bicep. At any rate, he gets all but one delivery he sends down for our viewing pleasure on or around off-stump, shaping in a little bit. The one that doesn’t sails down the leg-side, and he lets out an irritated groan and a gesture of frustration.

“A workhorse, to say the least,” Sait says of Pinto. “He works very, very hard, is sincere and focused, and his passion is what is driving him. He is as fit as any 18-19 year old. He’s been a coach’s delight.”

Pressing on: How do you tell him things that would be easy to explain to someone who can hear and speak, and how does he tell you about his problems?

© Wisden India

“He works very, very hard, is sincere and focused, and his passion is what is driving him. He is as fit as any 18-19 year old. He’s been a coach’s delight.” – Irfan Sait on Ancil Rishi Pinto. © Wisden India

“They [Sait has trained other deaf and mute cricketers over the years too] have evolved in a system where they understand each other, they sense each other. So they are better versed (with the intricacies of the game) than those with speech. They are very sensitive, they are very, very active, and they see a lot of things which normally we don’t,” explains the coach, adding that signals are good enough to get the job done.

Once he is done sweating it out and leaves the nets to applause from the other trainees, Pinto turns up to answer our questions, mum-in-law Pratibha by his side. The expression is serious, his hand and eye movements exaggerated as he first ‘listens’ to the queries with concentration and then answers them in detail.

A lot of it is lost in translation as Pratibha, though mother to a son and a daughter – Monica, Pinto’s wife – who are deaf and mute too, struggles to keep up. “He doesn’t know Kannada and I don’t know Malayalam,” she explains later. And she knows what I mean when my eyes widen in reaction to the Kannada-Malayalam clarification. Languages – in sign? She’s heard the question before and just shrugs. I blush at the silent gaffe.

“The communication is done by the eyes and hands,” Pinto says, sticking his right arm out and making a gesture akin to a cop stopping traffic when trying to explain running quick singles, or refusing them, with a partner. And only a hint of a smile appears on his face as he says, “Everyone is deaf and no one can speak, so it balances out.” Even while captaining a side? “Of course, you just need to show what you want, and it happens.”

Signs and gestures, a bit of lip reading – Pinto and his teammates have not needed more. As a child, he was ridiculed when he wanted to join the boys of his locality for a bit of bat and ball in the afternoons. It’s all forgiven though not forgotten now. Along the way, he has played with Mayank Agarwal, the Karnataka batsman, and impressed Carlton Saldanha, the former Karnataka cricketer-turned-coach, who says about his time with Pinto around the turn of the millennium, “He was not any lesser than the other boys in any way.”

But he cannot play for the “regular” India team, which his mother-in-law says is what he has always wanted. [Hasn’t everyone who has ever picked up a bat or ball in our country?] Still, Pinto is an important cog in the massive wheel that is Indian cricket, or cricket in India. That’s no mean achievement for someone who started out where he did.