“I was coaching in a local sports hall with a lad who uses a power wheelchair” Richard Hill, MBE, tells me. “He was a right-sided hemiplegic, could only use his left arm, and had very little vision. And I bounced 200 tennis balls at him during the morning. He hit one of them – and that one ball that he hit was like winning the ashes. He cried; his mum cried. Those moments are just so powerful. It serves a massive purpose: that life changing opportunity that disability cricket has given to people over the years is immense, and so powerful.”

Richard has been working within disability and inclusive cricket for many years, and has been a cricketer himself for many more. He’s now Competitions and Pathways Manager for the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and has brought disability cricket from being minimal within the sport to being world-leading, all within ten or so years. One of the offerings from the ECB is county-level competitions for disabled players, which, when Richard first took over running them, had only nine teams taking part. Now there are forty-four. In the same period, cricket has seen all 39 county cricket boards incorporate disability plans into their offering. The growth in providing accessible cricket over the last decade has been staggering.

Those county competitions are now separated into two tiers, the ‘super nines’ (played nine a side, with a softer ball), and ‘D40s’ (played with a hard ball). “The super nines format is completely flexible”, Richard says, “so that if somebody has a disability where fatigue sets in, and all they can manage to do is come on and bowl a couple of overs, this format gives you the flexibility to roll people on and off.”

Adaptability and flexibility are essential to inclusive cricket. Johan de Silva, Director of Cricket at Highgate Cricket Club, sees cricket as a fantastic game for adaption because it’s so simple. “You can play cricket in a chair with someone batting for them”, Johan suggests. “Or you can use a bigger ball, or a softer ball.”

Inclusive cricket spans a wide variety of adaptions, at all levels of ability and skill. The sport spans everything from England’s international disability cricket teams down to county and club levels, to grassroots and community-based cricket. Richard emphasises that it’s all about getting more people involved and welcomed into the game. “We want to get Jack involved, who sits over in the corner and doesn’t do very much all day, he’s not massively mobile, he might have to use a wheelchair occasionally, he might have limited vision, he might be hemiplegic and only able to use his right arm (which isn’t uncommon). So, in order to get Jack involved in whatever game or exercise, we might need to use a bigger ball, or a ball that’s yellow, or a tennis racquet instead of a heavy bat. It’s those sorts of adaptions that keep it inclusive for me, and that’s what all of our coaches are doing all the time, we’re just swapping and changing.”

At club level, the Champions Club initiative, launched in January, is promising to improve club-level inclusion and support for those with disabilities. The ECB is offering financial support to encourage clubs to create and develop their own disability sections, enabling clubs to buy specific or more adaptable kit, advertise their disability programme online, and hire experienced coaches.

Edgar Herridge, National Disability Cricket Manager with the ECB told me that they’ve been blown away by the responses they’ve already had from clubs: within a month of opening applications, they’ve received more than sixty clubs come forward, demonstrating the appetite and enthusiasm for widening club participation going forwards.

“For me, supporting our cricket clubs to be more inclusive, and to build their confidence around welcoming disabled people in, is really breaking down one of those last bastions of inclusion”, Edgar says. “Once you start speaking to people and understanding that we’re all just the same, that breaks down the biggest barrier.”

Cricket can be a catalyst for change, Edgar believes. In answer to what inclusive sport means to him, Edgar replied: “it’s just making sure that everyone has equal opportunities to engage in our sport. It’s truly making sure that anyone, from any walk of life, whether they have a disability or not, is able to access cricket at their local cricket club. It’s about providing the opportunity to become a coach if they want to, or a scorer, or to be able to walk through the gates of Lords and play there.”

For Johan, it’s about bringing the widest possible opinions and experiences to the game. “The difficult thing is probably starting it off, because it can seem like a daunting task, but I think that once you’ve got it, it’s much easier to trickle outwards.”

Richard’s answer surprised me and made me think deeply about the meaning of inclusivity. He calls it ‘inclusion by exclusion’, and it’s is perfectly demonstrated through the game of blind cricket. The ball has a sound (like a baby’s rattle) which blind cricketers use to judge where the ball is as they bat. However, this wouldn’t suit people with learning difficulties, or those who are highly sensitive to, or distracted by sounds. Therefore, this version of the game works best exclusively for those who are visually impaired. But, it’s importantly providing an inclusive option for them to play cricket.

As Richard says, “it may look, from the outside, as though you’re excluding people, but if you want people to take part in sport, you have to provide the right environment and ingredients for that group or person. All you’re doing is giving everybody an equal opportunity to have the best experience possible.”

It’s all about providing opportunities for everyone to play cricket. Richard, who is a part-time wheelchair user, remembers the first time he went to a disability cricket session. “It was a real step-change in my whole life. I went along to see this cricket and I had a smile like the Cheshire Cat all day long. I spoke to lots of people there and not once did anyone ask me what my disability was, and I never asked anyone else, because actually, I wasn’t interested. All everyone was interested in was playing cricket. And it was quite amazing.”

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Anna Willis

Freelance journalist and story teller; on Twitter @annawillis101