You know you've hit a six when you hear the ball strike concrete

Ian Burrell meets the blind cricketers on their way to the World Cup

It might sound at first as unlikely as a bicycle race for fish but a team of blind cricketers is being assembled to play for England in a World Cup.

Until this summer, some might argue, the English Test side has been playing as if with its eyes closed, tumbling down the rankings of world cricket after a succession of humbling defeats.

Yet just as England's form against Australia in the fight for the Ashes has sparked a revival in cricketing fever, the country's blind players are clamouring for the chance to be the first visually-impaired players to wear the white sweater with three lions.

It is a major step forward for a game which was invented 49 years ago by pupils at the Royal National College for the Blind in Shropshire.

The schoolboys filled a football with dried peas so that they could hear it rattle and bounce and adapted the rules of the Marylebone Cricket Club to form their own code.

Wally Kinder was one of those who took part in the first games of blind cricket and at 63 he is still playing. "I was only 15 when we invented it. It never occurred to us that it would advance so far," he said.

Teams are a mixture of totally and partially blind players and some concessions are made to those completely without sight to give the game more balance.

Totally blind players are allowed to catch the ball on the bounce and are therefore effective close-to-the-wicket fielders, responding to the sound of the ball coming off the bat and landing close to them.

When batting, totally blind players are accompanied by a partially-sighted "runner" who gives advice on gaps in the field. The bowler must ask his opponent if he is ready and the ball must bounce twice to enable the batsman to gauge its path.

Among the leading contenders for an England place is Nikil Nair, 21, a Cambridge University student who is totally blind but bats with an orthodox technique.

The highlight of his career so far was a recent pull-shot over square leg for six. "I was told that the fielder on the boundary got a hand to it but I heard the ball crash onto the concrete of the car park instead of onto the grass and that was wonderful," he said.

The World Cup in New Delhi in November next year will feature teams from all the major Test-playing cricket countries.

One problem to be ironed out is the difference in rules between the blind cricket played on the Indian sub-continent and the rules followed elsewhere.

The Indian game features a smaller, bouncier ball and is played on a concrete wicket. A meeting is to be held in Cape Town in September to find a compromise.

The England coach for the World Cup will be Andy Sellins, a cricketing development officer at the London Community Cricket Association, who is drawing up a programme for selecting the 16-strong touring party.

He will have a pool of nearly 300 blind cricketers, playing with a dozen clubs, to choose from. Initially, three regional squads are being established, based at the Lord's, Edgbaston, and Headingley test grounds.

But as it prepares to move onto the international stage there is one major problem jeopardising the future of English blind cricket; moves to integrate blind children into mainstream schooling have severely hindered attempts to recruit new young players who were easy to locate when they all studied at schools for the blind.

It is hoped that the formation of the England team will raise awareness, particularly among young visually impaired people of how the game provides sporting and social opportunities for a section of the community in which three out of four are unemployed.

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