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A silent racket
If an uneasy silence had lingered behind the cover of a ball, could Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi have made a lifetime of chest bumps? How helpless would Victoria Azarenka or Maria Sharapova have felt sans their grunts? Imagine the Woodies (Australians Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde) before a Grand Slam final, mulling strategies in their own heads and not having a word to offer to the other.
Would Manchester United be what they are if Alex Ferguson's exaggerated gestures failed to goad players against Manchester City even in an empty Old Trafford? What would have happened to Jwala Gutta and Saina Nehwal had they failed to register the minor details their mentor Syed Mohammed Arif offered them early in their careers? Champions would not have been their usual confident selves had they not had the luxury of exaggerated expressions and reception around them. Or simply, the blessing of speech and hearing.
Haryana shuttlers Rohit Bhaker and Asit Mishra are bereft of these luxuries. And they deal with it every day of their lives. Like any other doubles pair in a sport, they get involved in animated discussions, are acutely aware of the coordination required, but are fiercely competitive and complement each other wholeheartedly. If they win, their celebrations are minus the ostentation, and if they lose, which happens quite often, much of their next day goes into analyzing the shortcomings - but it's all muted. For, Rohit and Asit are speech and hearing-impaired.
The qualifying round matches at the IFCI 67th Interstate and 76th National Badminton Championship at Bangalore earlier this year, presented one more test of their ability to pit their skills against the 'privileged'shuttlers. Rohit lost to Karnataka player Krishna SDS in the second round of the singles qualifying event before he and his partner Mishra failed to resist the duo of Ujjwal Prakash and Gaurav Sidharth in the doubles event.
Rohit made his debut in the open nationals in 2000 and by the end of 2002, he had claimed the national title, becoming Haryana's No 1 player in the sub-junior category (under-16 ). Not content with being the state's numero uno, he went on to win the Arjuna Award, the country's highest honour for sportspersons, in the disabled category in 2006.
"The gap in Rohit and Asit's skills vis-a-vis other shuttlers may not be that big but they suffer from many disadvantages while competing, co-ordination being the foremost. Coaching and strategizing shifts are the other major ones on and off court. Psychologically, it is difficult to get rid of complexes, " says coach Gaurav Khanna, who is part of All India Sports Council for the Deaf.
The difficulties of a coach in passing on the nittygritty of the game may be immense and sometimes it may be beyond a layman to comprehend their limitations. But to say that differently-abled athletes cannot convey their message is not absolutely true. It needs just an SMS to reach out to them. Like Rohit texts to explain: "It's difficult to play doubles but I like the challenge and try to improve with every match I play. "
For that, a well-wisher has to take the pain of gently tapping the players' shoulders and finding out a way to point out the error. It becomes a big task. "You can tell them in sign language to rectify their shots, position smashes and court coverage but what about shadow training, strengths and weaknesses of the opponent? It is not easy to convey such things during a match, " says Gaurav.
As if the deterrents that a doubles game presents to Rohit and Asit are not enough, occasionally there comes the added psychological challenge of bumping into dumb heads who exult dramatically after every point won and go into strategic parleys after each point lost. As an orgy of exultations gets played out on one side, the other is all about the sneakers squeaking on wooden court. The strained calm, the intense look on sweat-beaded contorted faces gets punctuated with a winning smile as the opponent gets wrong-footed time and again. The crowd swells in appreciation and like every year in nationals, (since 2000), they win enormous goodwill.
Hand it to Sports Sign Language for Deaf (SSLD) and a few customized videos for sorting out recurrent problems. Still, at every step, there are handicaps that cannot replace the warmth of comforting words and gentle admonishments of a coach.
"These shuttlers often rue that at times they are so engrossed in the game that they forget to see the scoreboard and lose track of the game, " the coach shares.
Rohit and Asit are not the only ones battling it out.
When we rue having just one Olympic gold in a nation of more than one billion people, one must not forget that of these one billon, around 19 million people are hearing impaired (HI) in one form or the other. There are numerous such athletes: one such shuttler is 14-year-old Jehan Daboo, who was the youngest to participate in World Deaf Badminton Championship in Bucheon, South Korea (October 28-November 5, 2011).
In a world where coordination, interpersonal skills and body language is increasingly getting dominant, the handicap in just expressing yourself gets magnified when scripting a success story. For, only Rohit and Asit know what goes on in their mind when they see animated communication on the other side of the net. While they remain silent, their game does all the talking and their minds ignite with ideas to excel.
Among the pioneering hearing-impaired shuttlers was former two-time national champion Rajeev Bagga, who won the title in 1991 and 1992. The Mumbaikar, who now resides in the United Kingdom, was named the Deafalympian of the Century by the International Committee of Deaf Sports in 2001.
Bhaker hopes to shine at the 7th Asia Pacific Deaf Games which will be held in Seoul, Korea from May 26 to June 2.
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