This is the story of a team that found a coach 15 days before their departure to England for a World Cup tournament. This is the team that had no money to buy a cricket kit, invest in training, buy tickets to reach England or even pay fees to play the match. This is the team that had no official documentation to procure a visa or passport. This is the team that practiced cricket for a year and proved that there is no substitute for hard work. And, this is the team that became the voice of over 2 million children living on the streets of India.
The story of team South India’s win at the Street Child Cricket World Cup is a story of hardwork and hope, struggle and success, all rolled into one.
In conversation with Founder & Secretary of Karunalaya, Mr. Paul Sunder Singh, who wore multiple hats to ensure these children made it to the World Cup!
Q) How did the opportunity for Karunalaya’s children to participate in the Street Child Cricket World Cup come about?
A: Street Child United, the organisation that created this platform reached out to us and since cricket is a big in India, it only made sense for our children to participate in the first ever Street Child World Cup. This was an equal gender match, where we had four girls and four boys play from Mumbai and Chennai and we partnered with Magic Bus Foundation for the same.
Before the final selection process, we auditioned and screened at least 85 children who showed interest in cricket and through a thorough selection process, we tested their techniques of batting, bowling and physical fitness. Eventually, the children who were disinterested, dropped out from the game themselves, and it made the selection process a little easier.
We realised, girls were usually shy as not many had taken up sports as a form of professional play. You know, for children living in slum communities, wearing shorts and a T-shirt for a cricket match is a big thing. Gradually, with training and practice they got into the skin and got comfortable. Children practiced for almost a year before they left for England, and by the end of all of this, we were able to select 6 children, of which 4 children from Chennai made it to team south India.
Having the best children in the team was not the only criteria. Another challenge was having every document made for the children for their visa and passport. While procuring a passport was a 15 day job, the documentation for the passport- from the birth certificate to an Aadhar card was a tedious task as not all children had these documents. Even though the process of Aadhar Card has been simplified, children did not have a birth certificate to make an Aadhar Card. While the practice was on-going, the documentation work took us more than six months to ensure the children went to England.
Q) One of the girls said- “If you respect us, you will protect us.” Do articulate the journey of the children before and after participating at Street Child United platform. How did it change their lives?
A: Yes, Monisha, our youngest player who is fourteen years old, said this. Monisha has always lived on the street and comes from a difficult background and therefore she was able to relate her journey, speaking from her heart as she represented the voice of all street children. The Street Child Cricket World Cup was not just about playing the sport, but it was also about expressing and illustrating the issues children faced on an everyday basis. A three-day preparatory congress and General Assembly was held in England where children spoke about their demands and rights. They realised that the context may be different, but they all wanted the same thing- safety and protection. This was an opportunity for them to go deep into several issues as they now had a platform to speak on how they wanted to be treated.
The game also developed confidence in children as it gave them the exposure to represent India. Before this, for the girls, a simple thing like wearing shorts for the practice sessions was not easy and they went all the way to England to represent their country! After coming back from England, even the outlook of how people saw the team changed drastically, and now they are treated with respect. Children share with us the stories of how they are invited to different forums to speak about their journey and they feel happy about it.
Even the outlook of the police towards the street children has changed. The other day, Monisha was telling us about an incident where a policeman had read her story in the newspaper and assured her that he will ensure her protection. Today, people are friendly and treat them with respect. That apart, now many of the children have also got admission in colleges under the sports quota. This, in itself is a huge achievement for children living on the streets.
Q) What is your view on a child’s right to play? How does this experience at Street Child United exemplify that?
A: Right to Play is an important right for all children under Article 31 of the UNCRC. At times, parents do not understand why play is important for the holistic growth of children. When children play, it is not just about the game, it is about their health, well-being and overall development. The Street Child United was a global platform for children and this not only made the children and their families proud, but also their country. At the core of all of it, Street Child United wants to break the negative stereotype of street children and it uses sports as a medium to do so. Street children never got an opportunity to showcase their talent and participate at a global level and therefore, this became a big feat in the lives of children.
But you know, every child should play, not just for an event, but for fun. The objective should not be to become a good boxer, or a footballer or a cricketer, but to play for play’s sake because there is a lot of learning in play. The values that can be learnt through play are itself education, and learning can happen beyond the classroom.
Q) Tell us about the build-up to the Street Child Cricket World Cup. How much time did the children spend practising? How did you select the team? Who provided the equipment, nutrition and the playground? Do elaborate on the role of the coach who came in two weeks before the match.
A: We had four members from Chennai and we partnered with Magic bus who had shortlisted four team members from Mumbai. At the end, all team members came together to co-ordinate, and practice as Team South India. We spent almost a year training the children, our practice sessions would begin at 5 am in the morning where fitness training was provided by our program team and another program person passionate about cricket would informally teach the children too.
We realised that the nutrition level of the children was not great, where most of them had low hemoglobin levels and its then that provided them with a healthy and balanced diet that included eggs and green leafy vegetables. We also ensured a doctor was available for any small injury that a child underwent during the practice sessions. We were able to manage this as we used the same food cooked in our shelter home.
However, we still have a deficit and are now slowly returning the money we spent to ensure children went to England. There was also a fee of 600 dollars that was to be paid for each child and we managed all of that through donations. We had to take money from other programs to ensure the children participated in the Street Child World Cup in England.
Q) Where did you receive sponsorship and funding from? What were the challenges faced in acquiring fund?
A: We thought cricket is going to bring us all the support because in India, everyone loves cricket. However, we were wrong. We weren’t able to raise the initial money for the equipment, nutrition and the practice sessions that went on for a year. We got an initial funding for a more than 1 lakh from a visually and speech impaired woman and were able to begin our practice sessions with buying cricket kits, balls, and stumps and shoes for children.
For the equipment, we also had two students from Holland who helped us with 1000 euros and that amount helped us greatly. There was also a participation fees for each player and we managed to raise that fund from our friends in Ireland who helped us with Rs. 2 lakhs.
Q) What challenges did you face along the way? Can you share some examples?
A: We were looking for a good coach to train the children in using the techniques they had learnt, however, we did not realise the business of cricket and how it has become a money making sport. We found one coach who agreed to coach the children for an hour a day by charging Rs 10,000 and would coach for 10 days. He had told us that he would suggest techniques by observing them. Finally, we found a good Samaritan who worked at the Chennai Port Trust and coached children for free. He heard the backstories of our children and was more than happy to work with the team and he did all he could, and the children won the Cup! He only asked us to get one cricket ball that cost Rs.300. For two weeks, the children practiced day and night and got skilled in technique under his guidance. During this time, the team from Mumbai also came to Chennai and we started working together as a team.
Q) Do you believe the overall culture of sports has changed in India? Yes/ No? If yes, how so? What would you attribute this change to?
A: Yes, definitely the overall culture of sports is changing for the better in the country as the government too is promoting sports at a local level. Now, even street children are taking up sports and flourishing in it. If they get more opportunities, they would excel in the sport.
However, a sport has also become a big business and I do not know how we shall be able to crack the culture where everyone cannot afford a good coach. We do have good human beings, but how many would do something like this willingly? We have a government cricket playground in Chennai but the infrastructure is not up to the mark and not many go there to practice cricket. It would be nice to see the government providing good infrastructure for sports.
Q) How did families/relatives of children react when they learned their children would travel to London?
A: Parents were happy and could not believe this was actually happening. They were in tears when they saw their children return after winning the game and could not believe that it actually happened. They did not think in their wildest dreams that their children would be able to achieve something like this. Even the children were so excited when they heard stories of being in the same dressing room as some of their favourite sportspersons. Children sat at the same bench as Rahul Dravid sat at Lord’s! Saurav Ganguly congratulated the children on winning the World Cup and sent a video and the children were so excited. I had seen a video of the children being congratulated by him and even I was fascinated.
Q) How was the overall experience in London? Tell us how the children were reacting.
A: Before the children left for England we trained them in basic conversation in English, manners, hygiene and prepared them about the cultural difference so that they would not feel out of the place. It was a beautiful experience for all the children to see all the touristy places in England. The London Tamil Association invited the children and they were finally able to eat spicy food which they were craving for so long. We were received with so much love and they even helped us monetarily too after they learnt Team South India won the match. Children felt happy with their kind gesture. They were all fascinated my meeting new people from diverse places and got great exposure.
Q) How do you believe sports can change the lives of children? Can you share examples from within the team?
A: Children learnt the importance of having a routine and sticking to it. Initially, it was not easy for them, but we had to push them to get into a routine. This helped them in getting disciplined and they realised, there is no substitute to hard work. They also learnt the importance of playing together in a team, having good coordination skills and it was beyond just playing a game. After the match, many children have been able to get admission under the sports quota, which is a big dealfor the street children. Today, they are more ambitious and have better aspirations towards their future.
Q) How did cricket act as a leveling field between girls and boys? Share examples, please.
A: At the Street Child United, the rules were the same for both the boys and the girls which in itself acted as a levelling field between both sexes. Initially, we realised that the girls were not exposed to cricket, but with training and exposure they were able to pick up the sport and be good at it too. The girls did not follow cricket on television. They were part of strategy making, their confidence levels increased and they did the same amount of physical activities like the boys and eventually got good at their game.
Q) What are the long-term plans for Team South India? Now that there has been some momentum, how do you plan to take it ahead?
A: Since right to protection came out as a demand from children, we want to meet our Chief Minister and present the achievements of the children and look at ways of how this right can be brought about for street children. We have already asked for an appointment and are hoping to meet the government officials soon. We also want to meet the HRD minister to seek support for their education and get their blessings.
Q) How do you believe development sector organizations, the government and educational institutions should promote sports and play, for the development and progress of children.
A: I think it is important to have a convergence of all the government departments working together on different aspects of development of children including sports and play. At the same time, while convergence is important, the government should seek their opinions of NGOs working together on similar issues. For the Right to Play, the government can consult people from the sector on new policies and how to make them a reality. You know, we have a government cricket ground in Chennai, but it is not in good condition. It will really help if the government can provide good infrastructure for development of sports. It is not just about street children because India’s flag was hoisted and the National Anthem was sung at the final match. Everyone should support Right to Play so that all children can play sports.