England's visually impaired team face up to missing out on Ashes

By Steve MorganFreelance cricket writer
England discuss tactics during their winter training camp
England discuss tactics during their winter training camp

It should have been the summer of Justin Hollingsworth’s cricketing life.

At 23, the vice-captain of England’s visually impaired team was gearing up to help defend the blind Ashes so convincingly won in Australia in 2016.

Preparations for August’s seven-game series were well under way, with monthly squad meets sharpening focus for four T20s and three one-day internationals – including a showpiece at Worcestershire’s New Road.

It would have been the first series on home soil in five years.

Instead, Hollingsworth is beavering away on gym equipment in the garden at his Midlands home - with the series postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Shadow batting and drill repetitions supplement a soul-nourishing diet of sports nostalgia, while WhatsApp chats checking in with squad mates offer mutual support and encouragement.

Just like Ben Stokes, Joe Root and Heather Knight, Hollingsworth is an England cricketer dreaming of sporting the three lions once more.

“It’s the not knowing about any of it – will we play any county cricket at all this summer?” said Hollingsworth.

Pete Blueitt performs fitness drills at the team’s February training camp
Pete Blueitt performs fitness drills at the team’s February training camp

‘I couldn’t see and thought the electricity had gone… then I realised my face was wet’

February’s training camp at Loughborough’s National Cricket Performance Centre – the last time the team was together – now seems a world away.

As veteran batsman Pete Blueitt, 60, went flat out in a punishing warm-up that would do for most people half his age, he gave an insight into his cricketing world. Despite its amateur status, this world has many similarities with its elite mainstream variant: the commitment as fierce, the pride no less potent.

Blueitt’s story is remarkable. A keen club cricketer, at 46 he woke up blind after an undetected pituitary tumour burst and bled into his eyes.

“I thought the electricity had gone,” he recalled. “Then I realised my face was wet.”

Formerly a demolition contractor, Blueitt has rebuilt his life. Although he misses - and still dreams of - the motorbike he once rode at breakneck speeds, when he says he has no regrets you don’t doubt him.

“We don’t get any financial reward for doing this,” says Mark Turnham, at 43 the eldest of three partially-sighted international siblings – sister Laura won Paralympic cycling gold in Rio and brother Roy has played cricket and football.

“It’s for the love of the shirt. I go to the gym in my England gear, which always gets one or two questions!”

‘We have to look the part on and off the pitch’

England's professional attitude was clear to observers at February's training camp.

“Do we look the part? Do we look like England?” said Gareth Jones, an inclusion officer for Tottenham Hotspur by day, and a dual international - at partially-sighted football as well as in cricket.

“We’ve got to look the part - how we approach the pitch, how we carry ourselves, as a group of players and people. I think it’s really important to be England when we’re out there - on and off the pitch.”

At the camp, the white, bearings-filled plastic ball rattled as it was delivered underarm at speeds of up to 60mph. Expectations were consistently confounded, particularly in the fielding drills, which were unerringly accurate.

They were watched by team physio Gary Metcalfe, whose regular gig is on the county circuit with Somerset, and who has relished the six years he has spent with England’s visually impaired squad.

He helps to look after a squad of players which ranges in age from 16 to 60 and which includes men with differing sight conditions, ranging from total blindness (classified as B1) through to those with varying degrees of peripheral vision and light awareness (B2 and B3).

In Loughborough, Metcalfe’s punishing warm-up ate into a second hour on each morning – this in temperatures set for the sapping humidity of Colombo because England’s seniors were in the following week to prepare for the aborted tour of Sri Lanka.

Guide dogs lolled in the heat as fringes were plastered to foreheads during drills set up for individual specifics and needs.

“It’s been incredible, finding out how the players cope, taking adversity in their stride on a daily basis – juggling that with being family men holding down careers,” Metcalfe says. “Then, on top of that, dealing with the expectations we have of them here, which are unashamedly high.”

Focus shifts to blind T20 World Cup

The blind Ashes have gone. Next summer’s blind T20 World Cup – also on home soil – is now the driver.

Dual reigning world champions India and Pakistan, England’s conquerors in the semi-final in 2017, will offer tough competition to a settled and experienced side.

The bonds forged from globetrotting jaunts with England offer comfort in lean times, and the words of coach John Cook will ring in their ears as they keep spirits and fitness up in isolation.

“The sum of our parts is a fantastic team,” he said during Loughborough’s lively debate on tactics and teamwork.

“Create a reputation. Do that from your first ball. I want them to know who it is you are, what you do – and why they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing against you.”

In essence, it is about keeping up with Gareth Jones’ mantra: looking the part.

Until then Hollingsworth – a B2 category and a first-year PE student at East Anglia University – and his team-mates will concentrate on better days ahead.

“Obviously we’re gutted about not playing Australia,” he says.

“It just makes you realise just how much we all rely on sport - both watching and playing it. I’ve been chomping through so many documentaries!

“We’re just talking about the World Cup next year - that’s what all the chat has been about.”