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For Pakistan's visually impaired, cricket offers hope

LAHORE, Pakistan -- Pakistan's blind cricket captain Zeeshan Abbasi was once a shy and awkward child who relied on his family and friends to get by in a country where disability is a major stigma.

Growing up in the mountainous northern Ayubia district, his earliest memories are of clutching his mother's hand as they climbed a winding path to a school where he was never fully accepted.

But having recently led his team to the final of the World Cup and triumph in a series over traditional foe India, he credits cricket with turning his life around.

“If I didn't play cricket, I would have not enjoyed this status as a national celebrity. My blind friends are unable to do anything and have become a burden for their families,” the 30-year-old said.

Pakistan is home to almost two million blind people, according to the Fred Hollows Foundation, with more than half afflicted due to preventable diseases like cataracts.

They are often forced to deal with societal taboos surrounding disability and have little by the way of government facilities to aid them in public spaces.

Neglected by their families, their education and personality development suffers.

Abbasi recalls how as a child he was punished for not being able to keep up at his first school.

“My teachers did not know how to teach me,” he says.

Realising the youngster's difficulties, his uncle arranged his admission in a school for blind children in the city of Rawalpindi, where he was introduced to cricket.

“I started playing at the age of 10. Later, myself and a group of friends founded the first ever Islamabad blind cricket club. We used to spend our pocket money to buy the cricket gear,” he recalls.

Even then Abbasi initially faced opposition by his family.

“I was beaten by my parents several times for playing cricket because they thought I was wasting my time and I should study for a better future,” he said.

“Once while practicing with normal cricketers, the ball struck my left eye and I lost the little sight I had,” he said, adding his right arm was fractured six times while playing.

Abbasi persevered, finally making his debut as an 18-year-old against South Africa in 2000 and later becoming captain in 2011.

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Four-way tie for the lead at windy Innisbrook
This photograph taken on Feb. 14 shows visually impaired Pakistan cricketers as they take part in a practice session at the Bagh-e-Jinnah cricket ground in Lahore. (AFP)

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