Shekar Naik remembers meeting Virat Kohli a couple of years ago. It was Diwali and Ravi Shastri, then coach of the Indian cricket team, had brought along a group of players to Bangalore's Chinnaswamy Stadium to meet members of the Indian blind cricket team. Naik, the captain of the Indian blind cricket team, says he recognized Kohli. "I knew it was him just from his voice," he says. "It was an amazing feeling meeting such a great cricketer."
Naik will now get an opportunity to rub shoulders with Kohli once more. On Wednesday, both cricketers were named in the list of Padma Shri recipients for 2017.
A total of eight sportspersons have received the award this year. Naik, 30, will be the first blind sportsperson to be so honoured. "It is a great thing not just for me but also for the blind cricket community in India," he says over the phone from Bangalore. "It will give the players hope that there will be recognition for them as well."
The recognition for Naik came on the back of a 14-year-long international career in which he led India to wins in the 2012 T20 World Cup and the 2014 ODI World Cup. It has been a long, difficult but ultimately rewarding journey for Naik. The only son of a farmer, Naik was born completely blind in Arakere village in Karnataka's Shimoga district. He had few hopes of a better life as a child.
"Blindness is hereditary in my family," he says. "My mother was blind as were 15 members of my family. It was not easy growing up because there was not a lot of education in the village. The other children would make fun of me and not include me when they played. I never went to school because my father was very protective of me."
Naik's life changed at the age of seven when he fell along the bank of a river and injured his head. Coincidentally, a health camp was being organized in his village that same day and Naik was taken there to be treated. The doctors there saw that there was possibility of sight in his right eye. Naik was taken to a hospital in Bangalore and underwent surgery which saw him regain 60% of his vision in his right eye. He can now see up to a distance of 3m with that eye.
The joy would be short-lived. Naik's father died just three months after his surgery. Naik's mother subsequently admitted him to the Shri Sharada Devi School for the Blind in Shimoga. That was where he got his first experience of cricket. "I remember there were some children hitting the ball and running," he says. "I was laughing loudly at them because it seemed so strange to me. But a coach asked me to try the game and eventually I found out that I was quite good at it."
While he was talented, money was always in short supply. "I remember I would play cricket without even a pair of chappals," he says. "But it was so much fun that I did it anyway."
Naik was encouraged by his mother. "She didn't understand what any of it was about, but she told me that I had to make my goal to play at the highest level," Naik says. She would never see her son reach those heights though, passing away when he was 12.
Naik kept progressing. In 2000, while playing a school tournament, he scored 136 in 46 balls, which got him noticed and he was selected for the Karnataka team.
Naik represents the team in the B2 category. There are three categories of players -- B1, B2 and B3 -- in cricket for the blind. B1 comprises players with complete blindness, while B2 and B3 are for partially blind and partially sighted individuals. A team must have four individuals in B1, three in B2 and four in B3 categories.
He was picked for the Indian team in 2002 and subsequently became an integral part of the squad. Naik has played 63 matches across all formats and scored 32 centuries and 15 half-centuries. He was made captain of the Indian team in 2010 and played a crucial role in winning the T20 World Cup in 2012, scoring 134 runs in only 58 balls in the final against England.
Despite the success, Naik admits his choice of career isn't the easiest. "We don't get a lot of sponsorships," he says. "We still haven't got affiliation to the BCCI either. All the other blind cricket organisations have got affiliations to their national federations but us. I hope after my award the BCCI will give us affiliation."
Naik won't be playing in the 2017 T20 World Cup to be held later this month. "I had some fatigue issues because of which I had to get a health check-up," he says. "So I wasn't fully fit for this edition. I will only serve as a mentor to the Indian team. But I will be back on the field myself soon."
Naik has a full life away from the game. He works as a sports coordinator for Samarthanam, an NGO, and is the father of two young daughters -- age four and one. While they aren't old enough to play cricket, Naik hopes they will be interested in it. He also plans to bring them to Delhi for the Padma Awards ceremony. It's a function he is looking forward to. "It will be good to meet Virat once again," he says.