* A Class-4 dropout, his mother employed as a cleaner, Jabir Ali used to spend his nights under the Gariahat flyover in Kolkata.
* Soni Khatoon’s sack-tent near Calcutta Port didn’t have electricity, and the nearest drinking-water tap was 15 minutes away on bicycle.
* The son of a rickshaw-puller, Mohammad Waris had to leave school after Class 3 to work at a local cap-manufacturing unit from 10 am to 10 pm, earning Rs 200 per week.
TODAY, JABIR Ali, 14, can’t hide his excitement, as he talks about learning how to negotiate a formal dinner. Soni Khatoon, 15, wants you to know that Lord’s is the home of cricket. Mohammad Waris, 13, is back in school, in Class 8, and wants to become an allrounder like England’s Ben Stokes.
Then there are Millie Singh, Ayushman Choudhury, Anjali Paswan, Tarak Sardar and their teammates. Starting April 30, all of them will represent one of the two teams from India — Team North India and Team South India — at the first ever Street Child Cricket World Cup in England.
“Earlier, we would search all day a free meal. Now, we attend martial arts and dance classes, and undergo leadership training, apart from playing cricket here. And when we go back to our families, we take our lessons to them,” says Soni.
Here, for Soni, is the Aditya Barun Barman Academy at the Rabindra Sarobar complex in the southern part of the city. That’s where Team North India is training for the tennis-ball tournament that will host 10 teams from nine countries, with the final at Lord’s on May 7.
Being held before the ICC World Cup in England — May 30 to July 14 — the tournament is organised by Street Child United, which has previously conducted football tournaments and Olympic events for street children. This is its first foray into cricket — eight-a-side mixed teams, four boys and four girls. Team North India has all its players from Kolkata — four each from Save the Children and Hope Kolkata Foundation.
“This is because, when the selection process was announced, both Save the Children and Hope Kolkata Foundation had applied along with other organisations. We realised that the Foundation is based in Kolkata and we, too, have our operations here. So it was a natural choice for us… Location-wise and strategically, it was more convenient,” says Save the Children coordinator Moumita Saha.
The first step, however, was not easy. “Many of the children were earning, and we faced a lot of resistance. Hard counselling and persuasion were required to convince the parents. We told them that if you resist, the cycle of poverty would continue,” she says.
For Pulak Das, the coach, the whole experience is “fascinating”. “The biggest takeaway for these kids is that the whole process has helped them realise that they don’t have to be on the wrong side of the law to achieve something,” he says.
The selection process started last November. The Hope Foundation initially picked 26 children followed by a shortlist of 10, eight and eventually four. Save the Children, meanwhile, shortlisted 11 other children and trimmed its list to four. The training started in January, and is now held four days a week — Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday — from 2.30 pm to 5.30 pm.
As for the children, the cricket education has taught them some life lessons, too. “We now have a lot of respect for the girls and their cricket skills. They are very good,” says Ayushman Chowdhary, 14, one of the eight players in Team North India.
“Earlier the boys used to tell us we can’t play cricket. Now they encourage us to play more,” says Soni.
There was has been another unexpected bonus too — a meeting with Sourav Ganguly, who is the India ambassador for the tournament.
“Sourav uncle told us that the girls are more powerful in this team,” says Millie, 18, with a big smile. “We are now counting the days for our first foreign trip on a jet plane.”