Andrew Park was experiencing sensory overload. He didn't know what had hit him. The captain of Australia's deaf cricket team had worn a few on the body throughout the World Cup, but nothing quite like this. There were bright-eyed Indian kids coming at him from every angle. Beaming smiles. Huge hugs. It felt like hundreds of them. He did the only thing he could think to do, and embraced it.
"Being deaf can be challenging in a way that all your other senses are heightened," Park says. "So when the whole school swarmed me, it was overwhelming, but in the best way."
He looked around and tried to really take in what he was seeing. Here he was, captain of the Australian cricket team at a World Cup, and here were all his teammates, going through the same experience, as hundreds of deaf and hard of hearing kids came from everywhere at the New Delhi school, their enthusiasm and sheer joy completely infectious.
"I lost time trying to give everyone my attention," he remembers. "I lost count how many photos they asked me to take with them, which I very happily obliged.
"It was incredible – I was trying to communicate with these kids in another language and using hand gestures, everyone fumbling through conversation, but we were connected over our love for cricket. It was a mind-blowing experience."
Despite the best efforts and intentions of those involved, including many volunteers with Deaf Cricket Australia, the fortunes of the national men's deaf and hard of hearing team had been struggling since 2012. The sport has a rich history among the deaf in Australia; Melbourne Deaf Cricket Club is believed to be the oldest sporting club for deaf people in the world. But the Deaf Cricket Australia volunteers needed support in raising funds and sponsors to provide opportunities for their players. Cricket Australia (CA) had come on board in a limited fashion across the past 20 years or so, supplying limited support, but the sport was in poor health at the elite level.
That was until mid-2017, when a Memorandum of Understanding between CA and Deaf Cricket Australia proved the shot in the arm needed for deaf cricket at a national level. CA’s Commercial team worked alongside the Diversity and Inclusion team to gain the support of Commonwealth Bank, who committed to providing the largest investment in Women’s Sport and Diversity by announcing a $15m three-year deal. The upshot was two-fold – a huge investment in the women’s game, and cricket becoming the first non-Paralympic national sport to fully fund their national disability teams.
The financial boon came hot on the heels of the inaugural National Cricket Inclusion Championships (NCIC) earlier that same year, a CA initiative that invited states to enter teams in three categories: Blind and low Vision, Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and Cricketers with an Intellectual Disability. The tournament was a huge success, selected as a finalist for the 2017 Australian Disability Awards, and in 2018, it expanded to include 15 teams and more than 200 players.
In April this year, a deaf and hard of hearing squad was selected based largely on NCIC performances for a two-week camp at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane. There they were exposed to world-class coaching, visited by Test spinner Nathan Lyon, and began putting plans in place for Australia's return to the Deaf World Cup.
When the call went out for a head coach, there could not have been a neater fit than Jason Mathers. An employee at Cricket Victoria and a mentor over the years of an array of teams, including the Japan national side, and Country Victoria, Mathers boasted a credential that must have sealed the deal; his mum, dad and only sibling – and older sister – were all deaf.
Mathers was duly appointed head coach in March and oversaw the training camp the following month in Brisbane. It is a role he feels is "in my DNA", and one that is extremely personal for him, given his lifelong association with the deaf community.
"When this role came up, it was too good to pass up," he says. "So I put in to try and get it, and I was lucky enough. It definitely has a high personal connection for me, especially with my mother recently passing, in July-August. She knew I was doing it, so it's really personal, that's for sure."
Mathers was aware that the challenge awaiting Australia in the recently-concluded World Cup was a daunting one. The national side had been off the international scene for six years, and there was a vacuum of experience at that level within the squad. So instead of placing pressure on the now, he and his support staff encouraged the players to look at the tournament as the beginning of a journey.
"We only had three guys who had played for Australia before – Adam Wood, Luke Trudgett and Andrew Park," Mathers explains. "So it was a real learning experience for most of them.
"But this is the start of a five-year plan.
"We're really looking to build the program, and get these players up to international standard, which they are skills-wise, it's just the competition now, and understanding how difficult it is, because the other sides are representing their countries as well, and they're as desperate as we are to win, and at the moment they've got more experience at that level than we do.
"But it won't be too long until we're right back up there. With the support of Cricket Australia and Commonwealth Bank, along with Deaf Cricket Australia, we've been able to reinvigorate the program, and it's really onwards and upwards from here."
The Australians travelled to India for the Deaf World Cup better equipped than ever. Mathers and his playing squad were accompanied by two interpreters, a doctor, a physio, a media manager, and CA's Diversity & Inclusion Specialist, Aaron Dragwidge.
Mathers also signs to a basic level, while Park, the skipper, signs and speaks, making him another key communicator within the squad.
Dragwidge had watched with interest the leaps and bounds CA's Indigenous program had taken in recent years, and identified a model that could be replicated.
"We set ourselves three goals," he says. "The first was to create a really positive, inclusive environment, because there's a big diversity within the team – guys who can speak but can't sign, guys who can sign but can't speak. So communication's a massive challenge.
"The second goal is to be the number one team in the world within five years.
"And the third goal is to produce a BBL or first-class player.
"From what we've seen so far, we're really confident we'll be able to achieve all three over the next five years."
There was also an emphasis on the cricket itself. On one level, the playing squad was set for an experience they could savour for the rest of their lives on a human level, and the idea of getting these men out of their comfort zones and into the unfamiliar was certainly a valued aspect of the tour. On another level, they were representing their country on a fully-funded tour; results, and improvements over time, would help legitimise the cause.
"We've been doing all the right things to make sure we're consistent in everything we do," says 34-year-old Park, who led Australia for the first time at the World Cup.
"We want everyone in the team to keep developing their cricket – to go back home, think about what we've learned and the key areas to work in with their clubs and their state associations.
"Then we can start thinking about the National Inclusion Championships (in January), and I'm really excited to see how the boys will develop their cricket over the next two months."
Australia missed the semi-finals on net run-rate, but the tournament contained no shortage of highlights. Zac King took a hat-trick on debut amid a haul of 5-20 against eventual champions Sri Lanka. David Melling hammered 112 from just 63 balls against Nepal, and finished second on the tournament run-scorers list. Park batted the whole tournament with a suspected hairline fracture in his forearm, suffered during a warm-up match in the build-up. And the team won a thrilling Super Over match after tying with South Africa.
"Afterward, it was the first time in the tournament that we sang the team song, and we all screamed at the top of our voices," Park says. "The passion, emotion and the proudness that I saw on the boy’s faces, that's something I won't forget."
The Australians also immersed themselves in the cultural experience of India. As well as paying a visit to the deaf school in New Delhi, they threw themselves into a Bollywood dancing session, sprung on them by team management on the day of the opening ceremony.
Then there was a surprise meeting with legendary Aussie quick Brett Lee, who is also an ambassador for Cochlear in India. Many of the playing group have been fitted with Cochlear implants, and they soaked up every word Lee had to say.
"It was a thrill for all the players, including the coaching staff to be honest," Mathers says. "He spoke for about an hour, then did a great Q&A with all the players.
"He was really engaging, he shared some really powerful stuff about his own journey, his family, his cricket – he was really giving of his time."
When he was travelling four hours a day on his return journey to a school that would facilitate his learning style, and undergoing intense speech therapy, Park had never contemplated playing cricket for Australia. While he played cricket in high school, he was also battling with a debilitating feeling of isolation, a common problem among the deaf and hard of hearing due to limited awareness and accessibility.
Like any other kid his vintage, he remembers cheering for that famous Australia A one-day side against the Aussies themselves in the summer of 1994-95. In the backyard, he would be one of his heroes – Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh, Brett Lee, Shane Warne – with bat or ball, and fling himself into the pool to take classic catches with the tennis ball.
A decade ago, Park filled in for the Deaf Cricket Club in a match in Sydney, and never looked back. Ten summers on, he is still playing club cricket and is now his nation's captain.
He has a simple piece of advice for any deaf or hard of hearing people who feel restricted by their condition.
"Embrace your deafness," he says. "There is an awesome community out there waiting for you to be involved and to meet new lifelong friends."
Mathers is already eagerly anticipating the National Cricket Inclusion Championships in Geelong next month, with hopes his national squad will have made improvements in the areas they had set out as they parted ways following the World Cup in India.
And as the only hearing member of his immediate family, he knows from first-hand experience how much the deaf community enjoys a social occasion.
"They love to catch up at the Inclusion Championships," Mathers says. "The deaf community is a very social community – they love getting together, talking, having a drink and having a good time together … and they use sport as a vehicle to have a good time.
"The World Cup was a great vehicle to show that deaf cricket is just another game of cricket, it's a really high standard and it's great to watch.
"The main obstacle for young deaf and hard of hearing cricketers is access to coaching. If we could just get coaches out there to roll their sleeves up, have a go and take on the challenge of coaching these guys, I think they would find it very rewarding."