Steffan Nero: Record breaking Australian blind cricketer to find a ‘family’ in the sport.




CNN

Growing up visually impaired, school was not easy for Australian Steffan Nero. She remembers struggling with anxiety and being “very quiet”, “lonely” and “probably weird too”.

His life changed when he discovered visually impaired sports, especially cricket.

“In fact, I was a different person when I was with other visually impaired people. I was actually a very kind of person, very energetic,” Nero told CNN Sport.

“You are part of a team. You have all had the same experiences. You can all talk to each other, of course, especially if you have older players as well… They have lessons (to teach you) about how things should be done.

“It’s all one big family. You’re all trying to help each other, push each other, but also help each other. You have a brotherhood… create bonds with your friends that will last forever.”

This brotherhood helped Nero establish himself as an international athlete in multiple sports and in June, he etched his name in sporting history when he scored a record number of runs in blind cricket.

Nero scored 309 runs against New Zealand, breaking the record of 262 set by Pakistan’s Masood Jan in the 1998 Blind Cricket World Cup.

His record-breaking effort was featured in national and international news, and that’s when the achievement began to sink in for Nero.

“I always say: ‘Take the first step’. It will probably be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. But once it happens and you’re in that kind of group… that community, I think things are much easier and it can be a very rewarding experience.

“Especially in Australia, so there’s a lot of sport available now. There’s goalball, there’s tennis, soccer, cricket, AFL, golf.

Nero was born with two visual impairments.

He has a rare inherited condition called achromatopsia, which causes sensitivity to bright light and loss of color vision. According to the UK’s National Health Service, it affects approximately one in 30,000 to 40,000 people.

Nero was also born with congenital nystagmus, which is an involuntary movement of the eye, meaning he struggles to “focus on anything”. [and] everything is very vague.’

Because of these conditions, playing sports at certain times of the day – with specific lighting conditions, for example when the sun is low – can be particularly difficult for Nero, who has difficulty focusing his eyes.

Nero remembers that they got into the sport when he played cricket with his father in the park. In the end, however, they had to stop him, because he could not see the ball well enough.

He tried other sports instead; for a few years he practiced karate, goalball – a Paralympic sport – and played football, representing Australia in many of them.

But it wasn’t until two of his friends suggested that he try blind cricket that he really discovered the sport.

Nero takes a shot during an International Cricket Inclusion Series match.

Playing cricket was pure enjoyment for Nero at first, although adapting to a completely new sport is difficult.

Blind Cricket differs from the high-capacity version in several ways. The teams are made up of visually impaired players, the ball is made of hard plastic with ball bearings inside, the players can hear the ball and the bowlers do it under arm rather than arm.

Nero recalls a training session where one of the more established players, Lindsay Heaven, took him under his wing.

“He taught me a lot about different shots and he taught me a lot about life,” explains Nero.

“And he said, ‘If you push yourself really hard, you can do well in sports.’ And that kind of encouragement and support pushed me to train more and more.”

It wasn’t sailing, though. Nero missed out on selection for the 2015–16 Ashes series against England; something he says he used as motivation going forward.

That motivation helped make Nero an international regular in Australia.

In 2017, he was flown to Australia to train his batting technique under the tutelage of Pakistani coaches, who tried to “replicate players from the world’s two leading countries (India and Pakistan),” according to Cricket Australia.

Nero throws the ball back during an International Cricket Inclusion Series match.

And in June, all that training paid off in a record-setting afternoon.

Nero says of the game against New Zealand, he was just starting “as you would obviously do in any game, trying to put your team in a strong position”. It wasn’t until he hit 200 points that he realized he might be onto something special.

Not reaching 309, surpassing the Australian record of 222 held by Eugene Negruk, Nero recalled the fatigue he felt afterwards.

“I was walking and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I didn’t realize it because I was in the zone,” he said.

“What people don’t realize about visual impairment is… you actually use a lot more energy trying to concentrate on things. Usually, a lot of people have a lot of headaches and stuff, and they get pretty tired after squinting for a long time.”

Gaining coverage from some of the world’s leading media outlets was a highlight for Nero because of the positive impact it could have on other disabled athletes and changing people’s perspective on the abilities of disabled athletes.

“Most people were very surprised or were like, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t realize there was this game and disability sports,'” he said.

“I think it helped change people’s minds a little bit about what disability means, because sometimes when you mention blindness or visual impairment, people usually assume the worst, which obviously means very withdrawn, confused, very quiet. . But , obviously, it’s not like that.”

Nero remembers

Nero added: “And because people also see it in the mainstream media and maybe a friend with a disability or their son, daughter; people see it and say, ‘OK, it’s available there too’”.

Although the majority of the feedback received was positive, Nero admitted that there was a small minority who took to social media with negative comments. He saw some making jokes about the nature of disability cricket, while others tried to downplay the achievement, saying, “Oh, it’s just disability cricket.”

But Nero made sure he never let those few dissenters down. “That’s how it is in social networks. Everyone faces it, even if you don’t have a disability. So for me, after a while, I stopped even looking at the comments and stuff and just kind of ignored it and said, ‘You know what? I think this is a really positive thing for blind cricket, as well as for disabled people in Australia.”

Nero’s ambitions for his personal game are incredible, even after his record-breaking score. But his ambition for how much he can help the next generation of disability-aware cricket fans is astronomical.

“I also want to try to turn the game around and I want to help the young players who come forward, because of course they are the future of the game. Because I know how much it helped me growing up.”