Page last updated at 21:03 GMT, Thursday, 13 August 2009 22:03 UK

Pakistan blind cricketers denied UK visa

By Aleem Maqbool
BBC News, Islamabad

Pakistan's blind cricketers. File photo
Pakistan's cricketers are worried they will not be able to defend their title

Earlier this week it was members of a pipe band from Pakistan that were denied visas to travel to Britain, now it is the country's blind cricket team.

Pakistan's blind cricketers are the reigning world champions. The squad members have just finished attending a nine-day training camp, ahead of what was supposed to be a four-match UK tour (on the invitation of Blind Cricket England and Wales).

But the team's visa applications have been rejected.

The UK Border Agency says it did not have sufficient evidence to be convinced the players would return to Pakistan once the tour was over.

'Hurt and insulted'

Sitting in his Islamabad home, beside a table packed with sporting trophies, is the chairman of the Pakistan Blind Cricket Council, and former blind cricket captain Syed Sultan Shah.

It feels like we are being denied our rights
Syed Sultan Shah, Chairman of the Pakistan Blind Cricket Council

He says he is stunned by the decision: "We provided letters from our council, and from the Pakistan Cricket Board, who confirmed they would cover all costs," he says.

"The English Cricket Board supplied our names and passport numbers. The Pakistan ministry of sport gave us official leave to travel. We all signed affidavits to say we would return, and if we did not, our families would be penalised. What more could we do?

"When we toured the UK in 2002 and 2006, nobody stayed behind. We just want to play cricket."

Mr Shah says the players had all taken leave from work, and that hundreds of thousands of rupees (thousands of pounds) had been spent on the training camp, new kit and on the visa applications themselves.

"But it's not the money. It feels like we are being denied our rights. We are all very hurt, very disturbed and feel very insulted by this," he says.

No apology

The UK Border Agency insists its ruling is justified.

"We will make no apology for maintaining tough border controls created to prevent abuse of the immigration system," it states.

"If applications do not contain the necessary evidence and we are not satisfied individuals will return at the end of their visit their visas will be refused."

The statement adds that "UKBA is committed to facilitating sporting, cultural and arts exchanges".

Eighteen of the 21 Pakistani players and officials that applied to travel, including the manager and assistant manager, are totally or partially blind.

Many were part of the team that won the World Cup on home soil in 2006, at a tournament in which England also competed.

"As a blind person, playing cricket changed my life," says Mr Shah. "I can't tell you how much confidence it gives us, and what it took to win the World Cup."

"But this has really been a big blow. And we are worried we won't be able to defend our title in the future."

The next World Cup is scheduled to be held in England.

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