Deaf Awareness Week Blog – Jake Oakes and Umesh Valjee

British Sign Language will accompany selected in-stadium announcements for the first time at elite cricket matches in England and Wales this summer. This Deaf Awareness Week, the ECB sat down with two stars from the England Deaf side, Jake Oakes and Umesh Valjee, who will feature on big screens throughout the Vitality Blast and potentially the LV= Insurance Ashes Series.

ECB: BSL is set to appear on big screens during elite matches this year – how significant is that for the Deaf community? 

JO: It’s excellent and marks the next step in accessibility and visibility within sport! There are thousands of deaf people out there, some of whom will love cricket, it’s so important that they feel seen and valued by game that they love and are ultimately part of 

UV: This is massive for the deaf community. It’s the first step and hopefully it will grow and grow and become more mainstream. 


ECB: How else could the matchday experience at cricket stadiums be improved for deaf people? 

JO: Having BSL on the screens is one step to improving the matchday experience for deaf folks like me. I would also welcome deaf awareness training for those who staff the day, including bar staff and stewards, so it isn’t a great effort for deaf fans to find their seats or even to order a round. There is also a great deal that could be done with match commentary, such as live subtitling, BSL commentary, or even live lyrics of the latest Barmy Army chants on big screens. 

UV: Deaf fans in stadiums don’t have the same access to the entertainment as hearing people. We miss information and announcements that come over the PA. So with Sign Language being on screens this is a very positive step forward to get some accessibility for all. My vision for the future is to have full BSL live streamed on the big screen so all deaf fans can have the same access as hearing people. 

ECB: What was it like to record the videos at Vitality Blast Content Day? Having seen some of the outtakes, it looked like a fun day. Were the county players you recorded alongside easy to work with? 

JO: I have never done anything like it, so felt like a deer in headlights for the first few shots, but it was an unbelievably fun day and I am very grateful to the ECB for facilitating it. I even had the opportunity to try on some of the county mascot heads! The county players were class: welcoming and very easy to work with, especially as there were some moments where we struggled to sync the BSL in time with the Spoken English.  

UV: It was the best feeling, to be involved. Being the first deaf person ever in cricket history to be on the big screen would be beyond everyone's wildest dream, but, more importantly for all the deaf community, hopefully this will be the first of many. It was hilarious shooting the 'soundbites' with the pros, the boys at the back were taking the mickey out of the players speaking in front of camera, so much.


ECB: How would your life change if more people could use BSL? 

JO: I use both BSL and spoken English and consider myself privileged to be able to use BSL. As BSL is a gorgeous and deep language in its own right, I am often able to express greater meaning in BSL than in English! I would definitely welcome people choosing to learn BSL; it would benefit them as much as it would me and my fellow deafies. That said, if learning a whole new language isn’t within your capabilities, I would still encourage you to pick up the basics of deaf awareness or even the basics of BSL, there are plenty of resources out there. 

UV: It would be such a massive benefit for all deaf communities. If more people used BSL, whether it’s just the alphabet or some basic signing to start with, it would be brilliant. 


ECB: What about in the recreational game? Is cricket easy to access for deaf people in England and Wales? How could access be improved? 

JO: Aye, my experience within the recreational game has been mixed. There have been clubs who viewed it [me being deaf] solely as a means to get more funding, and other clubs who ignored it and left me to deal with it. My greatest experience has been with my current club, Streatham and Marlborough Cricket Club, who met me at where I was and simply just asked what I needed, and then provided it with kindness and humour. 

At the end of the day it is simple: it’s a case of working together to find a solution that works for the club and player, rather than any top-down grand gestures. The recreational game is a game ran by incredible volunteers and it is through their everyday kind actions such as reading a blog on deaf awareness online, or asking how I wish to define my deaf, that will improve wider access. 

UV: Not everyone has good access at their cricket clubs. Some deaf people can speak and hear well with aids, compared to someone who's profoundly deaf, who might struggle to communicate with hearing cricketers. Many of these deaf players can feel left out, or sit in a corner while the rest of their team are batting or at the bar. 

As for me, I've played in a couple of cricket clubs for 33 years. It’s been a struggle, but I have just had to get on with it, and live with it.  From my experience, though, I have had cricketers who have tried to communicate in their own ways, such as gesturing and speaking clearly and slowly to make sure I understood, which I really appreciated. 

England Deaf player Jake Oates on set during the Vitality Blast Content Day at Edgbaston

ECB: Do you think there are enough role models for deaf or hearing-impaired children? And how does it feel to be one yourself? 

JO: There are some amazing role models out there ranging from Strictly champions, Rose Ayling-Ellis, to professional rugby players, Jodie Ounsley, to Oscar winning actors, Troy Kotsur. The visibility of deaf people and stories within mainstream culture in recent years has been incredible and I really hope that this continues, as it is so important to tell our deaf young people, and importantly those supporting them that they can do anything.  

It feels very strange to be a role model myself – I think back to my early cricketing career and just how important it was to see the likes of Umesh Valjee and Mike O’Mahoney to show me what is capable as a deaf person. I am so grateful to them for that.  

UV: There are not so many role models around deaf sports as there should be. Each sport should have done more to promote those people who could have been role models, to inspire the next generation, by raising their profiles, getting more publicity to get the recognition, but haven't quite managed that, for whatever reason. As for me, I feel it’s my duty to be a role model to inspire the next generation. 


ECB: Turning to your cricket career, how long have you been playing for the England Deaf team? 

JO: I was incredibly lucky and joined the setup in my early teenage years and have been around the team for over 12 years now. My first tour was to South Africa, I also played in the DICC trophy final in Dubai, and most recently was part of the team who brought back the Deaf Ashes for the first time in our history.  

UV: My debut for the national team was in 1991/92 when we had the first tour to Australia. That makes it, 32 years playing for England in the deaf team ! I'm definitely feeling old!  


ECB: When are the next England Deaf fixtures? 

JO & UV: We have various domestic games around the country this summer, which are all serving as prep for the Deaf World Cup which is due to take place this December in Qatar.  

Umesh Valjee bats during last year's Deaf Ashes Series against Australia in Brisbane. Photo - Albert Perez, Getty Images for Cricket Australi

ECB: The Disability Premier League goes from strength to strength – are you looking forward to this year’s tournament? 

JO: Aye – I am a Pirate again and can’t wait to put my skills to the test against the very best disabled cricketers out there 

UV: I’m really looking forward to the DPL this year as it’s growing and getting bigger and better. It's very challenging to compete with the best disability cricketers out there who have different abilities. They are a very talented group of cricketers who want to shine in the DPL and get into the national sides – it's a pathway for them to step up, open door and get into the national side – a dream for anyone! 


ECB: It’s the Ashes this year for the England men and women – but you had your own success down under last year with the England Deaf team – give us some reflections?  

JO: The Deaf Ashes has been in existence for over 20 years, and we have never beaten the Aussies. So, it felt pretty great to do it at their place and to bring the urn back on the plane! It was particularly special to do it with a great bunch of folks which included the coaches, managers, physios – it belongs to each of us.  

UV: The Ashes series is the pinnacle for all nations, the oldest competition in the history of cricket.  Our biggest rivalry is with the Aussies. I have been involved in six Ashes series, and there has been so much history between the two deaf teams.  We are very competitive cricketers, there is always a lot of sledging, and 'in their face' attitudes.  It's a war on the pitch but we're all good mates off the pitch - as it should be! And more importantly I've made many good friends with them over the years.