They don’t get the kindest of introductions. Early into the 2018 Asian Games, an administrative contingent member was pithily dismissive of the Pakistan baseball team: “Jo cricket mein naakaam hote hain, wo yahan baseball mein chale aate hain.”
Engr. M Mohsin Khan, manager of the team, attempts to soften the barb. “70 – 80 percent of them are former cricketers. Unko pata chal jaata hai kounse level pe hain. If they are on 3rd or 4th level, they understand nothing’s happening. Then we encourage them to dump cricket. Whoever comes we snap them,” he says. In essence, baseball in Pakistan swoops in on the pieces of broken cricket dreams.
Arsalan Jamshed has a Youtube video of his 14 sixes struck during a knock of 117 in the Ugoki Tournament. “Financially I couldn’t continue in cricket, though I was physically fit,” he says. At Jakarta, the sensational starting shortstop and Pakistan’s leadoff hitter, donning No 9, transforms into a firecracker.
Extremely athletic and terrifically dangerous, Arsalan bunts and steals with such authority, he wants to be seen as the fiercest hitter in Jakarta. “I am the first batter, and I got the home run against Thailand when we won. I am the main backbone, and had the first strike in the Thailand match too,” he proclaims, swatting away his cricket past from Gujrat in Pakistan.
Pakistan upset Thailand, predictably beat Indonesia, and had Hong Kong’s Canadian coach Tom Valcke make copious notes in order to deal with the big hitters. “He stole second, then stole third base in same inning earlier against Indonesia. He’ll get a ball, pass it on, and bang his glove a couple of times. He’s got sizzle, and a game to back it up,” Valcke says.
In the video of a local league, Arsalan, one of the 8 Pakistani Army baseball players here, is seen clearing his left leg and batting with outrageous technique for those 14 6s. He shuffles restively, spitting away full-throttle between balls. He doesn’t cross the half-pitch after connecting, and waits for the non-striker to come and finish a fist-bump.
A baseball scout in the Pakistan Army spotted him, and trained him in baseball, and the swag from cricket has carried forward into baseball as has the mad hitting.
The other interesting character is Ubaid Ullah, an infielder who is strong on the blocks, and swings it back hard, throwing it in hard at second base with intent. Coming from Swabi in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Ubaid too has made peace with his own cricketing past.
“I used to be a good player of my zilla. I played alongside Junaid Khan in 2005-6. But now as armyman I’m happy to serve in baseball,” he says, coming from the Pak army team of national champions.
A bulk of the team comes from Swabi, though other smaller cities like Vehari, Charsadda, Chiniot, Mianwali, Okara are where Pakistan is scouting talent from. “Unfortunately there’s no-one in our baseball team from Karachi, my hometown,” the manager says. “Karachi mein sab chaalaak hote hai. Cricket mein paisa lagaate hai,” he says.
It was in Karachi, in fact, where Valcke went around 20 years ago as part of Major League’s proselytization of baseball in Pakistan. “The only place to train them was a cricket pitch. Pakistan has passion for cricket the way Canadians have passion for hockey. And there was hesitation – either they had no interest in baseball or they were just happy with cricket. But I’m proud how far their program has come along,” he adds.
Typical converting problems included training those masters of the high-arm bowling action to legitimately pitch at 90 degrees elbow-shoulder angle. “They preferred straight arm, and kept doing what they do,” he adds.
Valcke had moved around Pakistan secure in the knowledge that he was “always a big guy and not scared”. There might be some jitters on behalf of his Hong Kong team though two decades later. “They always had skills and strength. But I’ve told my team here – don’t get into a fight with Pakistan, they’ll beat the crap out of you. These are big, strong,” he says, adding that there is an implacable swagger about the side that’s not often seen in Asian baseball. What he suspects might’ve rubbed off from cricket.
“Even today the Pakistan guys have muscled past a rival, and they get here first and are looking at dugouts and pumping fists. You see that a lot my side of the pond, in Americans. But Americans, Peurto Ricans can back it up, I’m not sure if Pakistan can,” he says.
The fist pumping, roaring to the dugout and a general emotional storm that the Pakistan team works up, has clearly psyched the coach. “I’m telling you today, tomorrow I’m gonna try rattle them. Steal, delay steal, try shake them up. Only thing they lack is in-game experience. The instinct you learn only from playing. I’m gonna play on that vulnerability tomorrow,” Valcke says, not sounding entirely convinced if his team can soak it all up.
Pakistan have come here with a clear goal. “We are nowhere near Asia’s Top 4 – Korea, Taipei, China, Japan. But we’ve come here for the 5th, and no-one can stop us,” Mohsin says.
It’s a physically intimidating Pakistani team — Valcke reckons some of them are too muscular for the swing to be very fluid. Swing is trunk, and hips aligned with left shoulder, he says adding that arms just whip the ball on contact.
“We are going to pitch it inside like crazy. I don’t think even if their mechanics are solid they can get around the inside one fast. That takes supreme,” he says, issuing the final threat of letting loose curveballs.
Pakistan also looks like a formidable side because of their freakishly tall catcher — a 6’2” man, who holds his own. “With all that bending, you’d think he’d damaged his knee. But he has a great catcher’s arm, and doesn’t throw like conventional catcher either,” Valcke adds.
Pakistan is growing baseball in FATA region, where children from poorer homes are being trained for a mini under-12 league. “We finished 4th in Korea in u/12s,” Mohsin says, adding that lack of sponsorship is a cause of misery.
“Army plays both cricket and baseball, but baseball is bigger. But across the country there’s a problem. If Pakistan play England or India at cricket, who’ll watch baseball?” he questions.
Usman Muhammad is a veteran of two Asian Games, both times Pakistan finishing fifth. “I’m Pakistan’s best pitcher,” he says, adding he’s friends with national team cricketers who keep tabs on what’s happening in baseball. “I’ve played leather ball cricket with Mohd Irfan. We play baseball in Bahria Town in Lahore, but yes, we’d love a stadium of our own,” he says, coming from Multan.
The team is travelling with the 14-year-old baseball twins Syed Ali Shah and Syed Muhammad Shah, while Ihsan Ullah, who comes from the same town as Waqar Younis, says while he loved batting as a child, pitching incessantly in baseball, has taken a toll on his shoulders.
Says Valcke: “Their indvidual skill sets are rough around edges, but complete. But collectively they play a good round of baseball.”