Baseball comes to the rescue for South Korean cricket at Asian Games

Cricket novices South Korea are banking on professional baseball stars to convert home runs into sixes and boundaries at the Twenty20 competition in the Asian Games.

A man waves a South Korean flag during the Twenty20 competition in the Asian Games. REUTERS/Issei Kato
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INCHEON, South Korea // Cricket novices South Korea are banking on professional baseball stars to convert home runs into sixes and boundaries at the Twenty20 competition in the Asian Games.

As many as seven of the 11 men that played -- and lost -- the opening match against Malaysia on Friday came from baseball, a passion in a country which won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The Korean cricket team was assembled especially for the Games less than two years ago. Some took to the sport just six months back. Baseball suddenly found itself contributing to developing a cricket culture.

South Korea wanted cricket taken off the Games programme as it knew nothing about it. The Olympic Council of Asia had to step in to remind the organisers that it was a popular sport across the continent.

So the organisers found a patch of land near the main stadium in Incheon for a cricket field, but the bigger worry was finding players.

The domestic league features mainly expatriates from South Asia, but the Korean Cricket Association had to field local players to meet qualification rules and turned to baseball to help.

Englishman Julien Fountain, who had previously served on the coaching staff of Pakistan and the West Indies, was taken on board to teach baseball stars cricketing skills.

Fountain, a member of the British baseball team in the run-up to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, is a firm believer that baseball players are well-suited to Twenty20 cricket.

“The basic skills are the same, one only needs to harness baseball talent to cricket,” Fountain told AFP at the Yeonhui cricket field.

“These guys have picked up cricket fast. They have come on dramatically over the last year, its just that they lack experience of the nuances of the game.”

Fountain first noticed the Korean cricket team on their learning trip to Sri Lanka earlier this year where he was holidaying -- and was greatly impressed.

“They swung hard and kept landing the ball out of the park,” he recalled. “Big hits came so naturally to them. They had the makings of perfect Twenty20 players.”

Fountain, who joined the squad in April, made the players watch Indian Premier League matches on their computer screens to give them a feel of big-time Twenty20 cricket and teach then quirky shots, including the switch hit and reverse sweeps.

Sri Lankan batsman Tillakaratne Dilshan, whose trademark scoop played over the wicket-keeper’s head on bended knees, attracted plenty of attention. ‘Dilscoop’ soon became ‘teugjong’, the Korean word for scoop.

The Koreans had their own unique way of learning cricket. A left-hander, who could hit the ball hard but often missed the line of straight deliveries, found his own solution to the problem.

He turned into a right-hander and the good-length ball was soon met with a straight bat.

Several batsmen still take stance with the bat raised over their shoulders, baseball style. And bowlers conntinue to lift their arm just before delivering the ball.

Fountain said he told the players that the swinging bat, a la baseball, could prove disastrous in cricket. But he insisted the bowling skills were nearly the same as pitching.

“You just don’t throw the ball like in baseball. But if you take away the run-up, the pitching mechanic is the same as bowling with the front leg stretched forward during delivery.”

Much to Fountain’s disappointment, the Koreans lost to Malaysia by eight wickets after being restricted to 71-8 in an innings that contained just two boundaries and no sixes.

“It was their first big game, so they were understandably nervous,” said Fountain. “But the experience will do them good. Hopefully we will do better against China on Monday.”

Asked if the players, especially those who have come from baseball, will continue with cricket once the Games were over, Fountain said: “I don’t know. But I hope they do, because there is a lot of good talent out there.”

ACC CEO says Oceania will boost cricket at games

The chief executive of the Asian Cricket Council says the prospect of Oceania countries participating in the Asian Games would boost the quality of cricket in the continental event.

Syed Ashraful Haque told The Associated Press on Saturday the game “will get a big boost if Australia and New Zealand were to play” as their presence will enhance the stature of the tournament.

Haque said that could lead non-cricket nations in the region to develop the game in their own countries.

Olympic Council of Asia president Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah said last week that Oceania countries have been allowed to participate in the 2017 Indoor Asian Games in the Turkmenistan capital of Ashgabat and also indicated that participation in future Asian Games was possible.

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