Sri Lanka baseball looks for cracking debut at Asian Games | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka baseball looks for cracking debut at Asian Games

Akalanka Ranasinghe swings his bat
Akalanka Ranasinghe swings his bat

Cricket was his first love while schooling at Royal College. But one day while walking to the nets with bat in hand, Akalanka Ranasinghe spotted a group of guys playing something which looked like Elle, the popular and traditional bat-and-ball game mostly played in rural Sri Lanka.

“I was intrigued. Unlike in Elle, which has 16 fielders, there were only nine players on the field apart from the batter and it looked very interesting,” said the 33-year-old captain of the Sri Lanka men’s baseball squad bound for the Asian Games.

Akalanka was soon hooked on baseball. Three years after a schools’ league was first introduced to this country, in 1995, he was playing for Royal. He started as a pitcher but is an outfielder in the team today which will be breaking boundaries becoming the first baseball unit to represent Sri Lanka at an Asian Games.

It will be a tough slog for Akalanka and his teammates who will have to pre-qualify for the main competition at the August18-September 2 showpiece in Jakarta and Palembang.

Sri Lanka is currently ranked seventh in Asia – in South Asia they are second behind Pakistan even though they beat them twice last year – and as such will have to play against Thailand and Laos to book the final berth in the main competition at the Asian Games.

“There are two pools of four teams at the Asian Games. Pool A comprises Chinese-Taipei, South Korea, Hong Kong and hosts Indonesia. The other pool is made up of Japan, China and Pakistan with one spot vacant for the winners of the preliminaries between us, Thailand and Laos,”Akalanka explained. Japan are the clear favourites for gold.

Not only are they the top-ranked team in Asia but they are also the world number one, ahead of the United States. Chinese-Taipei are the other top-rated team being ranked fourth in the world. Sri Lanka’s world ranking is 40.

Baseball was first brought to Sri Lanka in the mid-80s when former minister Festus Perera was instrumental in getting the US embassy staff to introduce the game.

A dynamic lady from the American embassy, Lee Ann Ross took it upon herself to set a foundation for the game in the island and she got down a coach Jim Dimick to teach the game. Four teams were initially formed – Air Force, Shakthi Baseball Club, Gold Fish Baseball Club and Royal College. The staff at the US embassy played friendly games with these clubs at Havelock Park.

The first ever baseball tournament was staged in 1985 and in the next 33 years the game has gained a foothold. Today eight universities are involved and there are around 30 clubs mostly fielding players from the Forces. Around 25schools and two women’s teams also play baseball.

“The goal of the Sri Lanka Amateur Baseball and Softball Association is to be in the top five in Asia within the next five years and to be in the top-25 in the world in 10 years,” says Fazil Hussain, president of the association. Lacking a permanent roof over their heads as well as needing an annual budget of around Rs. 20 million – to fund development as well as take part in international events – the association which recently took onboard former CEO of Sri Lanka Rugby Priyantha Ekanayake to lead the administration, is looking for a lifeline from sponsors as well as the National Olympic Committee which has promised to give every affiliated federation a headquarters.

A credible performance at the Asian Games by former cricketer Akalanka and his team will go a long way towards achieving these goals. So what is harder, cricket or baseball, we ask Akalanka: “Both are equally difficult as hey each need a different set of skills. Both are also equally interesting”.