While cricket may inspire devotion bordering on the religious from much of its fan base, it’s another bat-and-ball sport that is set to take centre stage this week, as the 2019 West Asia Baseball Cup gets underway from 15-20 July at the Japan-Sri Lanka Friendship Baseball Ground in Diyagama. 

Primarily serving as a platform to showcase the sport and grow its popularity in the region, the tournament will see Sri Lanka defend the title it won in 2017 against teams from Pakistan, Iran, India, Bangladesh and Nepal. But more crucially, it will be a shop window for talent spotters from countries such as Japan and the USA, where baseball is hugely popular, to scout up and coming talent.

“It really is a corridor of opportunity,” explains Akalanka Ranasinghe, the manager and former captain of the Sri Lankan baseball team. “One of our players has been scouted by the MLB, and two more have been selected to play in the Japanese league. Going forward there’s great potential to be had in this sport. 

“I feel if we keep going in the right upward trajectory baseball can be more of a draw to young players than even cricket in the next 20 years or so.”

Ranasinghe’s optimism is far from misplaced. With 2000-2500 players actively taking up the sport across 22 schools and 31 clubs at present, Sri Lanka’s progress over the years has been slow yet steady; in fact, since taking up the sport in 1985 Sri Lanka’s only noteworthy achievement of any sort in baseball – a Bronze medal at the Asian Games – came in 2009. The team’s upward trajectory however quickened therein, culminating in their historic victory in the 2017 West Asian Baseball Cup, one which earned Sri Lanka the right to host this year’s tournament.

Though for the team’s progress to not plateau, Ranasinghe knows it’s critical that the next generation of young sportsmen are convinced of baseball’s career-making potential.

“If you look at the baseball timeline, for the first three decades our target was to win a medal, until finally they did it in 2009. And then until 2017 our goal, our motivation, was to win Gold. Now our goal is to maintain that standard. But the next generation should have even bigger aspirations.

“Some of the most developed nations in Asia play this sport. You can see how this will improve the chances of a player making a career in baseball. In fact it’s probably more lucrative for a young player from Sri Lanka to play baseball in Japan as opposed to even cricket in India.”

Such statements may seem outlandish, but are nevertheless backed up by the numbers. While there are only 8 teams in the IPL, Major League Baseball (MLB) in the US has 30 teams and the Japanese baseball league (NPB) has 12. This is not even taking into consideration the numerous spots available in the minor leagues.

Furthermore, at the top end of the game, baseball players can earn in the region of $20m-$30m a year. In cricket, by contrast, Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni are the only two cricketers who earn anywhere near that type of money.

Corridor of opportunity

For 18 year-old Chirath Karunaratne, on the verge of signing for a minor league outfit in the US, this is an opportunity he’s still trying to come to terms with. The young Sri Lankan pitcher was scouted following impressive performances for Sri Lanka in the Asian Championships in 2017, where at the ripe old age of 16 he was given the opportunity to pitch against fourth-ranked Chinese Taipei.

“The minor league scouts first took notice of me at a 2017 tournament against Chinese Taipei, who were ranked number four in the world at the time. Sri Lanka meanwhile were ranked 52nd. It was great opportunity for me to be able to pitch against some of the best batters in the world,” recalls Chirath of his debut tournament. 

“In that game, in the four innings I gave away just one run. That was a big deal for a nation ranked as low as Sri Lanka. It was that performance that caught the attention of England’s Extra Innings publication. On their twitter page they had posted something about me, asking the question ‘Will Chirath Karunaratne become Sri Lanka’s first ever professional Baseball player?’ It was that which really boosted my profile among international circles, highlighting the fact that there are talented players in Sri Lanka.”

Though Chirath is currently side-lined with a shoulder injury, the teenager, who throws on average around the 130kmph mark, is someone scouts are keeping extremely close tabs on. Though his immediate concern is centred around his final school exams in August. Beyond then, Chirath really hasn’t given it too much thought.

“I’m not playing in the tournament this year because of my shoulder injury, so I’m just focusing on my exams. The scouts are aware that that I’ve picked up an injury, but have requested to be informed when I’m fully recovered.

“[As far as the money is concerned] that’s something I haven’t really looked at. For me the main attraction of potentially playing in America is the fact that I would get to consistently play with players at a high level. I really can’t believe it.”

Looking ahead

While Chirath’s story is the first, it’s unlikely to be the last. That said, ensuring a consistent talent production line is the main challenge, not just for Sri Lanka, but for the five other nations taking part in this year’s tournament as well – each of whom have their own tales of enthusiasm for the sport not being reciprocated by their respective governments.

In Bangladesh, for example, it was only in 2018 that the Bangladesh Olympic Association (BOA) officially recognised the Bangladesh Baseball-Softball Association, while the Nepal Baseball and Softball Association was established just 10 years ago in 2009. In Iran the sport has been gradually gaining traction but lags far behind the likes of football, basketball and even handball, while for India, growing the sport’s popularity has been particularly difficult, in large part thanks to the wide shadow cast by the country’s love affair with cricket.

However in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, two nations irrevocably entwined with cricket, a path to grabbing the attention of the next generation seems to be taking shape.

“One of the best and easiest ways to motivate a generation is by winning, and if we win this year I think the motivation will be automatic,” explains Ranasinghe. 

And as simple as that may sound, there is certainly something to be said for the allure of success. While team rankings can offer statistical evidence to a team’s progress, nothing captures the attention of the watching public quite like a trophy or medal. 

Pakistan is ranked 5th in Asia and 24th in the world, while Sri Lanka are 10th and 41st respectively. But despite their rankings gap, Pakistan and Sri Lanka share many similarities, namely minimal domestic resources and difficulty acquiring equipment. While Pakistan have struggled, despite their success, to get adequate government backing, Ranasinghe is more confident of Sri Lanka Baseball’s (SLB) ability to execute its vision in the long run.

“I think right now they [SLB] have a brilliant plan in their head in terms of developing the game. So it’s just a matter of execution; if you do it in a successful way I think there will be a very bright future for Sri Lankan baseball, and also baseball in the region.

“I feel, with proper planning, there’s huge potential for us to move into even the top 15 in the world rankings. My message to the next generation is to help us achieve that target. If we get together and make Sri Lanka a baseball nation, we can definitely be in and amongst the big boys.”