“Baseball is sometimes called “chess on the diamond”,” says Akalanka Ranasinghe, the manager of the Sri Lanka Baseball team. “There’s a mental game within the game. It’s the nature of the game and it’s the beauty of the game.”
Listening to Ranasinghe you get the sense of a man genuinely enthralled by the sport, which is unsurprising when you truly start to gain an appreciation for the intricacies of baseball. On the face of it, it’s fairly straightforward: a bat and ball game where two teams of nine players each take turns batting and fielding. But take a closer look and the chess analogy begins to make more sense.
Like chess, baseball is an anticipatory game with plays thought out well in advance. Pitcher’s armed with an arsenal of different throws actively work on ‘setting up’ a hitter or batter. Batters meanwhile, who on average miss more than they hit, have to bide their time for a pitch in their hitting zone.
“There’s a lot to think about, in terms of replacements, in terms of formulating a game strategy, there’s a lot of in-depth analysis that goes into that. The more you learn the more you realise that you know nothing.”
This is particular true in how statistics are deconstructed, as traditional metrics of success don’t necessarily apply in baseball.
“If you do an exam 75-80% is considered good, in baseball 30% is outstanding. When batting if you can hit three safe hits, you’re one of the better batters in the whole league. That defines how difficult baseball batting is. I don’t think there’s been a single batter in the history of baseball with an average hit ratio of 3.5,” he explains.
It’s this steep learning curve that the Sri Lankan national baseball team has been on since the game was first introduced to Sri Lanka in 1985, and more pertinently in the last few years, when the team really began making waves on the international stage.
In 2009, Sri Lanka won its first medal on the global stage taking Bronze at the Asia Baseball Cup in Thailand. In the following years they gradually built on that success taking successive Silver medals in 2012 at the West Asia Baseball Cup and Punjab Baseball Festival, both in Pakistan. In 2015 they came close yet again, taking Bronze at the East Asia Baseball Cup, before that elusive Gold was finally secured in 2017.
Ranasinghe led that team on the field, and now he’s hoping to help bring through the next generation with his dedication off the game. For those now taking up the mantle going forward, the memories of their win feed their desire for more glory.
“It was great experience, especially considering how far we’ve come in a relatively short space of time,” said Team Captain and Center Fielder Sameera Rathnayake.
Rathnayake has been a part of the national team since 2006, though his first forays into sport were through school rugby. However once he started picking up injuries, he decided to take up baseball which was less physically demanding.
“At first I had no idea what this game was, but I picked it up pretty quickly. I realised then that there was a lot more to it than meets the eye,” he said.
This is a similar story for many from the Sri Lanka team. Some, like Rathnayake, had played rugby before picking up baseball, while others made the more straight forward transition from cricket. Ranasinghe however feels that if Sri Lanka is to truly reach its potential in the sport, this model of talent identification needs to evolve.
“We’re a cricketing nation. Hand-eye coordination and whacking the ball is in our blood. With those kind of inherited skills, we can build on that and become more competitive baseball players. Moving forward however, some of those cricketing techniques become obstructive because you become too reliant on cricketing techniques, on hand-eye coordination,” he notes.
“Our generation’s bodies are geared for cricket. If you take a bowler in cricket, he trains his shoulder, but for a baseball pitcher you need to work more on the arm and elbow areas. Even when fielding in cricket, you don’t necessary train those arm muscles outside of that situation.”
As such, he feels the best way is to identify talent young, and train them for baseball from an early age.
“The muscle groups you need to train in baseball are different. If you don’t identify those differences and train correctly, you’re going to plateau. You can of course get to a certain level with all the skills from other sports, but when it comes to going above and beyond our present level you definitely have to understand the dynamics of the game and start building our players as pure baseball players – not leftovers from other sports. You have to focus on getting them in shape as baseball players from a young age.”
This is particularly important when it comes to pitching; widely considered the most important position in team, a good Pitcher can make or break a team. Sri Lanka’s is Saliya Anuradha, another member of the title winning team in 2017, and one of the first Sri Lankan pitchers to breach the 135kmph speed mark.
“A lot of people when they think of pitching think arm power, but when you pitch you need to utilise your entire body. A lot of the strength actually comes from the legs,” explains Anuradha.
“Now a while back, even this speed was not something we were capable of throwing at. Earlier there were only about one or two pitchers who could throw faster than 130kmph but now there are some young players who are coming through at that range.”
While that is encouraging, at the highest level pitches at speeds of over 145kmph are not an uncommon sight. That 10kmph+ increase in speed, explains Anuradha, is the difference between baseball being a sideshow in the country and something taken seriously at all age groups.
“In Sri Lanka at the moment the highest speed a pitcher might reach is about 135kmph range, but if you go to the highest level it’s beyond 145, low to high 140s, maybe 150s. We can get to about 135 with our present level, but to get another 10kmph of speed you need to utilise every bit of talent.
“When you talk about Korea and Japan, baseball there is like cricket here; kids play it from a young age, so their muscles are geared towards the rigours of the sport. Their techniques have been refined from a young age as well. That’s what we need to do.”
This of course is the long term goal for Sri Lanka baseball. In the short term, their goal is to retain the Championship they won two years ago, and then take that performance to the Asian Championships later this year as well.
The team, spurred on by their recent triumph, is confident of a good showing – especially playing at home – but they also hope that this will lead to the team being able to play in more international tournaments going forward.
As Ranasinghe reveals, this is what impacts their overall ranking, with the team ranked as high as 29 in the world before a lack of tournament matches saw their ranking drop to 41. In the few games they have played however, they have faced heavy weights such as Japan and Korea, and the lessons learned in those games have been invaluable.
“There’s a big difference when playing the top teams, not just the technical side but the physical factor. Their arm power is also tremendous.
“Whereas we’re still in a phase where we use our cricketing skills and capitalise. In time to come we’ll have to get ourselves and our players ready in a pure base balling sense.”
Those teams are undoubtedly the benchmark Sri Lanka aspires to reach, but to do so they first need to ignite a fire within a dormant fan base that hasn’t as yet been given the opportunity to fall in love with a sport the way many on this Sri Lanka team clearly have. This however could all change when the West Asia Baseball Cup 2019 gets underway from the 15th – 20th July at the Sri Lanka – Japan Friendship Baseball Stadium in Diyagama.
For more information, log on to www.srilankabaseball.lk