In terms of sheer popularity football is undoubtedly the world’s most popular sport, with an estimated 4 billion fans worldwide. The one that comes in second however may be a little more of surprise – cricket with a roughly 2.5 billion fan base. However when you realize that India alone likely accounts for half that it becomes a little less impressive, especially when you realize that cricket only has 12 full member nations.

By contrast if you take baseball, which comes in eighth place in the popularity stakes with 500 million fans, there are a 127 countries playing it in an official capacity. And while India is one of them, that market has barely been tapped.

This is the crux of Fazil Hussain’s argument for promoting baseball in Sri Lanka and subsequently the region. With Sri Lanka set to host the West Asia Baseball Cup from 15-20 July 2019, Hussain, the head of Sri Lanka Baseball (SLB), can see that his ambitions for the sport in the country are on the cusp of materialising.

“While this can be really big in India, they haven’t really pushed it yet. As the Director for West Asia, I want to use Sri Lanka as a pilot, and if we have a successful model here I can take it to different countries and get people to invest. India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, all those countries are waiting for this to come, it’s just that we have to have a workable model,” explained Hussain.

“The Sri Lankan market is a good pilot model, because it’s a handleable size. If we have a successful model here – look at Carrom and Kabaddi, it’s on ESPN and Star Sports – we want to see it pick up in the same way. In the sub-continent we have a billion people. Add that number to the 127 countries already playing and this can be huge.”

Since Baseball was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1985 by the US Embassy, the sport has enjoyed steady, if slightly slow, growth. At the moment 22 schools and 31 clubs play the sport in the country, with between 2000-2500 active players island wide. That said since 2009, when Sri Lanka won their first ever medal in the sport, a bronze at the Asia Cup, those strides have become more pronounced, all of which culminated in Sri Lanka’s historic victory in the 2017 West Asian Baseball Cup.

That victory is what earned the country the right to host this year’s tournament, and Hussain is understandably excited about the possibilities. In a wide-ranging interview, here he speaks about the potential for the sport in the country and the region, the obstacles it still needs to overcome, and what we can expect from the upcoming tournament. Following are excerpts:

Q: Fazil just to start off, can you briefly go over the significance of this tournament?

A: This is the first time an international tournament of this magnitude for baseball is being held in Sri Lanka. After the Easter bombings in April, I feel this is a great opportunity for the country to showcase Sri Lanka as a safe destination, and especially after the Cricket World Cup to host such a large event in Sri Lanka I think is a great stepping stone.

At the same time we feel that this particular chapter in Sri Lanka will also enable us with our proposed development plans. Our idea is to make baseball one of the top five sports in Sri Lanka in the next five years. We are planning on taking this to all 25 districts, all 90 educational zones. We have an ambitious target, which is to have 25,000 school kids playing baseball by 2025.

Q: Can you elaborate on some of the investments that have already been made into the sport in Sri Lanka?

A: The association is making a lot of investments in terms of trying to grow the sport, including investing heavily on marketing baseball. So they’re investing on communication channels, they’re investing on content; they’re trying to make this a marketable sport. Lots of time and investment has already gone into it, from social media to website updates. What we want to do is bring this sport in line with the top tier sports in the country, but even if you look at cricket, while it’s rich in content it’s still not up to that international standard. This is where the baseball association is investing, to really take the marketing of this sport international.

Q: In terms of on the field, what are the steps being taken to grow the sport in Sri Lanka?

A: We are running this on 3 pillars and that is Try, Play, Stay. We want people to try the sport, play the sport, and then stay. Getting players to stay in the sport is crucial.

The whole idea is basically to set the right foundation. Because if you look at sports overall in Sri Lanka, there’s a strong emphasis on schools, and from the school level we basically want to take it to universities, and from universities to clubs and then into mercantile and franchising. Also what baseball is trying to do is create a scouting system, so we don’t lose the best talents in our schools. Because what happens is that there are a lot of dropouts from school, so sometimes you might lose the better talent because they don’t envision going pro, so we want to create career paths out of a sport whilst they are in schools, and through clubs and at the national level after that.

This is where the mercantile sector would come in, because in most sports that have a sustained presence the mercantile divisions play a pivotal role. It help because after leaving school, players can also find employment in those companies, and play for them at the same time. So when you have a healthy mercantile tournament the sport is automatically sustained.

If you’re in a national team, you also get a certain amount of marks that helps you get into a university, so what we thought was that starting from the Under 12 age group we give them training on etiquette, social skills, and especially injury management and that kind of thing.

Q: What has the response in schools been like?

A: It’s been amazing. I personally went to Vanni and Kilinochchi and we had over 600 students who participated. We have 98 educational zones, so in the next five years we want to go to every educational zone. If you can target five, that means you’re looking at 500 schools, but our biggest problem is having dedicated baseball grounds and also the equipment. The most important thing now is awareness creation, to get the feeder system up and running.

See our feeder system is going to be the schools. So we need kids starting to play baseball at an early age and to show them that there is a future in this sport. That is why it is important to have a good pool of trainers and trained coaches, so we can spread the game all over Sri Lanka, and then sustain the game. That’s our road map for the growth of this sport in Sri Lanka.

We’re also going to take it to the Zonal, District and Provincial level, and also to the corporate sector. At the moment it’s being played in the villages and the Army, Navy and Airforce are fully onboard, and we’re just bringing Police and STF on board, and we’re looking at the Customs and Prisons departments and that kind of thing really. Then you’re looking at Trinity, Royal and St. Thomas’, and we’re looking at the mercantile sector as well. So then you create that whole thing.

And also we’re working with the Olympic Solidarity Fund – we’re a full-fledged member of the national Olympic Committee – where we got about Rs. 3 million initially just to work on the training of the coaches. So what we’re trying to do with the coaches and umpires is to give them some kind of training so that at schools they’ll get paid.

Q: At the moment what are some of the things holding you back from realising this vision?

A: We have a lot of drawbacks and obstacles in doing this, one of the primary ones being the lack of equipment. And this being sort of a self sustained model, and being a new sport, we find it difficult to access sponsors. It’s like a chicken and egg situation; unless we showcase something, advertisers, sponsors don’t come on board and vice versa. But right now we have done quite well in putting together this tournament.

Q: When you say lack of equipment could you please give me a bit more of an understanding of the equipment needs of baseball in comparison to a sport like cricket?

A: It’s the same. We need pads, we need gloves, we need boots, helmets, it is not a cheap sport. Now if it was soccer we just need one ball, but here it is a bit more expensive. We have done a budget, and for a school to start this we need Rs. 350,000. A set of equipment will cost that much. But the thing is we have countries helping us, people willing to send us equipment. But then again we have legal impediments in getting those goods cleared. Sometimes we receive a container of goods but it’s stuck in customs for months. Unfortunately, although there’s a sports law which states that any free equipment that comes into the country has to be allowed to taken out without an issue, that law is not implemented. Right now we have a container of goods that has come from Japan lying there for the past 4 months we can’t get it out. These are little things that I am sure that together with the ministry of sports and customs, we can iron out, because this is not the only sport that faces these impediments. In other countries where the sport has grown, you can see that there are a lot people working together to help develop the sport, but over here red tape is something we feel we have to overcome.

Q: Speaking of red tape, have there been any conversations with Sports Minister Harin Fernando?

A: Yes, the sports ministry has been extremely helpful but the laws are such that we have many impasses and hurdles to overcome. Actually with the help of the sports ministry and the tourism ministry this event would not have ever been possible.

Q: Will the tournament be broadcast on any local channels?

A: We are currently working with Sirasa, we’ve signed up with TV1 as the Maharaja Group has partnered with us. And we will be telecasting the final game live. And this is the first time ever any West Asian Baseball game is being telecast live on terrestrial television. And then this link will be uploaded into the Asian spectrum of baseball. The entire thing will be a high-definition eight camera production.

Q: What’s the quality we can expect on show?

A: You can expect a high quality game. For a simple example, by winning the West Asia Cup in 2017 we qualified for the Asian games, we played against Korea, we played against Japan. Now baseball has nine innings, up until the fourth inning we were on par with them, even countries like Japan. It was close, but it’s just that our players at the moment don’t have the stamina and experience – the skill sets are second to none – it’s just a little fine tuning that’s required.

This is a sport that needs hand eye coordination, and as such is ideally suited for Sri Lankans. Also this is an upper body sport, number one, and number two, we have an old sport called Elle, which is quite similar – of course the rules are different – but quite similar, and we are very good with hand eye coordination. So this is a sport that I believe, like in cricket, we can reach the top in the world. All it requires is a good foundation and to get more people involved and also to get people to help this sport. I’m not just talking monetarily – that plays a very important part too – but we need the corporates to come in and assist us to sustain this sport. Because right now this association is self financed and we’re running on a shoestring budget. And to even achieve this is down to the pure dedication of the current team that is involved in this sport. But the thing it is not just a few people, we need an entire country to back us to do this. Because we will go away from this after a few years but the sport has to be sustained. That is why it is important that we get the right help at the right time, and this West Asia championship that we are holding right now I think this can be a very good foundation, a stepping stone, to create awareness and then promote.