The Don. The Babe. South Korea. What do all these have in common? According to the Guardian last year, plenty. Martin and I touch on the two 1930s Cricket-and-Baseball Summits in something of a coda to Right off the Bat—minus the South Korean connection, which I come to in a moment.
During the height (i.e., depths) of the depression, Don Bradman occupied a box in Yankee Stadium (photo, more from a decade prior, immediately below [R]), ostensibly to learn baseball. That is, till he shouted out, “Double Play!” at the appropriate moment. Not to be upstaged, Ruth called to the pressmen (they were all men then), “Hey, this fella over here doesn’t need any of my instruction!” Or words similar.
A few years later, it was Ruth’s turn to amaze (tho not in front of The Don). Returning from the Continent during the off-season, and preceding his first spring training in some fifteen years not with the Yankees, Ruth stopped in London for a try at cricket before the long ocean voyage home. At first, taking the orthodox stance of a batsman (as The Don would), The Sultan of Swat couldn’t do much. Ruth was unable to shift his by-then-considerable weight or work out his timing. So, The Mahatma of Mash switched to his baseball-batting stance and proceeded to knock the hard red ball all over (and out of) the august field of Lord’s. (I think it was Lord’s.) “How could you miss?” Ruth quipped. “The bat’s nothing but a paddle!” Or similar words: again, for the benefit of the pressmen.
I said I’d come to the Korean Peninsula and here I go. These 1930s meetings between cricket and baseball take on a contemporary aspect and condition in South Korea, as the influence of the in-many-ways baseball-inspired T20 spreads around the world.
Now, enter one Julien Fountain…
“He played a little cricket as a kid in the 1980s, and when that didn’t work out he took himself off to the USA to try and make it as a baseballer, simply because ‘I saw the World Series on TV in 1987 and it was beautiful.’ After a season playing with the Arun Panthers in Bognor Regis (really), Fountain, only eighteen, headed off to the USA to attend Major League Baseball tryouts. He never made the grade. But he had a long amateur career with the British national team. And in between, he qualified as a cricket coach. He’s gone on to enjoy a good career as a specialist fielding coach, working with the West Indies, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
“Fountain has always believed that there is a crossover between the skills used in the two sports. Now he has the chance to prove his theory. While he was on holiday in Sri Lanka this summer, Fountain went to watch a match between a local side and a touring team from, you’ll never guess, South Korea. This year’s Asian Games are being held in Incheon in September , and, as with the 2010 edition, the 2014 Asiad will include a T20 cricket competition. As hosts, the South Koreans have decided to enter a team. Trouble being that outside of the ex-pat scene, the country isn’t well stocked with cricketers. But what they do have, of course are plenty of baseballers. They won the Olympic gold in 2008, and silver at the 2009 World [Baseball] Classic. Well, you can see where this is going.
“Fountain is now the head coach of South Korea. He is trying to create a T20 team out of a bunch of baseballers. He remembers that match in Sri Lanka, he told Al Jazeera, because ‘the funny thing was that they made a lot of basic mistakes but they still posted 165 in 20 overs. And they even had 59 dot balls. It’s monstrous—they just hit.’ Fountain says: ‘They’re beginners but it’s cheating to call them that. Show me a beginner-cricketer who can hit the ball 110 meters. I’ve got an opening batsman who hit 90 runs last week. He took the opposition apart.’
“South Korea only played in their first cricket tournament in 2012, in the ICC’s East Asia-Pacific Division 2. It will be intriguing to see how they stack up against the likes of Hong Kong and the UAE when they get the chance at the end of the summer. Some of what Fountain says about their progress should perhaps be taken with a little pinch of salt: ‘I’ve also got players who bowl world-class off-spin at least one or two balls an over; proper Graeme Swann or Saeed Ajmal stuff.’
“But there’s no doubt that T20 has narrowed the gap between the two sports, and made it easier for a player to switch from one to the other. ‘We’re working on more cultured shots and running between the wickets but we’ll keep it simple,’ Fountain admits. ‘There’ll be no Don Bradmans here.'”