Pinch-hitters from Pakistan: Cricket's loss is baseball's gain

Ubaid Ullah of Pakistan during their Round 2 match against Japan at Jakarta International Baseball Arena. Robertus Pudyanto - Samurai Japan via Getty Images

Waqar Younis is the Burewala Express, but there might actually be a faster gun in town. You are likely to have never heard of him. That's because 32-year-old Ihsan Ullah is a star for the Pakistan baseball team that's currently playing in the Asian Games in Jakarta. "Ihsan's is the best pitcher in Pakistan. He's played professionally in South Korea and he's probably pitched the ball at over 100 miles an hour," says team coach Syed Babar Ali Sherazi.

It's 100mph in just the wrong sport, unfortunately. Like the rest of the Indian sub-continent, cricket is king in Pakistan. "I used to play district-level cricket," Ihsan says. And while he might pass unrecognized on most playing fields, he's played with some well-known Pakistani cricketers. "I've played alongside Mohammad Irfan in a few club games before the tour of India in 2014," he says.

He isn't the only Pakistan baseball player with a cricket connect. According to team officials, about 70 percent of the team started out as cricketers (the rest are javelin throwers). Outfielder Ubaid Ullah is another. "I bowled right arm pace in tandem with Junaid Khan during club games in Swabi. When I played tape ball, we usually played against each other, but sometimes we would play together at district level competitions," says Ubaid, from Naranji in the Northern district. His greatest moment on the cricket field was when he took seven wickets in a district game. That though, was the extent of his career in cricket.

"Those who don't perform well in cricket come to baseball. They get to know what their level is," is team manager Mohsin Khan's blunt assessment. There are some obvious reasons too. "There is no shortage of fast bowlers in the Pakistan cricket team," he says.

Many from the squad picked up baseball during their service with the Pakistan Army, which has a culture of baseball, says Khan. "Right from the unit to the corps level there are baseball games that go on. In fact, eight of our players are from the Pakistan army," he says. According to coaches, without the army, there would be fewer baseball players in Pakistan.

The lack of opportunities also explains why the majority of the players are from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Punjab. "We don't have a single player from Karachi because people from Karachi are chalakh (clever) and so they don't put any of their money or time on baseball," jokes manager Mohsin.

The shift to baseball also sees technical mechanics that the players must adapt to. "You can't hit a baseball the same way as a cricket ball," says Tom Valcke, coach of the Hong Kong team that is playing the same tournament. In baseball, the hands start higher (at or above the shoulders) and move downward. "When the ball is travelling in a straight line, it isn't so bad. But when you are facing a fast ball that is coming into you, it's difficult to adjust in time," he says. And when the players' foundational stance is from cricket, it takes a lot of effort to unlearn that technique.

"When I first started playing baseball I was confused," Ubaid says, "Because I was always expecting the ball to bounce. I took me a couple of years to get used to it."

Against baseball giants Japan and China, Pakistan lost 15-0 and 16-3. Despite that, there is honour in representing Pakistan, Ubaid says. "I don't meet Junaid Khan a lot but when we meet he is always very respectful because I am wearing the Paksitan jersey." It's an assessment shared by his teammates too. "Regardless of the sport, you're still representing your country," says pitcher Muhammad Usman.

Usman, who played club cricket with former U-19 Pakistan bowler Zia Ul Haq, says there is respect from his former cricket mates too. "Even yesterday after we beat Thailand (picking up Pakistan's first win in the tournament) I got a congratulatory message from him. When we won our match got aired on TV and I got a lot of WhatsApp and Facebook messages too," he says.

Early hammerings aside, Pakistan are satisfied with their performance. "Our goal was to finish fifth," Khan says. After picking up wins against Thailand and hosts Indonesia on Thursday, Pakistan can achieve that goal if they beat Hong Kong in their last match on Friday.

Ubaid Ullah is hoping for that too. Having played every match as an outfielder because of his strong throwing arm, he's itching to get some time with the bat and ball. "I was an all-rounder but for the Pakistan team, I have been selected as an outfielder. But I really want to bowl. When I return home, that's what I really want to do. All my friends are waiting for me because we will play together. But this time I will come back as an Asian Games player."