South Korea take the cricket plunge

Baseball players prove a hit in Twenty20 cricket as the country prepares to make its debut in the Asian Games this year.

South Korea is hoping its baseball culture will bring success on the cricket pitch at the Asian Games [Julien Fountain]
South Korea is hoping its baseball culture will bring success on the cricket pitch at the Asian Games [Julien Fountain]

If you were walking past a cricket ground and a ball dropped from the sky and landed next to you, your first thought would probably not be ‘that must have been hit by a Korean’.

But you might start thinking differently this September when South Korea’s newly formed Twenty20 team make its Asian Games debut to challenge the likes of Sri Lanka and defending champions Bangladesh.

The team – unlike other embryonic cricket nations built on second-generation immigrants from the subcontinent – is fully South Korean. What made them ready for international competition was the fact that all of them were baseball players.

I've got players who bowl world class off-spin at least one or two balls an over – proper, proper Graeme Swann or Saeed Ajmal stuff.

Julien Fountain, South Korea head coach

And having played at college level in a country that produced the likes of Ryu Hyun-Jin and Choo Shin-Soo of MLB fame, it means they are very good at batting, fielding… and even bowling.

“They’re beginners but it’s cheating to call them that,” former Pakistan fielding coach Julien Fountain, who took over as head coach of South Korea in April, told Al Jazeera.

“Show me a beginner cricketer who can hit the ball 110 metres. I’ve got an opening batsman who hit 90 runs last week. He took the opposition apart. I’m still shocked by is that somehow these guys have learned to bowl spin just by watching YouTube. And they fizz it down at proper international pace. 

“I’ve got a guy who can bowl a doosra and thats incredible.

“I’ve also got players who bowl world-class off-spin at least one or two balls an over – proper, proper Graeme Swann or Saeed Ajmal stuff. Obviously there are some terrible balls in there as well, but that’s what we need to work on.”

Over the rope

It was while on holiday in Sri Lanka that Fountain, a former county cricketer who also played baseball for the British Olympic team, went to check out South Korea on their tour of the island.

They were there to practice against club players, with just six months to go until South Korea would compete as the host nation at the Asian Games in Incheon – the team will be less than a year old at the event.

It was also when the Englishman had his brush with the big six that, to his eyes, had ‘home run’ written all over it. A strong believer in the transferability between the two sports, Fountain signed a contract soon after.

Koreans on cricket

Park Soochan, 23, spinner
“You must be able to cope with different types of balls – speed, length, line and trajectory – which makes it very challenging. I like that the whole team must focus because they’re all bowling and fielding and have to change positions constantly to outmanoeuvre the batters. This creates more unity and focus than baseball.”

Sung Dae Sik, 28, opener
“The fact that all 10 dismissals happen in order means you have to focus hard not to mess up. It does give you confidence, as you have to be good to face the balls bowled at you.”

Choi Jiwon, 23, all-rounder
“When making the switch from baseball, batting was quite tricky. Bowling was trickier. But fielding was easy.”

Park Taekwan, 23, bowler
“I’m very proud to be part of the first Korea T20 cricket team, especially as we’re the hosts. I feel humble and honoured to be part of such a great occasion.”

“The ball landed about 20 yards over the rope and I thought that must be the South Korea team batting,” Fountain, 44, said. “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. 

“We’re working on more cultured shots and running between the wickets but we’ll keep it simple – there’ll be no Don Bradmans here.”

Baseball culture in South Korea runs deep. As well as the exodus to the major and minor leagues in the US, they won Olympic gold in 2008. 

But a straw poll of South Korea’s budding stars suggests that cricket could plant at least some seeds in the national psyche – major thanks to the adrenaline-fuelled Twenty20 format that has made the sport instantly accessible to new audiences over the past decade.

“What I like about cricket is there is more at stake when you bat,” said all-rounder Choi Jiwon, 23. 

“You only get one chance, unlike baseball where you may bat four or five times in a game.

“I really enjoy the fact that you have to focus so hard to achieve success.”

Despite the enthusiasm in the squad, opener Sung Dae Sik has encountered mixed reaction among friends and family as he prepares to wear the Taegukgi flag on his chest. 

Cricket is still fairly unknown, with just 12 clubs operating in the league and with coaching that would be considered schoolboy level in countries such as South Africa or Australia.

The matches in South Korea do not get crowds beyond the curious onlooker so the game has a lot of catching up to do.

“The reaction has been 50/50,” Sung, 28, said. “Those who know and understand that cricket is a great sport are proud of me. Those who do not, are sceptical.”

Cricket makes an appearance for just the second time at an Asiad when the Games begin on September 19.

And with crowds accustomed to being able to keep anything that clears the fence, the budget set aside for cricket balls could end up as a purely ballpark figure if Korea’s big hitters get into the swing.

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