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Team Pakistan makes its mark in international baseball

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Muhammad Asad Ashraf, Pakistan second baseman
Muhammad Asad Ashraf, Pakistan second baseman
Clinton Riddle

As I write this article, a group of young men is about to make its mark in sports history.

This year, in Brooklyn, four teams will vie for the last remaining slot in 2017's World Baseball Classic: Great Britain, Brazil and Israel have sent their representatives. However, the story this year is the first national team to represent Pakistan in this tournament, a country in which baseball is only recently making its mark as a sport.

An interesting precursor to the formation of Pakistan's national baseball program is a game called gilli-danda, which is not a true stick-and-ball game in a modern sense but does involve some of the same skills encompassed by games like cricket and baseball. Indeed, gilli-danda is considered a distant common ancestor to both baseball and cricket, with origins as far back as 2500 years ago.

But as for baseball, there is only one field in Pakistan. This hasn't held the team back, very much.

"When we started out, it was not very popular in Pakistan," said second baseman-catcher Muhammad Asad Ashraf, "but over time we won the West Asia Cup, then we participated in the Asian Games (in 2014), and it gained popularity."

"And now that we have qualified for the WBC tournament, that has been very much a plus point for us to make baseball even more popular."

Still, while baseball in Pakistan goes back only to 1992, these players have garnered their share of honors; Pakistan won the Asian Baseball Championship (C Level) in 2010, beating Hong Kong 10-0, and have finished no worse than second in their past nine appearances in this tourney. In the Asian Baseball Cup, Pakistan has never failed to place in the top three teams. They are now ranked fifth overall in Asia. Worth noting is the fact that this is an all-amateur roster.

One key to this team's success has been the instruction of coach John Goulding, who remarked that many players who came to instructional camp already showed a high level of physical fitness and skill, even without having played the game before.

Goulding has been a perfect fit for Pakistan's nascent baseball team, as he places a strong emphasis on fundamentals and a "small ball" approach to offense. It is Coach Goulding's opinion that, if Pakistan had professional pitching coaches to work with its strongest arms, there would be Pakistani players in the high-level minor-leagues very soon. Since many of their players have extensive cricket experience, it isn't all that hard to believe.

It's been a bit of a whirlwind for the Pakistani team since they arrived in Brooklyn on September 19th: team meetings, daily practices at MCU Park, interviews with foreign and US journalists, and a very warm welcome from the Pakistani contingent in and around Brooklyn. While they are no strangers to the attention and pressure associated with tournaments and international championships, their appearance in the WBC qualifier has brought them to the ever-expanding showcase that is ESPN. Also, with the follow-up coverage that the team is likely to garner from multiple news sources, support for the team and the national program could increase dramatically.

"Our players have been in training camp for the past eight months," added Ashraf. "They worked hard, did their best. And because this is our first WBC participation we are a little self-conscious, but we will fight with passion and smartness."

The team on the field certainly doesn't appear to be fazed by what they represent, which is a pivotal moment in the very early history of Pakistani baseball. While the news coverage of Team Pakistan's exploits of late has been somewhat limited, the story is only now beginning.

Perhaps it won't be long before there are baseball diamonds popping up all over Pakistan. As it looks now, this is one country that could be making its mark in minor-league baseball, very soon.