There is no question India is a cricket country. You could say that cricket comes first, second and third when it comes to popularity among all sports. “Cricket is in our blood. Indians knows the game of cricket. Every child and adult is watching and talking about the game and following cricket players”, said Dr. Pravin Anaokar, Honorary Secretary of Softball Association of India (SAI). After cricket there’s badminton, soccer, field hockey, tennis and Kabaddi, the state sport of many Indian states.
Baseball and softball are still tiny in India, but because of many similarities with cricket, they have a good chance to gain popularity. In all three sports players field, throw, bat, catch, run and a score is called a run. According to Anaokar many cricket players play softball. “Half of our softball players come from school and college cricket teams. They can play well and they enjoy the game because it takes less time. It is faster and every player can contribute in a game.”
Softball and baseball came to India, in the same way they did to many other countries, with the U.S. Army during World War II. Softball has roots in Jodhpur, Rajasthan where some locals played against American soldiers in 1944. Baseball’s beginnings can be traced to the state of Manipur where US Army forces were flying supplies to China over the Himalayas. Locals learned the games from the troops and they kept playing after the war.
The father of Indian softball Dr. Dashrath Mal Mehta was one of the natives who played with the troops in Jodhpur. He was so inspired by the game that Mal Metha and his friends started to play regularly. Over the years softball spread from Rajasthan throughout the country, and in 1961, Mal Mehta formed The Softball Association of India (SAI).
Today the SAI has 31 affiliated state and union territories working to develop softball in their respective states. Every association organizes a statewide softball championship in which boys and girls in all age groups participate according to regional qualifying events.
The first softball championship was organized in 1967 in Jodhpur. Teams from the states of Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra and Rajasthan participated. In 2016, there are 27 men’s teams and 25 women’s teams taking part in the national championship. The All India Inter University Softball Championship is also a big event. This year 65 universities across India participated. All total, throughout India there are approximately 5,500 softball players from U11 to seniors.
In 1985 India sent their first national team to an international softball competition where the men’s national team participated in the Asian Championship in Japan. India didn’t make it into the top four but Shri S.C.Sen and K.Das were awarded Best Catcher and Best Outfielder in the tournament. Since that first outing, the men’s team has participated in three more Asian Championships (1990, 1998, 2003).
The women’s national team made its international debut in 1991 when the team played in the Asian Championship at Jakarta. They would not appear a second time outside India’s borders until 2004 during that year’s Asian Championship. The third international appearance happened this year in the Women’s World Championships.
It was not until the early 1980’s, that the Amateur Baseball Federation of India (ABFI) introduced baseball to other parts of India. Some baseball enthusiast from Delhi, Manipur, Haryana, Gujarat, M.P and West Bengal met at Rohtak, Haryana and agreed to form a baseball federation to promote baseball throughout the country. Today the ABFI has 25 affiliated baseball state associations. Every district association has affiliate clubs, schools and colleges in their same district.
As in softball, there is an All India Inter University Baseball Championship for women and men. In this year’s tournament 77 teams, men and women combined, participated. Today in India there are approximately 3,500 baseball players playing in national level tournaments from ages 10 and up.
ABFI organized the first National Baseball Championship in 1985 in Delhi. The Federation also introduced the game to women. Since 1985, the championship has taken place every year. In January they celebrated the 30th championship, which was held in Belgam, Karnataka. Altogether 26 states sent a team to the tournament. Delhi clinched the title for men and Punjab for women in the five-day event.
Four years after founding the federation the men’s national team made their international debut, participating in the Asian Baseball Championship in 1987. India clinched the 7th spot in the tournament. The National team next attended the first annual Asian Baseball Cup in 1995 held at Manila, Phillipines, where India won the bronze medal.
The Indian Women’s Baseball team made its first appearance on the international field in 2004 in the World Baseball Series held in Japan. Four years later the team took part in World Cup Baseball. This week, they are once again on the field. The national team is taking part in World Cup Baseball for a second time. India lost all three games in the opening round as well as the first game in the consolation round.
Both SAI and ABFI receive very limited financial assistance from the government. Federation, as well as state and district level offices, are supported by volunteers. “We all have our own businesses and jobs. I left my business eight years back and since then I have been devoted to softball full-time. I need to go to events, coaching camps, meetings and promotional activities, as well as attend government formalities,” Pravin Anaokar said.
India has a huge potential for developing softball and baseball. It is the second-most populous country in the world. The numbers of softball and baseball players today are still very modest in comparison but change is on the horizon.
In both sports the number of players has increased dramatically in the last 10 years. For example, in softball SAI has been able to add several events at state and national level. Before 2008 there were only three national events. Today a good player over the age of 10 can play nine state and national level tournaments along with zonal, inter-zonal and federation cup tournaments every year.
ABFI is working with companies and government administration to make baseball more visible in India and to create work opportunities for players as motivation for them to stick with the game. For the men’s national team the next big goal is to win the gold medal in the West Asia Cup 2017 in Pakistan, and they have no plans of stopping there. The Federation’s chairman, Ramakant Angle says, “We hope to put in a respectable show at the 2020 Olympics.”