Hitting a home run

Baseball, a sport primarily popular in the US, is making strides in Delhi, as more and more youngsters take up the game

Travelling towards Indira Gandhi International Airport, one might come across a huge field surrounded by floodlights and proper seating arrangements. It looks like an extensive football stadium, but actually, the ‘Field of Dreams’ is India’s first full-fledged Olympic-style baseball stadium.

Raunaq Sahni, founder of the group Grand Slam Baseball, says that there is a huge demand for baseball in India among youngsters. “We have around 4,000 students training at our academy currently”, he says. Sahni started his initiative to bring baseball into the limelight around five years back – not only among players but in the common public. “I used to play baseball at the American Embassy School but I saw there that mostly expats play the game. I wanted to promote the sport so that more and more Indians can play it”, says Sahni.

He started his initiative first at his own school, Modern School in Barakhamba Road. “Along with some friends, I approached the school authorities to organise a baseball camp. They agreed and we were surprised that around 80 students turned up for practice”, he says.

“After that we started organising these workshops in different schools; everywhere, a lot of students were participating. Then more and more students started attending our practice sessions. We realised we need a baseball stadium to accommodate all of them. Hence, we built the Field of Dreams”, says Sahni, adding that the name of the stadium was inspired by the 1989 movie Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner. “We also brought in coaches from foreign countries, even people who were involved with Major League Baseball (MLB), the baseball league of the USA,” adds Sahni.

After building the stadium, the next step for Sahni was to organise an inter-school league. “This league, named the Little League, provided more enthusiasm to the youngsters to do well in the sport”, he adds. “But we made the league in the style of the MLB, the baseball league of the USA. Teams from different schools were given fancy names like Warriors and Stallions. It has been running very successfully for the past couple of years”, he says.

“We also organise international training programmes for our students and take our best players to state-of-the-art facilities in the US. Last year, we visited the official MLB training centre at Los Angeles.”

But it is not only a private organisation like Grand Slam Baseball that is promoting the sport in the Capital. The game existed way before their emergence, as the Delhi Baseball Association was established back in 1985. “The Indian Baseball Association was set up in 1983 and it paved way in the city two years later”, says Ravi Kumar, a referee and a member of the Delhi Baseball Association.

“Earlier we used to train the children at stadiums built by the government, but now for the last five years, we are training at a facility that was built exclusively for baseball in Hari Nagar”, says Ravinder Malik, coach of the Delhi state rugby team. “The facility there had been acquired by the Delhi Baseball Association, and we made it suitable so that more and more youngsters can practice”, says Ravi Kumar.

“We give proper training to students of all ages and backgrounds and it is very interesting to note that most of the youngsters who train at our academy are from the economically weaker section of society, and students from government schools”, says Malik. “In fact, we provide free training camps, and also let them use the best equipments for absolutely no cost at all”, he adds.

Malik is surprised by the number of young girls who participate in training sessions. “Baseball, even in foreign countries, is a sport that is generally considered male dominant, but in fact the number of girls we have in our facilities is almost similar to the boys”, says Malik. “We have both male and female state level tournaments in the junior, sub-junior, amateur and senior levels”, says Ravi Kumar.

“The style of play, equipment used and the rules of the game are very similar to that of cricket. Since cricket is the most popular sport in India, the youngsters become naturally inclined to play the game. Even I came in the game because of the similarity to cricket”, says Raunaq Sahni. “As more and more youngsters come and play this game, and win tournaments and medals, they tell their peers and hence the word is spreading. More and more children are coming to play the game”, says Ravinder Malik.

“In fact, even five years back the number was less, but the last couple of years have seen a massive rise in the number of players”, adds Malik. “Delhi is perhaps the leading state in the country, as every year it gets at least one of the top three prizes in the national tournaments and many Delhi players even go on to don the national jersey”, adds Malik.

However, according to Sahni, the baseball scene in Delhi and in India still has a long way to go. “There is too much politics within the federation, otherwise there is huge scope for baseball to grow as a sport in India. They need to promote the sport heavily. Actually, there has been very little progress in the last 30-odd years that baseball came into the country. Otherwise, how can one explain India being ranked at 68 and a sportingly inferior country like Pakistan being ranked at 16,” he says.

“At the grassroot level there still needs to be development, and we need to have coaches who are well acquainted with the MLB style of playing”, he adds.

In future, there is a major boost happening in Indian baseball as according to an expert, MLB is planning to set up shop in India. “We are in talks to partner with them since we have the only stadium in the country. MLB’s presence will attract more youngsters to the game. Hopefully, India will become a baseball superpower in the next decade, and Delhi will be at the centre of it”, concludes Sahni.

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