The districts bordering Afghanistan have witnessed a decade-long war against terrorist outfits. Before they became known for militancy, the dry mountains of Pakistan’s tribal belt had also provided an entry point into Afghanistan for warriors. For this reason, too, the area is known for producing armed weapons.
But the area formerly known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) has also produced national sporting heroes in cricket, athletics and karate. They have served the nation, keeping the national flag flying high and emerging as ambassadors for peace all over the world.
Now there is a new sport that has caught the eye of the people of this area: baseball. It was introduced in Tehsil Jamrud’s village Ghondi where Kokikhel, a sub-tribe of the Afridis, are known to play the game they had once watched American soldiers playing.
There are three main baseball academies in Pakistan. One in Punjab; one in Swabi in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP); and the third one in the same province (KP) in Ghondi.
The story of baseball in KP is not very old. In 2014, two friends, Said Amin Afridi and Tariq Hayat, chose to try their hand at baseball, even though in a country where people are crazy about cricket, selecting baseball was considered a waste of time and money by most. Afridi and Hayat started playing baseball in their village, and that was also how they introduced it to the others in Ghondi.
In a cricket-crazy country, it’s no mean feat to introduce a sport such as baseball … in the outfields of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at that. But two men have done it
Afridi first played the game in his school, the Islamia Collegiate School, Peshawar, and later with his friend Hayat. Together they established the Afridi Baseball Academy in their village. The academy ground has no grass for the simple fact that grass does not grow very well there. Still, more than 20 players of this very academy have participated in international games.
“Introducing baseball to the people of my village was not so easy. They only played cricket in their spare time,” Afridi says about the initial days.
“We would invite young men to come and watch us play baseball but there would hardly be anyone interested in joining us then,” he says, adding that many of them would come only for amusement. “They would laugh at us.”
But the Afridi Baseball Academy provided free-of-cost learning. They wanted to engage the tribal youth, in an area notorious for crime and drugs, in a new sport. “In the absence of all recreation activities, any sporting diversion would definitely stop youth from indulging in wrongdoings,” says Hayat, Afridi’s friend and co-founder of the academy. “It was a tough task, no doubt. But we were both working for something good, something positive, and it was not long before we succeeded in our goal,” he says.
In the early days, both Afridi and Hayat would visit Lunda Bazaars to buy used gloves, bats, helmets and balls. “Since we were jobless and baseball equipment was expensive, we had no other option but to go looking for secondhand things.”
The two friends reached out to the community first. “We would go to people’s gatherings or hujras and also to people’s homes when we had the chance to do so. There we would talk to the elders and youth about baseball,” says Hayat.
And their efforts bore fruit as, gradually, a few boys joined them. They learned the game and its rules and started playing exhibition matches, which attracted dozens of other young men who also wanted to join in.
The Afridi Baseball Academy does not own a proper ground. They just play wherever they find a place that is good enough and big enough to play baseball. It doesn’t even matter if the ground is uneven. Afridi and Hayat also request the owners of any plot to let them play there. Sometimes, when they get permission, they ask if they can try and flatten the ground somewhat. “Many a time after converting the rough and uneven plot into a ground, all of sudden, without any prior notice, its owner would ask us to leave his property,” says Afridi. “Although it was upsetting and disheartening, it didn’t stop us from playing baseball. We would go and find another spot. Still, a specific place to play or ground for the academy is the biggest hurdle for us in promoting the game.”
Mohammad Zahid, Zakir Afridi and Sadiq Khan, all products of the academy, have remained a part of the national baseball team. They have also visited a few countries and are of the view that facility-wise those international teams that they have played with are far better than them. But they say that they play with spirit. “If the government stands by us, we would challenge these modern teams and their players with much more ease,” says Hayat.
In the early days, both Afridi and Hayat would visit Lunda Bazaars to buy used gloves, bats, helmets and balls. “Since we were jobless and baseball equipment was expensive, we had no other option but to go looking for secondhand things,” Hayat says.
The baseball ground covers 90 square feet, and each team comprises nine players. When three players get out, it is the opponent’s turn to bat. The person who throws the ball is called the pitcher. Contrary to cricket, scoring runs in baseball is very difficult and just seven runs are a defendable total. It will only be called a run if a batsman, after playing a shot, reaches all the four bases. Hayat also points out that, just like any other game, baseball requires its players to have good stamina.
“Beside exercise and practice we also emphasise on ethics and sportsman’s spirit,” Afridi says. He is of the view that the tribal belt is full of talent but the game of these deprived young men needs to be polished. “Dozens of players from our academy have represented the region on a domestic level. Some have also represented Pakistan internationally,” Afridi says. “Our academy’s players have played in China, Japan, Sri Lanka and other countries. Besides, about 20 trained players from our village are part of different departments,” says Afridi, who himself represents Wapda.
Although he is satisfied with the Pakistan Baseball Federation, Afridi says that the provincial government doesn’t support them. “We have been promised our own ground many times by local politicians but nothing has come out of it so far.”
The writer tweets @[theraufkhan]1
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 22nd, 2020