INCHEON South Korea (Reuters) - South Korea’s Asian Games cricket experiment ended in defeat to Sri Lanka on Tuesday, but after their collection of baseball players and weekend enthusiasts took eight wickets off the Twenty20 world champions, coach Julian Fountain believes the sport could truly flourish here.
Cricket has a miniscule following in South Korea, with only foreign workers from South Asia showing any real interest in it, and Incheon organisers were initially reluctant to have the sport on the programme for the Sept. 19 to Oct. 4 Games.
Having to build a national team basically from scratch, Korea’s cricket association put the call out nationwide for volunteers and had the biggest response from athletes who had failed to make the breakthrough in professional baseball.
Specialist fielding coach Fountain, who had also represented Britain in international baseball, said the Koreans had punched well above their weight on Tuesday despite being bowled out for 55 in response to Sri Lanka’s 172/8 in their 20 overs.
Fountain came onboard in April to give their preparations for the Asiad a more professional touch and concedes that while the players had come a long way in a short time, it would take years to iron out all the rough edges.
“There were elementary mistakes within our performance ... but when you’ve only been playing a sport for 12 months and try to compete against one of the world’s best, you’re asking the earth,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“I’m overwhelmed ... a lot of my team have only been playing for 12, maybe 18 months maximum. And for us to take eight wickets off a full ICC member nation, and not just a full member nation but one of the dominant forces of limited overs cricket ... was incredible.”
The star of the show was Park Tae-kwan, who like many South Korean schoolboys had always dreamed of becoming a professional baseball pitcher.
Making the transition from pitcher to fast bowler came easier than expected for Park, who took four Sri Lankan wickets for just 16 runs in Tuesday’s quarter-final.
Fountain said that if South Korea recruited more baseball players and really focused on developing them into a proper cricket team, the sport could have a bright future.
“About 200 years ago cricket and baseball were the same thing, and with the advent of T20 cricket, where the skill sets were separated they are now coming back together,” he said.
“The skill sets are very similar and very transferable.”
While the result shows Sri Lanka were comfortable winners, Fountain said it did not properly portray the story of how a team with virtually no experience had stood toe-to-toe with a genuine world-class side.
“We batted into 17 overs, and we scored more than 50 runs. I know on paper the result looks horrible but in terms of a cricket performance these guys have come from nowhere and played against a huge team and done very, very well.”
With their Asian Games adventure now over, many of the players will never hold a cricket ball or bat again, and will instead return to day jobs or university. Some may go to the army to undertake two years of mandatory military service.
Park hopes his own cricket career is just beginning.
“My aim is to go play abroad in a foreign league,” he told Reuters. “I also want people to take more of an interest in the sport here so that it can develop.
“We’ve been preparing for the last two years and this was our final game. I’m honoured to have been a part of it.”
When asked if he thought South Korea could push on and take cricket to another level, he said the country’s athletic potential had to be matched with support behind the scenes.
“With proper allocation of time, funding and effort from various people, and the right plan, there’s no reason why Korean cricket can’t become very strong very quickly,” he added.
“But then again any of the nations that play baseball can follow our mould.”
Editing by Julian Linden