On a mission to scout baseball talent PAN India, Premier LeagueBaseball (PLB) in association with ‘The Bridge’, talks to once a baseball player and nowcoach Hardeep Kalra, who is ambitious for baseball stars from India
For most Indians, the game of baseball gives an impression of cricket played in the USA. Played with a round bat, unlike flat willows in cricket, the sport of baseball has a few takers in a cricket-crazy like ours.
But what many of us don't know that baseball has been in the country for over three decades. The baseball and softball teams in India hardly get any mention in the media for the country's obsession with cricket forces every sport to take a back seat. But things are changing, slowly and steadily.
The Indian Baseball and Softball Academy (IBSA) is one of the premier baseball academies in India raring the talents from Delhi-NCR in the sport and even working towards providing an international platform. One of the biggest names in Indian baseball that have come up from IBSA is Hardeep Kalra. The player turned coach at IBSA has had an illustrious career in baseball and now he is encouraging the kids to follow his path and earn a reputation for themselves in the country's baseball fraternity.
Kalra, who is also the treasurer of the academy, has achieved mammoth success in the game with gold medals in senior national, junior and sub-junior nationals as well. He has played over 35 national tournaments in senior-level and also participated in six All India All-India Inter-University tournaments. Hardeep's immense success in the nationals has earned him a place to play international titles at Thailand and Australia as well. The 42-year-old who coaches girls team in IBSA also had his moment of jubilation outside the field when the girls won the silver medal in junior nationals.
Kalra started playing cricket at an early age, and later his interest transpired to baseball when he was guided by Anoop Kumar the founder of IBSA. In an exclusive with The Bridge, Kalra shared his journey with us. "I still remember I was in the sixth standard and was actively into cricket when Anoop Sir was asked to train his kids in baseball to promote the sport in the country. We started playing baseball and experimenting with it since there was no equipment with us. I learnt the basics of the game playing with a cricket stump as a bat and a tennis ball. And when we started playing it, slowly the interest changed to baseball instead of cricket," said Kalra.
The technical difference between cricket and baseball actually made the latter more attractive pursuit for Kalra and he would enjoy the grills for hours every day wilding his baseball bat. He added, "So because it was a very fast game, every ball like was like a live ball in that without any stops. The game gets over in three-four hours and everybody has to play at the moment. All these aspects made it look more attractive to me."
Within a year, Kalra's interest peaked and his performance improved significantly. While he was in his seventh standard, he played his first junior national level game. Under the tutelage of Anoop Kumar, whom he considers as a fatherly figure, his name grew popular. It was in the same year, he played in the sub-junior and senior category. A year later, he got his maiden international call for a team in Australia. After returning from Australia, he also started playing softball. Back in his days, in the early 90s, baseball had just picked popularity in the country and nationals would see around eight teams participating, unlike today when there are more than 24 teams.
"Whenever I used to tell someone I play baseball, they would immediately recall it as the game with sticks and ball. We didn't have any equipment but Anoop Sir helped us to arrange everything, getting the gloves, bats and balls," says Kalra. "There was no such baseball ground in India at that time. So whenever a tournament happened, we used to identify a big ground a made lifted boundaries on it to make it a proper baseball field," he adds.
Slowly baseball gained some popularity in India with more people participating and making the game more competitive. The game was welcomed in the universities of Delhi, where students started taking interests. "We also got a to play baseball later in the Cambridge foundation, which couldn't have been possible without Anoop Sir," says Kalra.
"My parents had always been supportive in pursuing this sport and I had to travel between Delhi and Gurgaon regularly to play in tournaments. But still, it was kind of a lone fight because nobody knew about the game back in the 90s. I purely pursued the sport out of my personal motivation. I love the recreational and fast aspects of the sport. This where also Anoop Sir played the role of motivating father who brought more students into the game and we started playing regularly. I am indebted to Sir for his efforts." Kalra adds.
Hardeep has shifted his role as a coach have been teaching the sport to school and college-level students. He opines that the baseball culture now is growing leaps and bound with many new states taking up an interest in the sport and building their own teams. Besides, Delhi has its own Baseball League with eight teams participating in it every year. He says, "One thing we lacked majorly is the coverage of the sport in India, but there is a hope that baseball will feature in the next National Games, and if it happens, we might see the sport being regularly featured on news."
The pandemic has stemmed a setback into the sport like any other sporting event across the world. But for Kalra, the show must go on from here as he is regularly been taking online classes of his students and teaching them the nitty-gritty. He hopes a bright future for in baseball for India, a cause he is nurturing with all his capabilities.