By Gabriel Fidler and Alex Ayala
[Ed. Note] Pakistan made its global debut in the 2017 World Baseball Classic Qualifiers, the first time any of the players had ever seen a baseball field outside of Asia. Although it was easily the most overmatched team in the 2016-17 World Baseball Classic Qualifiers, it looked like a squad that was close to taking a large stride forward. Pakistan has been invited back to the WBCQs and our second roster projection, compiled by Alex Ayala, should offer a useful primer on the players we should expect.
Pakistan replaced Thailand at the last qualifying round. Thailand had been invited to the 2013 Qualifiers after a string of successes that indicated a nation on the rise. The Southeast Asian nation lost to the Philippines, 8-2, and New Zealand—in its first major tournament in history—12-2. As our recent WBSC Rankings series showed, Thailand has continued to fall since then [link].
As we profiled then, baseball had only been played for 25 years in Pakistan, with the sport established by the, alas, recently deceased Syed Khawar Shah in 1992. Shah had believed so strongly in teaching the game that he sold his family’s car to pay for team’s expenses. His son, the energetic Syed Fakhar Ali Shah, sold his petrol station to help the national team, learning how to make bats and gloves from scratch. You can read more about their inspiring story here [link].
In Brooklyn, Pakistan lost 10-0 in seven innings against Brazil, though the first two innings were scoreless. Great Britain then blasted the South Asian nation, 14-0, in another game ended by the mercy rule. The starter in that game, Muhammad Zohaib, showed a nice breaking ball and hit the high-80s on multiple occasions. Zohaib had only recently converted from baseball to cricket and told us, “I am playing my first international match on any field.”
The Classic was important, then, simply for experience and exposure. MLB also donated 30-40 helmets, uniforms, catching equipment, and other gear to Pakistan Federation Baseball. The team made valuable connections and received hope that they were considered part of MLB’s plans. All things considered, though, the future looked bright for baseball in Pakistan.
“Since 2017, […] we have not gotten any support from MLB for support in this region,” the younger Shah explained to us today (Feb. 9). “The only help we have had is to be invited in 2020.
“Unfortunately, in the last two years we have had no sponsor in Pakistan for the development or from the government, nor from other any other organisation or MLB,” added Shah, elected President of Pakistan Federation Baseball earlier today. “We are doing everything through self-financing.”
Since then, however, an ascendant Sri Lanka has beaten Pakistan in two-of-three meetings in Asian competitions. Pakistan also has not narrowed the gap on its next closest Asian competitor, China, losing to them 11-1 in their most recent meeting at the Asian Baseball Championship last October. It has, however, made gains at the Under-15 level, playing China close (5-2) and almost upsetting South Korea (2-1) in the August 2019 tourney. It appears they also played India in the II Dubai Cup only a few days before publication, though no result is known.
The 2020 Qualifiers’ biggest underdog, Pakistan start with a rematch against Brazil. A win would mean a bout with Nicaragua, while a loss would set up a must-win game against either France or Germany. It is also possible that the team could meet South Africa in Pool 1, held at the Kino Sports Complex in Tucson, Arizona.
“Our camp is in Lahore,” said Syed Fakhar Ali Shah to us today. “We can’t afford to have practice aboard so we are doing camp in Pakistan. Last time we had [funding for] coaches for nine months, but this year we started camp in January.”
Other than the above handful of tournaments since September 2016, there are few other sources for information on Pakistan. As of yet, only Muhammad Mohsin Jamil has played abroad, suiting up for two games in the low-level independent Pacific Association. No players from Pakistan are listed on North American baseball rosters either. Perhaps these qualifiers will be the catalyst, then, for the next phase for baseball in Pakistan.
“For me, this team that is coming to the WBC is still for our learning,” remarked the candid Shah. “After that, we will [be able] to do more. These players will teach our youngsters because of the players we are bringing, half of them only started baseball when they were 22 or 23.
“What I have learned since 2017 is that we need to have baseball players who start at age 10, so since then, I have put extra work into our Under-15 and Under-12 team and they are starting to give me results,” exclaimed PFB’s chief. “Last year, at the Under-15 Asian Championship in Shenzhen, we got three awards: the leading hitter was Muhammad Shah, who is coming into our team as the youngest [player]. We also had the ‘Most Home Runs Award” and the “Best Right Fielder Award”. After three years, the world can see how Pakistan [has grown].”
We now offer Ayala’s projected roster and a few thoughts on their chances.
|RHP||Inayat Ullah Khan||N/A|
|LHP||Muhammad Zohaib (above)||N/A|
|SP/RP||S. A. Afridi||N/A|
|LHP/RP||Muhammad Amjad Aslam||N/A|
|CF||Muhammad Sumair Zawar||N/A|
|2B||Muhammad Mohsin Jamil||Free Agent||Pacific Association|
|C||Umair Imdad Bhatti||N/A|
|LF||Fazal Ur Rehman||N/A|
|INF||Inesham Ul Haq||N/A|
|INF||Muhammad Waqas Ismail||N/A|
Overall [Analysis from Alex Ayala]:
Pakistan never really has a huge roster in senior competitions, so I had to use players from the 2017 WBCQs to fit in their recent roster from the 2018 Asian Games.
Pakistan is essentially the fifth-best team in Asia after China, but China is still ahead of them by a good margin. I’m glad this team was able to face competition outside of Asia [in the last qualifiers], but it was only for two games. At the same time, when Pakistan played in the WBCQs in New York, they received a lot of positive press coverage locally (Bronx resident here) and nationally in sports so they were able to get a lot of exposure.
That exposure has not done much, though, to improve the national team. They lost to an improving Sri Lanka in the 2017 West Asian Baseball Championship and lost to Hong Kong in the 2017 U23 Asian Baseball Championship, their first chance at a fourth place since China was not participating in the tournament.
[Ed. Pakistan finished fifth in the 2018 Asian Games, easily defeated Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Thailand, but losing in blowouts against China and Pakistan. Last April, Pakistan lost in the West Asia Cup title game to Sri Lanka, the second-straight time it settled for a silver. In July, it was fifth place again at the Asian U15 Championship and, in October at the Asian Championship, it blasted Sri Lanka 10-1, but suffered the ignominy of a blowout loss against Hong Kong.]
In the 2018 U12 Asian Baseball Championship, Pakistan impressively held Japan to one run for three innings before it blew up in the fifth in the bronze medal game (U12 and U15 tournaments are seven innings). It only lost to South Korea 4-1 in the first round [as well], so maybe they have some pitchers on that U12 roster who Pakistan should look to develop for the future and hopefully they receive some high-quality coaching.
I’m not confident this team can win a game but, at the very least, I hope they can play close games with these countries because that alone would show improvement and development on the team. Plenty of countries from the 2013 WBCQs improved in the 2017 WBCQs, so maybe Pakistan will be one of those teams.
Looking at the box scores recently, Pakistan doesn’t strike out a lot compared to some other teams. [Ed. Note: Pakistan struck out only eight times in 14 innings, walking three times.] No one on this team is going to be hitting home runs, but there might be some gap hitters here.
The main problem is not hitting or getting on base, but trying to find a way to score runs. They actually get hits so it’s not like no one is getting on base.
Weakness: Bullpen and pitching as a whole
Pakistan rarely has more than five-to-six pitchers on their senior team in Asian tournaments. [The] only time they had more was for the WBCQs due to the roster rules. Even then, I doubt their pitching can hold the likes of any team. Similar to the Philippines, when Pakistan faced Brazil and Great Britain in the 2017 WBCQs, they were only down by four runs by the fourth inning before the game blew up.
Adil Sardar apparently is their hardest throwing pitcher, clocking in at 81 MPH and has pitched in an Iran Baseball League. [Ed. Note: Muhammad Zohaib sat high-80s at the Brooklyn Qualifier, but he has not appeared on a roster since Brooklyn. However, most of the other pitchers in 2016 matched Sardar in velocity.]
I always try be optimistic when it comes to WBCQ teams, hoping that their strengths outweigh their weakness and having more pros then cons to their weakness, but Pakistan [has a tough task ahead of them]. [They have] no professional […] league, no current or former [professional] players, and no heritage players. [Hopefully] they can iron out some stuff to position themselves, at the very least, to play competitive baseball.
[Ed. Note] It has been encouraging to see the foundation of a national academy and more regional activity, particularly at the youth level. And, in this case, merely taking part is a huge accomplishment that could have wide-ranging dividends.
“I do have some players that might surprise,” noted Shah in today’s interview. “Last time, they were facing [professionals] for the first time and now they are facing them again. Before we heard about Brooklyn’s MCU Park, but we didn’t know how the turf would be or how the ground would be.
“We did very well in Asian games and you will see that our players are more confident.” concluded Pakistan’s president. “We practice how to compete in [training]. The difference we have now is that I make my players mentally strong.”
We are certainly cheering for Pakistan Federation Baseball and hope that the World Baseball Classic Qualifiers will boost the sport back home.
All pictures copyright Extra Innings.