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A cricketer in action during a University match in the USA © Getty Images

Switch Hit 20 is a venture started by renowned coach Julien Fountain to help cricket grow in USA. With the copious baseball talent in the country, Fountain aims to tap into it and help T20 cricket grow as a sport. Nishad Pai Vaidya spoke to Fountain about Switch Hit 20, its aims, objectives and plans.

Is cricket a global sport in its true sense? In terms of numbers and fan following, it is one of the biggest sports in the world simply because of its humongous popularity in the Indian subcontinent. However, only 10 teams play top flight cricket consistently. Till date, a World Cup has featured a maximum number of 16 teams. When compared to football, where hundreds of countries go through a rigorous qualification for the World Cup, cricket pales in comparison. Cricket also has not featured in the Olympics since 1900. While cricket is gradually growing in the Associate and Affiliate World, it truly has to make rapid strides to become a global sport.

Having said that, the advent of T20 cricket has certainly ignited hopes of the game spreading to the nook and corner of the globe. With matches lasting a little more than three hours, the sport can appeal to masses who enjoy fast sports such as football, baseball or hockey. READ: Cricket at Commonwealth Games and Olympics: Why not?

Countries like China and South Korea have taken to cricket and even featured in the Asian Games (and Malaysia in the Commonwealth Games), where they fought the bigger sides in T20 matches.  “T20 is a fantastic way to further expand the game of cricket. Its short format, with emphasis on power and athleticism combined with skill is a perfect fit for these new cricketers from baseball nations such as USA, Japan, Korea etc,” says Julien Fountain, a cricket and baseball coach.

Fountain is a well-known cricket and baseball coach. A former age-group cricketer in England, he found his calling in baseball and represented Great Britain. At the same time, he carved a coaching career in cricket, where he mainly made a mark in fielding. Over time he has worked with West Indies, England, Bangladesh and Pakistan at the highest level. He has also worked with South Korea as their Head Coach building up to the Asian Games 2014. Given those experiences and his baseball stint, Fountain is in a position to combine the skill set to promote the sport.

Switch Hit 20 is venture launched by Fountain to use baseball and promote cricket in the USA. He says, “Switch Hit 20 is an ‘Elite Player Development Initiative’ designed and managed by myself. It aims to tap into the abundance of US bat & ball athletes that are available, but being ignored by current US cricket structures.” The idea behind this is to tap into the baseball talent that isn’t reaching the higher levels. Instead, those players can channelize those bat and ball skills in a new sport. READ: T20 cricket should be included in Olympics

Describing the baseball structure in the USA, Fountain says, “Professional US baseball is made up of MLB (Major League baseball) and MiLB (Minor League Baseball). There are 30 clubs who all have from 6-12 minor league teams and 1 major league team affiliated to them. Players get drafted either out of high school or college. These players then play in the minor leagues for a few years to gain experience prior to moving up to the major leagues.”

However, the players struggling in the MiLB find it difficult as the money is hard to come by. Pursuing the dream is not easy if they do not make it big soon. “Unfortunately the wage structure means that all the salaries are at the top, with little or no money spent at the developmental stages. These players are the best in the country but have to endure wages as low as 5,000 USD per season (5 months). This is unfair and causes terrible living conditions for these young professionals,” Fountain says.

The vision of Switch Hit 20 is to help such players take up a new sport. The goal is to help them have a sporting career and also have a shot at earning money. Fountain says, “A large number of minor leaguers give up after 2-3 seasons because it is just too little money to survive. They earn a lot less than the guys who flip burgers for a living. There have even been lawsuits recently where players are fighting for fair wages in the minor leagues. Switch Hit 20 will provide those guys who quit baseball a perfect opportunity to stay in sports and possibly make a good living out of it.”

How difficult would the switch be though? For example, a pitcher from baseball would have to hone a run-up and hurl deliveries with a straight arm. A batter, or rather batsman, would have to learn a few nuances of technique and bring footwork into play. Fountain feels that since the two sports are interconnected in some way, the switch for the players will not be very difficult. “The two games came from the same parent sport, two hundred years ago. They evolved separately but where they shared the same DNA, there was always the chance that their paths would cross again, and with T20 it seems they have. T20 and baseball share many similar characteristics that will enable baseball players to crossover,” he explains.

USA has a cricket team, but it mainly comprises expatriates who have flown in from all over the globe. Switch Hit 20 aims to bring the “home grown” aspect into play and utilise the potential that lies within the USA than bring players from foreign countries. Enunciating the point, Fountain explains, “USA does sport really well, but the key to why this will succeed where others have failed is it will use US players, not overseas players. The US produces high calibre sportsmen & women across all sports. This will tap into the abundance of highly talented & undervalued baseball players.”

“From small seeds large oak trees grow,” Fountain says as he begins his venture. It is ambitious but comes at the right time when T20 cricket has been on the ascent. With money flowing through various franchise systems, cricket is entering previously unknown dimensions. Switch Hit 20 aims to help USA cricket grow and try to help them make it through to bigger tournaments.

Fountain says, “If we can create some momentum and some success both in terms of players and viewing public in the US, we will be happy. Once we have got these new players playing, especially if we can get some professional T20 cricket in the mix, these players can start playing for the USA as well as professional T20. If these players start representing the USA, I am convinced they will qualify for ICC events within 3-5 years. As long as the administration does not hinder the process, USA Cricket will definitely benefit from this project.”

From a larger perspective, T20 cricket is the way forward to help cricket become the global sport it aims to. “T20 is definitely the correct vehicle for promoting the game globally,” Fountain says, “Whether or not this happens may be a question for the current global governing body (ICC) and the major cricket boards of the world.”

The last two Asian Games have featured cricket in the T20 format, but cricket must target the Olympics to get a bigger platform. “By making T20 an Olympic sport it would be possible for associate and affiliate nations to receive help and funding from their Olympic Associations. Some of these Olympic associations are very big and very powerful. The top 10 Olympic nations only contain two of the current ICC full member nations, so in Olympic terms, these major sporting nations could prove formidable opponents if they had the option to compete at T20 Cricket,” Fountain explains.

(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and anchor for the site’s YouTube Channel. His Twitter handle is @nishad_45)