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Cricket player translates swing to baseball

He’s never heard of Mark McGwire or Greg Maddux.

In fact, ask him who or what he knows about American baseball and the reply, after a few seconds of thought, is internationally predictable – the New York Yankees.

But Yuvraj Singh hasn’t let limited knowledge keep him from trying the United States’ national pastime. The former standout player on his high school cricket team in India is an emerging baseball player at Whittell High in Zephyr Cove.

“When I started playing baseball, I thought, ‘What kind of game is this?” But I’m excited to try it,” said Singh, known to his schoolmates as “Vic.” “We had baseball video games, but I had never seen a glove or bat. And there’s stealing bases and all that.”

The 15-year-old sophomore enrolled in the small school on the California/Nevada border earlier this year, when his father received a seven-year contract to work here. Many family members, including his mother, sister, brother and others, moved from Chandigarh, a town of nearly one million residents five hours north of New Delhi, to this mountain community of approximately 40,000.

The change in surroundings was easy compared to learning a new sport. While cricket is played with 11 players per side and the score is measured by ones, that’s where the similarities end.

Typical cricket games can last eight hours, with championship matches, or tests, lasting five days. Teams can bat, or stroke, for days until the opposition gets 10 outs, or dismisses the hitting team. There are only two bases, wickets, at opposite ends and batsmen trade places based on how well the ball is hit. There are no balls or strikes, rather the bowler and fielders try to hit the wooden wicket that the batsman is defending or running to. A sucessfully hit wicket equals one out. There are two innings and a team hits until all 11 players have been called out. Interestingly, outs aren’t automatic. When a batted ball is caught in the air or some other play worthy of an out is made, the fielding team must ask one of two umpires to make the call.

With the preceding explanation equal to the knowledge a Little League player would learn before tee ball, it’s not hard to see why Singh found the American game difficult to comprehend.

“Compared to baseball, cricket is a simple game. The hardest thing to learn was stealing. It’s confusing because you have to pay attention to what the pitcher is doing, his footing and stepping. And you have to get all kinds of signals from the third base coach,” Singh said.

In addition, Singh had to get used to a different style of bat and learn to hit airborne, not bounced, pitches.

“I found it strange hitting with a round bat. You’ve got to hold it in a different position and angle and wait for your pitch. If they’d let me use a cricket bat in baseball, oh, that would be fun – a home run on every pitch. A waist-high pitch without a bounce out of the park,” said Singh, who has a season total of six hits, including a double for his first hit. “I can make contact with a baseball almost every time. I’ve got the eye from playing cricket.”

Whittell High coach Brian Geimer originally recruited Singh from the track team, where he was hoping to become a high jumper. The coach noticed Singh playing catch one day after practice and encouraged him to try baseball.

“It’s an adventure teaching him to play. He needs to learn the finer points of the game,” Geimer said.

One of those finer points was using a glove. In cricket, only the wicket keeper, or catcher, wears hand protection. All other fielders catch the five- to six-ounce wooden ball with their bare hands.

“It hurts to catch the ball with bare hands if you don’t do it correctly. But there’s techniques,” Singh said. “It’s much easier to catch a ball with a glove. You just have to get under it and the rest happens automatically. But I hope my friends in India don’t see me wearing one.”

But even his friends would be happy to know that Singh’s instincts took over during what he calls his best baseball catch. Playing the outfield, Singh tracked down a hard-hit liner and snagged it out of the air with his ungloved hand.

“He’s got the basic feel for the game. But at times it’s comical to watch. The first time he hit the ball he ran to third base and was carrying the bat,” joked Geimer about a play that Singh swears didn’t happen. “But Vic has all of the tools and is going to be a good player.”

One skill Singh carried over from cricket is his ability to pitch. Considered the best pitcher, or bowler, on his India team, Singh has quickly found his way into the Whittell rotation. But he’s had to pick up a few tips along the way.

“The first day in practice, coach said I’d most likely pitch in the next game. He gave me a crash course in pitching, like balks and things like that, to get used to it. That was confusing,” he said. “I was the fastest bowler on my team. But this is completely different. I thought it was strange to not run up before throwing. You just stand there. And there’s a batter just standing there. Then you’ve got to get a signal.”

On top off the mechanics of the position, there is the individual pitches. While baseball features a fastball, curveball, slider, changeup and others, cricket bowlers offer many different tosses, including in-cutter, out-cutter, off-cutter, in-sinker, out-sinker, leg-spin, off-spin, leg-break, off-break and googly – just to name a few. Add to that a bounce off either tightly cut grass or firm dirt and bowlers have a virtually unlimited arsenal.

Perhaps the easiest adjustment to the American game has been how the other Warriors have helped their new teammate. According to Geimer, the players have taken Singh under their wing, helping the newcomer to comprehend the game in exchange for a glimpse into his former pastime.

“Vic brought his cricket stuff to practice one day and the kids were fascinated by it. They try to help Vic understand what he’s doing and have been very supportive,” Geimer said.

Added Singh, “They’re helping me a lot. And I need it.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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