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The little-known influence that American baseball played on Australian cricket

ABC Grandstand logoABC Grandstand 17/08/2019 James Bennett
Baseball has had a stronger influence on Australian cricket than most Aussies know. (Supplied: Ian Knight, SMP Images / Reuters: Andrew Boyers) © Provided by Australian Broadcasting Corporation Baseball has had a stronger influence on Australian cricket than most Aussies know. (Supplied: Ian Knight, SMP Images / Reuters: Andrew Boyers)

First introduced on the Victorian goldfields among American miners, the story of baseball has long been intertwined with that of Australian cricket.

In fact, one decorated Australian captain even attributes his success to a youth playing catcher.

Ian Chappell tells the story of a famous Chicago Cubs catcher from the Depression era, who is approached outside a hotel by a man wearing a suit.

"You probably don't remember me," the suit-wearing man says.

The catcher, Gabby Hartnett, looks him up and down.

"I don't know your name, but I know you couldn't hit high and outside," Hartnett replies.

Chappell, Australia's cricket captain from 1971 to 1975, recalls thinking, "That's a catcher".

"You had to look at where the hitter was standing, you obviously had to take note of how he swung at a certain pitch, how the hitter reacted to a certain pitch, so things like that probably stood me in good stead for the captaincy," Chappell says.

Chappell played catcher as a schoolboy and at state level for South Australia, before switching to cricket full-time.

"The first two things you look at are his grip and his stance, and you'll get some information from that that'll help you plan a strategy," he says.

"But you also need to watch and see, how does he react to different deliveries? There's plenty of information there if you know where to look.

"It certainly didn't hurt my [cricket] captaincy that I'd been a baseball catcher.

"I've always said I had an equal love for both cricket and baseball."

Miners and migrants

Baseball is widely believed to have arrived in Australia via American miners who came in the 1850s gold rush.

The earliest newspaper record actually comes from Tasmania's Colonial Times.

In a September 1855 article titled "Sabbath Desecration", the newspaper described "a number of boys and young men gathering on Sunday afternoons … playing cricket, base-ball etc", "making great noise", and "offending persons of moral and religious feeling".

There are numerous references to the game being played in Melbourne and Sydney later in the 19th century.

A story in the Australasian newspaper from July 9, 1887 reports on "the peculiarly national sport of base-ball" being played to celebrate American independence, even daring to describe the spectators at Albert as enjoying "a pleasant break in the monotony of football".

Winter's game

Years later after World War II, American serviceman who migrated to Australia — to marry Australian women they had met — started up some teams and leagues.

Baseball was played as a winter sport so as not to compete with cricket.

"That was the major thing," says Victorian Grant Weir, who played baseball for Australia at the Olympics in 1988.

"Cricketers who didn't want to get bashed around playing football would go and play baseball.

"Because in Melbourne — still to this day — there are strong winter leagues, so that will get your hand and eye in batting and improve your fielding."

So what exactly crosses over?

Australian Dave Nilsson was a catcher for major league baseball team the Milwaukee Brewers from 1992 to 1999, and agreed with Chappell's assessment.

Nilsson says he can "absolutely" see the commonality between catching and cricket captaincy.

"Analysing an opponent's swing, how to attack that, it's just part of being a catcher," Nilsson says.

"That's the game within the game — the mental battle to figure out what they're thinking."

Although Nilsson's career was predominantly spent on the receiving end, he is also credited with helping one Aussie cricketer master a baseball-style delivery.

Nilsson showed fast bowler and fellow Queenslander Craig McDermott how to bowl a variation of baseball's knuckleball which the pair called a "spider".

McDermott used it as a slower delivery which dipped at the last minute, fooling the batsman.

But Nilsson also saw something more — a fierceness and aggression that initially drew him to baseball.

"In the 80s and the 90s cricket was a very reserved sport," Nilsson says.

"In a lot of ways it was boring, it was about not making a mistake rather than being aggressive.

"What has evolved in cricket is that it is now a much more aggressive game — you've seen that in the hitting, in T20, I think a lot of that stems from baseball."

A Young guy in the field

Fielding is the most widely touted aspect of cricket to benefit from baseball's influence, and Australia has one American in particular to thank.

In a 2010 interview, former Major League baseballer Mike Young told Cricket Australia he had "never even seen" cricket when he came to Australia to play baseball in 1981.

It did not stop him from becoming a highly influential coach.

Young moved into coaching and guided Australia's Olympic baseball team before a 2001 meeting with then cricket coach John Buchanan.

Young told Cricket Australia he thought his position as an outsider was an advantage, saying "it allows me to see the game with a different perspective".

Australian paceman Ryan Harris, who trained under Young, said his enthusiasm and passion was infectious.

"He wanted to make you better," says Harris, who retired in 2015 and is now Australia's bowling coach.

Harris credits the American with "revolutionising" Australia's fielding in the early 2000s.

"Ponting, Clark, Symonds — he made that team into a super team," Harris says.

"The stuff that he did coaching us — getting your feet set, using your bottom half to generate more power, things that baseballers do — I'm definite that that's why we became the fielding powerhouse."

Young coached Grant Weir and the Australian baseball side at the 1988 Olympics, and Weir describes the American as "eccentric" but "the best coach I ever had".

Back to the future?

Ian Chappell fondly remembers running out South African batsman Tony Greig at the MCG, who "probably thought as a slip fielder I couldn't throw".

"But we [Chappell and brothers Greg and Trevor] grew up throwing the baseball, we all had good arms," Chappell says.

Playing catch is perhaps one of baseball's most time-honoured rituals.

Ryan Harris says it builds vital strength at an early age and he reckons more aspiring cricketers should do it.

"Kids don't throw the ball in the street anymore," he laments.

"In India, they're out and about, playing, throwing the ball to each other every day."

Harris worries that Australian academies' focus on batting and bowling technique is coming at the expense of well-rounded young players.

"Our young guys, we get to carnivals and watch them throw, and just think, 'how have they got to representative sides?'" he says.

"They can barely throw powerfully over 20 metres. If you've only got one or one-and-a-half skills, you won't go very far.

"We've got to get these kids fielding more," Harris reckons.

Catch, anyone?

Pictures: Best shots from the second Test of the 2019 Ashes series

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