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By Amlan Chakraborty
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Baseball is one of several sports seeking a slice of the huge Indian market and its similarity with cricket, often called a religion in the country of 1.4 billion, could give it a head start, Major League Baseball (MLB) officials hope.
MLB spent a decade and half studying the market before opening a sixth international office in New Delhi last year and was encouraged by the throwing, hitting and catching techniques that link America's pastime and India's obsession.
"Cricket is such a big sport here. So catching, throwing and swing of the bat come very naturally," Ryo Takahashi, who heads MLB's business and commercial operations in India, told Reuters.
"The sheer size of this country, the population -- to be able to hook India to baseball, that definitely boosts the sport worldwide."
Takahashi, perhaps wisely, said the plan was not to try to supplant cricket in India.
"We're not trying to bring baseball as an alternative, or as a replacement, by any means," he said.
"Anything new, whether it's music or restaurants, it's exciting. So new sport is something that might resonate.
"Within that, if there's some sort of familiarity, it's easier for people to relate. I think it's a good mix, it's a perfect mix."
The National Basketball Association (NBA), which opened an office in India in 2011, staged two pre-season games in Mumbai in October last year.
MLB, which has previously played games in Mexico, Japan and Australia, made a foray into Europe last year when the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox took their rivalry to London.
Takahashi said it would be premature to do something similar in India, where MLB has attracted more than 30,000 school students in 320 workshops since opening its office.
"We eventually want to get there. I don't think the demand is here yet, so it wouldn't make sense to suddenly do that," he said.
"MILLION DOLLAR ARM"
The league also plans to revive 'Million Dollar Arm', a contest that began as a reality television show and inspired a 2014 Hollywood movie.
Takahashi said the contest, which drew thousands of aspiring pitchers competing to earn a tryout with a Major League team, would now be an annual affair.
"When it happened, there was a buzz. We plan to do it again ... and make sure we were able to capitalise on that."
The Indian men's team played in the Asian Championship in 1987 and 1989 but the country's Olympic Association only recognised the national amateur baseball federation in 2002.
The long-term goal remained to facilitate Indian representation at the elite level, Takahashi said.
"I think there's a lot of ways for us to measure success. It could be a situation like Yao Ming for the NBA (in China). It could be TV rating numbers, it could be the national team of India competing in the World Baseball Classic...
"We have the resources, we have the experience and we definitely have the will ... Tough to put a date to it but I think definitely all of it is achievable," added Takahashi.
The COVID-19 outbreak has slowed down that effort but head of baseball development David Palese said they used the time to extend the coaching network through series of webinars.
"Ideally we want to be on the field ... but in the last three-four months, we've made that virtual connection with over 1,000 participants," he said.
(Reporting by Amlan Chakraborty in New Delhi; editing by Nick Mulvenney/Peter Rutherford)