American missionaries pitch baseball in India's cricket citadel

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These are the dissidents, a small band of heretics plotting to storm the citadel. From afar, they are indistinguishable from their countrymen.

Eager-eyed and bursting with energy, they bustle around a scrubby field with a bat and ball, as do millions of young men at any hour on any day in south Asia. Then you spot the difference. The bat is not crafted from English willow but Japanese aluminium. Their peaked caps bear not the logos of their worshipped national team but the unmistakable markings of the invading forces - the interlocked letters "NY".

In Chandigarh, the north Indian city designed by Le Corbusier as an avante-garde urban grid at the foot of the Himalayas, another cultural revolution isquietly unfolding. It is part of a highly ambitious undertaking; an attempt to introduce baseball to a nation whose males can barely walk down the street without performing an imaginary off-drive, hitting Glenn McGrath for six.

Two American envoys from Major League Baseball are on their first mission to India to help the sport gain a foothold, as it has elsewhere in Asia - Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, for example. About 6,000 young Indians have taken up baseball in the past few years. There are amateur national and regional championships and a Little League.

But this is overshadowed by the massive and obsessive following and the vast wealth generated by cricket. In Chandigarh alone, a city of 850,000 that has produced such cricketing giants as Kapil Dev and Dinesh Mongia, there are 64 league teams.

Rick Dell, 49, from Princeton, New Jersey, and Tom Dedin, 62, from Denver, Colorado, both former college coaches, have been sent in by MLB to help to change that imbalance. Their presence, for an eight-day training programme in Chandigarh - run by India's amateur baseball federation - was viewed as a matter of sufficient import to merit a nervous editorial in the Indian Express newspaper.

"The jury may still be out on whether the invasion of Iraq was an opening act in America's imperial project, but just survey the other, cultural, infiltration on the cards," it began. It gave the envoys a guarded welcome - but only on the basis that acquiring a few of baseball's ground skills, such as the low, flat throw, might make Indians even better at cricket.

Like many men of his calling, coach Dell has an imposing manner. He is a New York Yankees fan and believes its entwined NY logo is "the single most popular non-religious symbol in the world". Game development is about three things, he declares: first, his training programme; then licensing and merchandise; and finally - some years down the road - television contracts.

He knows nothing about cricket, but it has excited his curiosity.

"I watch cricket on the TV. That man Truscot! [Marcus Trescothick, England & Somerset] He's the man! See, I am getting to know their names. He's the man! He's a great left-hand hitter," he said.

India is the latest stop in an odyssey that has taken Mr Dell - MLB's regional co-ordinator for Asia-Pacific - to scores of countries, including Russia and Estonia.

He swats away any suggestion that he is the vanguard of a US business with its sights trained on India's potentially vast consumer market, and will one day turn this country's sports fans into the logo-festooned popcorn guzzlers who pack America's ball parks.

"Baseball isn't an American game. It's the world's game. America just got in there first. This is not about America, but about Major League Baseball, which is an international corporation. It's not about class, race, religion, colour. It's a classless operation. We treat everyone equally."

This may sound mere rhetoric, but it carries weight with some of the dozens of young Indians selected for his training programme. Sahil Jain, 19, said he was drawn to baseball because the competition for places in Indian cricket teams was unfair and intense.

"There is too much personal bias and politics in cricket, and too many coaches who only favour their own pupils," Sahil grumbled. "We have a much better chance of making the national level if we play baseball."

Yet his conversion is incomplete. Only a few minutes elapsed before he whipped out an autograph book to show off the signatures of Kapil Dev and Yurav Singh, two men who owe their godlike status to the game of the old empire, not the new.