Young cagers unleashed

| Updated on September 05, 2014 Published on July 18, 2014

High five: The team, which hails from various parts of India, strikes a victory pose   -  Karan Madhok

A team of unknown players make Indian basketball history by beating China in China

The cavernous indoor basketball stadium at Wuhan Sports Centre in China was rather empty. But the few hundred Chinese spectators huddled around the court were loudly cheering on their home team. Facing them was a quiet bunch of 14 Indians — 12 players, an assistant coach and a physiotherapist — leading them all was a man by the name of Scott Flemming.

There was no reason to expect a different outcome on the night of July 13, during the 5th FIBA Asia Cup. If anything, after India’s loss in the opening game to Japan, coupled with China’s 2-0 winning streak meant that nobody gave the 61st ranked team a chance to beat the world’s 12th best team, that too on its own turf. When the match began though, it was a different story. Resorting to man-to-man defense for four straight quarters (which requires immense physical strength and stamina) the Indian team raced away to a double digit lead in the first quarter only to find favourites China mount a huge comeback and nose ahead 50-48 going into the final quarter.

“In the recent past, we have squandered away first-half leads, so we had to ensure that we kept our focus this time around,” coach Flemming said after the match. True to his words, in the final 10 minutes of play, India clamped down defensively yet again and on the offensive end made some sensational three-pointers and alley-oop dunks to take India to an epochal 65-58 win.

“To be honest I’m surprised we hadn’t beaten China earlier. We have always had the talent,” said Flemming, of the historic win in Indian basketball’s 80-year-long history.

From Bhiwani to Coimbatore

Until four years ago, all that Amrit Pal knew was tending to fields in Fatua village, near Amritsar, Punjab. “Whenever I’m at home, I join my family and we harvest everything like géhu (wheat), chaawal (rice) and sabziyaan (vegetables). The only sport we had heard of and used to play was kabaddi.”

When Amrit Pal began playing basketball due to his near 7ft height, he was joined by fellow beanpole Amjyot Singh, 6ft 6” player Yadwinder Singh and subsequently 6ft 9” inches tall Palpreet Singh Brar at the Ludhiana Basketball Academy in Punjab. Set up through funding from Punjab’s many wealthy NRI immigrants in the UK in 2003, the Ludhiana Basketball Academy has churned out an endless supply of talented forwards to the Indian national basketball team.

Around the same time, in Tamil Nadu, point guard Akilan Pari was making a dream-like journey of his own. From the remote hills of Valparai town in the Anamalais, he was invited to the NBA All Star Weekend in Houston, Texas.

Similarly, other players such as Vishesh Bhriguvanshi from Varanasi (UP), Pratham Singh from Bhilai (Chhattisgarh), Joginder and Narender from Bhiwani (Haryana), Rikin Pethani from Sabarkantha (Gujarat), Prakash Mishra from Ratlam (MP) and Prasanna Sivakumar from Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu) were coming together on court.

These 12 young players spoke different languages and came from contrasting cultures, but they all wanted the same goal: to change the way basketball is viewed and played in our country of more than a billion people.

“Earlier this year, we beat Angola (ranked 15) during the Lusofonia Games in Goa to win our first major international gold medal. I still remember that on our return train journey not one person in our compartment recognised who we were,” Narender said a few weeks ago. His long-time teammate Joginder, who played with him in Bhiwani and then on the Indian Air Force team and the Indian national team, adds, “The only thing that matters is that basketball receives the mass recognition it deserves.”

Few takers

Basketball is a largely unknown sport in India. The Indian men’s team ranks 61st in the world and after last year’s FIBA Asia Championship are placed 11th in Asia. An overwhelming majority of its international wins have come against countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. When India plays top Asian teams like China, Iran or South Korea, the yawning gulf becomes apparent. Frustrated at the poor showing in the last 80-odd years, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) finally tied up with the powerful sports conglomerate IMG Reliance in 2010.

Scott Flemming became the head coach in late 2012 with more than a hint of trepidation. A few of his foreign predecessors Kenny Natt, Pete Gaudet and, strength and conditioning coach, Zak Penwell had packed their bags in a hurry. In India, where administrative bottlenecks are aplenty, many coaches quit prematurely in sheer frustration. All of them were recruited by International Management Group (IMG), an international sports agency, financially aided by the Reliance Group. The late Harish Sharma, former BFI CEO and a national point guard himself in the ’70s, in a burst of inspiration (quite uncommon for an Indian sporting federation) signed a 30-year contract with the IMG Reliance conglomerate, essentially outsourcing all of BFI’s basketball development work in India in return for all the potential commercial rights.

Where the coaches before him fell short, Flemming succeeded because of his patience and vision. “This win has been a long time in the making, and I’m happy for these players more than myself. They are finally getting the recognition for all their hard work over the years,” he said.

“It is a milestone in Indian basketball,” said MS Venkataraman, a former Indian player in the ’50s, who held top administrative positions within the Tamil Nadu Basketball Association for over 60 years, “Our last significant triumph over a top Asian team came in the first Asian Games in 1951 in Delhi, at a time when basketball was still played on mud courts. So after 63 years to register this win against a team like China, which is the undisputed champion in Asia, is a great morale booster for Indian basketball.”

The closest that comes to the win over China is the 2004 triumph over Korea. That win was largely due to the individual brilliance of the man known as ‘India’s Michael Jordan’ S Robinson, from Puducherry, who scored more than 30 points in the game.

The Indian men’s basketball team, also known as the ‘Young Cagers’ has now jolted the Asian basketball hierarchy and awakened their countrymen — ‘unathletic’, ‘short’ Indians can actually be world beaters in a sport other than cricket. This ragtag bunch of unknowns is rewriting Indian basketball history.

Gopalakrishnan R is a travelling basketball writer and the co-creator of ekalavyas. com

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Published on July 18, 2014
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