A step in the right direction

Third title on the trot...Jubilant members of the Railways team with their gold medals.-PICS: SANDEEP SAXENA

The decision to adopt graded payments for players is a shot in the arm for Indian basketball. Over to Kamesh Srinivasan.

The considerable potential of Indian basketball was on view yet again as 50 men's and women's teams provided eight days of warm entertainment in New Delhi that was reeling in blustery cold conditions.

The 61st National Championship was not very different from the previous edition, held in Ludhiana, as Railways, showing all-round efficiency, won both the men's and women's titles with predictable ease. However, there was a clear sign that the game would take the next step towards progress.

It was not that some exciting talent had surfaced, providing hope of a new dawn for Indian basketball, but there were signs that clearly hinted that the available talent would be nurtured carefully.

There was not much difference in the overall prize money, as the winners, runners-up and the third-placed teams collected Rs.1,50,000, Rs.1,00,000 and Rs.50,000 respectively in the men's and women's sections. Yet, what was heartening was the fact that the Nationals was used as a platform to provide ‘graded payments' to a bunch of players, coaches and support staff.

Thanks to the whole-hearted support of IMG-Reliance, which has vowed to improve Indian basketball along with a few other games, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) has offered Rs.30,000 per month to each of the eight players in the top grade — Yadwinder Singh, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Geethu Anna Jose and P. Anitha (all from Railways), Jagdeep Singh Bains (Punjab), Trideep Rai (Uttarakhand) and sisters Prashanti Singh and Akanksha Singh (Delhi) — with retrospective effect from October 2010.

Sixteen players were selected for Grade ‘B' with Rs. 20,000 per month, and 41 players, mainly from the junior category, were chosen for Grade ‘C' with Rs.10,000 per month.

With seven coaches — Ram Kumar, Rajinder Singh, Sat Prakash Yadav, S. K. Bhaskar, Sheeba Maggon, Prasanna Menon and Abdul Hamid Khan — being offered Rs.30,000 per month each and cash incentives being awarded to a 10-member support staff, the BFI has actually disbursed more than Rs.40 lakh.

More than the cash incentives what was encouraging was that players from all the teams were taken care of well. They were accommodated in about 300 hotel rooms. Breakfast and lunch were organised for the players at a common dining area near their hotels, while dinner was provided to them at the venue.

Silver streak... Railways women's team with its eighth successive trophy.-

Once the players are looked after well, their game automatically takes wings.

It came as no surprise that the unfancied Kerala was able to stop the group topper, Tamil Nadu, in its tracks in the men's quarterfinals. It was a shock for Tamil Nadu no doubt, but the team had lost its way after having dominated for the best part of the match and was left with far too much to cover in the end. In Mihir Pandey, Tamil Nadu had a classy player but the team failed to strike as a unit when it mattered most.

In contrast was Railways men's team which did not rely solely on its best players Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Yadwinder Singh in the final against Services. Coach Ram Kumar, son of the legendary Khushi Ram, has so much understanding of the game that he has assigned specific duties to his players in different situations. It was indeed a delight to watch Railways play as a well-knit unit.

Services, no doubt, had the firepower, but injuries to a couple of players affected the team to some extent. Services was unable to combine as well as Railways did and that made the difference in the final.

For Railways men's team, it was its third title on the trot. As for Railways women's team, the title was its eighth in succession.

With the cream of the women players in its fold, Railways has actually won 26 of the last 28 editions. Only Punjab (in 1987-88) and Delhi (in 2002-03) have been able to beat Railways in the final.

Geetu Anna Jose, at 6ft 2in, has been able to give a new identity to Indian women's basketball, but it will need a concerted effort to make the sport more attractive and less predictable at the National level.

Delhi, with a clutch of good players, including the sisters Prashanti Singh, Akanksha Singh and Pratima Singh, and captain Raspreet Sidhu, has done well to develop into a strong unit. However, it lacked the force to question the supremacy of Railways.

Perhaps the fact that Divya Singh, the best woman player Delhi has ever had and who has the experience of competing in the U.S. collegiate circuit, had opted out of the team to help out in the organisational aspects had affected Delhi. But there was no denying the fact that Railways was better trained and had too many quality players who could rise to the occasion.

No doubt there are academies like the one in Ludhiana which have been spotting and honing talent, but with the support of IMG-Reliance, basketball in India can really make a quantum leap. With quality television coverage, the sport has the potential to become popular in the country.

THE RESULTS

Men's final: Railways 74 (Arjun Singh 27, Gagandeep Singh 13) bt Services 62 (Jayaram Jat 25, Dalip Kumar 14, Sambhaji Kadam 10).

Semifinals: Railways 84 (Vishesh Bhriguvanshi 21, Gagandeep Singh 20, Arjun Singh 18, Yadwinder Singh 12) bt Punjab 72 (Jagdeep Singh Bains 24, Talwinderjit Singh Sahi 23, Amritpal Singh 10); Services 86 (Dalip Kumar 26, Jayaram Jat 22, Praveen Kumar 12, Gopal Ram 10, Naresh Grewal 10) bt Kerala 70 (Basil Philip 17, T. S. Abhilash 14, Eudrick Pereira 14, K. R. Nikhil 10).

Women's final: Railways 95 (Geetu Anna Jose 29, M. Pushpa 15, Anju Lakra 15, P. Anitha 13, R. K. Smruthi 12) bt Delhi 55 (Raspreet Sidhu 16, Prashanti Singh 16, Akanksha Singh 10).

Semifinals: Railways 97 (P. Anitha 23, Ranjini Jose 21, Geetu Anna Jose 17, Anju Lakra 10) bt Chhattisgarh 60 (K. Kavita 15, Aakansha Singh 13, Aruna Kindo 12); Delhi 64 (Prashanti Singh 25, Raspreet Sidhu 19) bt Tamil Nadu 61 (S. Kokila 19, Alagu Tamizh Mozhi 14, A. Vidhya Mani 12).