Easy for Uttaranchal and Railways

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

AT home, Punjab is a hard nut to crack. However, Uttaranchal, the new force in the national scene, humbled the formidable host in the final of the National basketball championship in Ludhiana. The men from Uttaranchal displayed flair, firepower and tactical acumen in the final to claim their first national title.

The triumphant Uttaranchal men. -- Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

With two Tamil Nadu players and a few more from other strong teams such as Bihar having joined the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), Uttaranchal was easily the strongest team on paper in the 55th edition of the championship. However, the challenge before the team in recent months had been to harness the individual brilliance available into a strong combination. Coaches J. B. S. Maan and Vinod Vachani worked hard to blend the youthful energy of the juniors with the experience of the seniors. It paid dividends — one could clearly see the impressive manner in which the players worked together in the tournament.

Uttaranchal had players who made the difference such as S. Sridhar, Shabeer Ahamad, Desh Raj and Mohit Bhandari. While Sridhar and Ahamad were part of the Tamil Nadu team that had been champion in the last five editions of the tournament, Raj and Bhandari were former players of the Tatas. Nishant Kumar and Suresh Kumar Ranot also played to their potential, especially in the final, and the tallest member of the Uttaranchal team, R. Murali Krishna, also rose to the occasion.

It was heartening to see the efficient defence of Uttaranchal in the final, when it cut the prolific Talwinderjit Singh to size. With Amit Prasher not being able to slot his three points with customary efficiency, Punjab suddenly found it difficult to score, especially in the climax.

The depth of the Uttaranchal side carried it through in the final. The dynamic Desh Raj had been forced to sit out the final following a knee injury sustained during the semifinal against the Railways. The speedy S. Sridhar, who brings about a tremendous thrust to the team's fortunes with his imagination and accuracy, was hurt in the stomach midway during the final and was forced to retreat to the bench. The rest of the team rallied around Shabeer Ahamad and Murali Krishna to make it a memorable affair.

Uttaranchal's tactical acumen was illustrated when it sidestepped the challenge from the home team in the tough pool `A' superleague encounter that decided the group topper. Having beaten defending champion Tamil Nadu the previous evening in a thriller, Uttaranchal opted to rest its key players after just two minutes from the start and thereby allowed an easy run for Punjab, which had to win the match to satisfy the home crowd.

The result meant that Tamil Nadu and Punjab would meet in one semifinal leaving Uttaranchal the relatively easy task of defeating teams from the other half. Uttaranchal also did not allow Punjab to gauge its full strength, which would have stood the home team in good stead in the final.

Punjab may have lost the final, but it won hearts. By beating Tamil Nadu two times, Punjab showed that it had young players who would take the team far in the years to come. The towering Parminder Singh had been brought back to try and help the team win on home soil. Parminder, who had skipped the previous edition of the National Championship at Cuttack, was still good enough and the rest of the team rallied around him to give many moments of thorough entertainment for the basketball fraternity.

The seasoned coach Dr. S. Subramanian had done everything right except keep the team ready for the final stretch. Maybe, Punjab had peaked a bit early and was physically and emotionally drained to challenge Uttaranchal in the final.

Parminder Singh (right) was brought back into the squad by Punjab, but the veteran couldn't help his side land the title. S. Robinson (left) was the thirdplaced Tamil Nadu's best player. -- Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

Tamil Nadu, which finished third, was literally a one-man show as it depended too much on the 24-year-old S. Robinson, who has been playing the Iranian league for the last few months. Robinson tried his best, but he was not in his best form to take the team far. Moreover, the team was error-prone and was lacking finish. Because of this its confidence was not high. That its second best shooter A. D. Sukavaneswaran was inconsistent did not help matters.

Tamil Nadu was not able to come up with anything substantial to put it past Punjab in the semifinal. The team, to its credit, put up an excellent fight against Uttaranchal in the league before losing 84-87. Quite appropriately, Tamil Nadu old boy S. Sridhar sank a basket at 85-84 to clinch the issue for Uttaranchal in the memorable encounter. Ironically, Sridhar had a low-profile stint with Tamil Nadu as a player because Robinson and Shabeer Ahamad were in the limelight most of the time.

Unlike in the past, Railways and Services were not able to assert themselves and Kerala, the runner-up of the previous edition, went down in the quarterfinal to Uttaranchal where it squandered a 12-point lead just after halftime to the eventual champion.

In the women's section, Railways was far too powerful as it recorded the biggest victory in the history of the championship in the final against Delhi. The team scored as many as 126 points and won the final by 69 points. Railways skipper Ranjini Peter had a set of talented, experienced and enthusiastic players in Shanti Saldanha, Geo Blessen, V. P. Sini, Sofi Sam, Manisha Kaprekar, Ivy Cherian, P. Anitha, Geetha Anna Jose, Sheeja Mathew, Anju Lakra and Seema Singh, who were all ready to out-perform each other.

In the last 20 editions, Railways had lost once to Punjab in the final by one point and then to Delhi more recently in the 53rd edition in Hyderabad. The team had a month-long preparatory camp in Lucknow and asserted itself once again in an emphatic fashion.

The dominant Railways women. -- Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

Delhi, with most of the players from MTNL, was easily the second best but Shiba Maggon and Divya Singh did not have the support to make a more meaningful challenge against the Railways in the final.

Chhattisgarh showed that it had a wealth of quality players though it had lost two good performers to the Railways in Anju Lakra and Seema Singh. The talented players from the states are attracted by the prospect of a better and more secure job with the Railways though this may often lead to the weakening of the state teams.

The Punjab Basketball Association, which had a good sponsor in Dhanoa, organised the tournament with tremendous enthusiasm and efficiency. There was even an attempt to provide exhaustive statistics, a la NBA in the US, but the staff handling the job was not that well-trained to come up with hard statistics. Nevertheless, this was indeed a welcome move and a set of well-trained staff with sound knowledge of basketball and computer skills would be able to delight the game's fraternity in future championships by providing interesting facts and figures.

By ensuring `live' television coverage through Doordarshan for the last three days, paying a fee of around Rs. 2 lakhs, the basketball association showed that it was keen to build the game despite financial constraints.

Overall, there is a strong attempt on the part of the administrators to bring about a healthy change in the profile of Indian basketball, and it is now for the players to ride the tide and make the sport a lively affair.

The results

Men (final): Uttaranchal 75 (R. Murali Krishna 14, Suresh Kumar Ranot 13, Mohit Bhandari 12) beat Punjab 59 (Talwinderjit Singh 14, Parminder Singh 13).

Third place: Tamil Nadu 91 (S. Robinson 31, R. Chandra Sekar 18, A. D. Sukavaneswaran 14, S. Gopinath 13) beat Railways 60 (Ranjeet Singh 20, Mahender Singh Shekhawat 10).

Semifinals: Punjab 87 (Talwinderjit Singh 32, Parminder Singh 16, Jasjot Singh 15, Yadwinder Singh 13) beat Tamil Nadu 67 (R. Shiva Shankar 16, S. Robinson 15, A. D. Sukavaneswaran 14, John de Plato 12); Uttaranchal 74 (Shabeer Ahamad 24, Desh Raj 22, S. Sridhar 13) beat Railways 69 (Trideep Rai 31, Ranjeet Singh 16, Mihir Pandey 12).

Women (final): Railways 126 (Sofi Sam 24, Ranjini Peter 20, P. Anitha 17, Geeta Anna Jose 12, Seema Singh 12, Ivy Cherian 11) beat Delhi 57 (Shiba Maggon 21, Divya Singh 19).

Third place: Chhattisgarh 76 (Kawaljeet Kaur 20, M. Pushpa 17, Aakansha Singh 16, Rakhi Rajput 13) beat Tamil Nadu 37 (N. Shyamala 11).

Semifinals: Railways 113 (Seema Singh 21, Sofi Sam 17, Ranjini Peter 17, Anju Lakra 10, Geo Blessen 10) beat Tamil Nadu 31; Delhi 84 (Divya Singh 38, Shiba Maggon 22, L. S. Savitha 11) beat Chhattisgarh 68 (Kawaljeet Kaur 20, Bharti Netam 17, Aakansha Singh 11, M. Pushpa 10).