RAILWAYS all the way

AVINASH NAIR

The bulwark... Trideep Rai played a big hand in Railways' title triumph.-RAJEEV BHATT

AS the saying goes, "Cometh the hour, cometh the man... ." Well, Riyazuddin Qureshi, the unflappable Indian Railways forward and shooter, proved just that.

With the captain and main shooter Trideep Rai benched, thanks to five fouls — the last one an `intentional one' for questioning referee Gens Varghese's decision — the Railways team was in need of a miracle.

Trailing the much-fancied Punjab by seven points in the last quarter, there was only one team that looked like lifting the title; or so one thought.

Riyazuddin, however, had other ideas. Taking charge, controlling play and shooting beautifully, the strong lad turned the tables on Punjab to give Indian Railways a well deserved 90-81 victory and the Edward Todd Memorial trophy, the symbol of supremacy for men in the National Basketball Championship, after a gap of 12 years.

Though Trideep Rai and Riyazuddin carried the weight of the Railways hopes, not many gave the team much of a chance. Admittedly, the quick exit of Punjab's Yadwinder and Talwinder — soon after Trideep was benched — made it that much easier for the Railways. Yet, that shouldn't take any credit away from Riyazuddin's stupendous tally of 40 points, including four three-pointers.

Railways' chief coach Ajmer Singh and assistant coach Ram Kumar — both pillars of Indian basketball for most of the 1980s and early 1990s — should be very proud of their team; and Riyazuddin in particular.

Uttaranchal, the holders, were the first to fall to the Railways on the opening day.

Despite finishing on top of Group A, not many fancied Railways' chance of progressing to the final, what with the daunting prospect of taking on a high calibre unit from Tamil Nadu (TN) in the semis.

The Railways, however, had other plans and put it across the fancied TN through a combination of tight play, fighting spirit and never-say-die attitude.

TN had virtually sewn up the match, sitting pretty on a big lead until it came a cropper in the dying minutes against the hustle and bustle of a Railways team that just refused to die.

On the distaff side, too, the oft-crowned Railways brooked no competition.

Pillar of strength... Seema Singh was instrumental in Railways' success.-VINO JOHN

Though the Railways were without some big names like Rejini, Manisha, Ivy Cherian and Arnika Gurjar, the holders proved too hot to handle. Delhi, who had upstaged the Railways and put an end to its 14-year run in 2003, was expected to at least put up a fight if not turn the tables on the reigning champion. But it was not to be.

Kerala and Chattisgarh did look like pretty good teams until they ran into Railways and were thoroughly exposed.

The 89-point defeat that Kerala suffered at the hands of Railways in the semis was an embarrassment of sorts for the southern state, which, incidentally, has been the feeding point for most of the Railway teams.

Shanti Saldahna, the diminutive Railways captain, turned out to be the livewire of the team and drilled holes in the rival defences with regularity.

Importantly, she brought her taller team-mates — Seema Singh, Sofi Sam and Geetu Ann Jose — into play with intelligent passes that they could easily convert and help the team reel off impressive victories.

The women's team from Punjab — a name to reckon with in the past — seemed to have fallen by the wayside and, barring a player or two, looked rather pedestrian.

In other important matches, the men from Maharashtra and the women from Karnataka came through the lower rungs to lift the plate trophies, respectively.

A focus on youth meant that most of the teams sported a good blend of the young and the experienced — a sure sign that the game is being revived.

"There is a solid attempt to develop and take the game to the masses and with the young talent surfacing in good numbers all around the country and with the Federation adding on newer concepts to promote basketball, there is still hope" said a senior member of the basketball fraternity.

The way forward is for the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) to end the infighting and start looking at ways to market the sport better.

Final Standings:

Men: 1.Railways 2. Punjab 3. Tamil Nadu 4. Services 5. Uttaranchal 6. Karnataka 7. Rajasthan 8. Kerala 9. Delhi 10. Madhya Pradesh.

Women: Railways 2. Delhi 3. Chattisgarh 4. Kerala 5. Maharashtra 6. Madhya Pradesh 7. Punjab 8. Tamil Nadu 9. Karnataka 10. Haryana.