February 4, 2011

Chhattisgarh star Anju Lakra set to defend her home ground in the Federation Cup

With the Indian basketball fraternity focusing more and more towards the youth and the future of the game, 27-year-old Anju Lakra became an outcast to the system. After being part of several senior teams, including the FIBA Asia Basketball Championships (ABC) for Women in Chennai in 2009, Anju was snubbed from the side when selections were made for India’s first ever appearance in the Asian Games in Guangzhou after a 28-year-gap.

But with age comes maturity: Anju, who has been playing the game for 15 years now, has taken the snub as a motivation to make it to the biggest stage again. “Maybe this time I wasn’t good enough for the team, but the Asian Games will take place again in four years, and now, I will be aiming for them,” she said. With the next edition of the ABC to take place in August this year, Anju also wishes to get a call-up to the camp for the squad that will head to Japan.

Back in domestic action though, Anju continued her Midas touch with the game this year: she was part of the Indian Railways side that again won the National Championship in Delhi last month, and towards the end of January, she carried her home state Chhattisgarh to the final of the Savio Cup in Mumbai, only to lose in the final to Southern Railway. For her extraordinary efforts in the tournament, Anju was named the Savio Cup’s Best Women Player.

Anju had a curious start to basketball – back at age 11, the tomboy approached her PT teacher at her school in Billai, hoping to get a chance to learn Hockey. The PT teacher recommended Anju towards Handball instead. It was her another year of learning Handball in her school until one day, Chhattisgarh Basketball’s Secretary Rajesh Patel spotted her playing. “You should try basketball,” he suggested.

And Anju was hooked.

Patel has a formidable reputation for building basketball in Chhattisgarh - Around 120 players have received training from him and received government jobs under sports quota. He has been the coach of the Indian Junior and Youth women basketball teams and 25 players trained by him have represented the Indian national team.

Luckily for Anju, she wisely took up his suggestion and shifted sports. Back then, before the formation of Chhattisgarh as a separate state, Anju played at the Sub-Junior and Youth level for the Madhya Pradesh side. When asked if it was strange to separate into a new state in 2000, Anju replied that on the contrary, it was a positive thing. “We had so many good players from the Chhattisgarh area who couldn’t make it to the talented MP side back then,” she said, “When Chhattisgarh was formed, I was happy that so many other players who were playing with me in Billai got a chance to represent the state.”

And in less than a year, Anju was back playing National Basketball – this time for Chhattisgarh, and in the Women’s Festival in Haldia, West Bengal. It didn’t take long for her to face her former teammates and her former state when Chhattisgarh faced MP in the third place playoff of the tournament. Anju and Chhattisgarh prevailed. “It was very exciting to play them and beat them for the first time!” she said.

Since her youth, Anju has been a mark of consistency, and a model for many young girls out of Chhattisgarh hoping to choose basketball as a way forward. She played her first game for India in the Junior ABC in New Delhi in 2000. Her first Senior call-up came a year later for the ABC in Bangkok. She played in more major tournaments, including the Senior ABC in 2005 and the ABC back home in Chennai, 2009.

Her versatile skills and ability to lead on court has made her a valuable asset to whoever she has represented – be it Indian Railways or Chhattisgarh. Anju is a 5 foot 4 forward, equally adept at playing as a playmaker and a scorer, although the strongest part of her game is definitely her accuracy from the long range.

Chhattisgarh lost to Southern Railway in the final of the Savio Cup, where Anju had to face several of her Indian Railways opponents like legendary Center Geethu Anna Jose and Anitha Pau Durai. “We have been going to the Savio Cup a lot and performing well – but to beat Southern Railway, we have to find a way of stopping Geethu,” Anju admits, “We can match up to them in other ways but still don’t have that size. It will take a couple more years before we can develop some talented tall girls to represent Chhattisgarh.”

“For now, our tactic is to try and outrun our opponent to score,” she said, “I have been playing well offensively, but whenever you focus too much on offense, your defense suffers. This is an area of my game which I feel needs the most improvement.”

Next up on Anju’s plate will be protecting her home turf, as the 25th Federation Cup, featuring the best eight teams from last year’s National Championship, is set to take place in Chhattisgarh from 10-15th of February. It will be a chance for Chhattisgarh and Anju to get immediate retribution from their rivals. “We will be playing on our home court,” Anju said, “So we will be extra motivated to play harder. Our main rivals are Indian Railways and Delhi, and these are the two teams that we have to keep our eye on.”

Even after 15 years in the game, Anju still remains hungry for more success in basketball and continues to dominate, especially since her performances at the Savio Cup. She credits everything to the game for helping her become who she is. “It is basketball that has brought me here,” she says, “In basketball, I have found a place where I can clear my mind. As I’ve grown with the game, I have become more independent and confident.”

“Every time I’m on a basketball court I have felt a great, family atmosphere,” she added, “All the coaches I have worked with have been supportive and helped me improve. That is why this game is so important.”

With no shortage of confidence and motivate, Anju will definitely be one to watch once the Federation Cup tips off in Raipur next week!

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