June 5, 2017

Summer Slam – India prepares for an important season of international basketball

This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India on May 25, 2017. Click here for the original piece.

For most of us who have lived across the sweltering saunas of northern and central Indian plains, summer is the worst possible season for basketball. Temperatures in various Indian cities across the map – from Chhattisgarh and Odisha up to Delhi and Rajasthan – begin to rise ruthlessly, 40, 45 degrees, and even higher, leaving thermometers crying mercury tears of mercy. For the next few months, the safest place in the country is indoors.

This doesn’t bode well for the basketball community. Most of the basketball facilities across India are outdoors, in courts that get so hot under the direct heat of the summer sun that cracks flare up on the cement surfaces and the metal poles on either side turn into heat radiators. Basketballs get deflated quicker, water turns into sweat in a matter of seconds, and worst of all, there is the danger of strokes for the energy-drained players huffing back and forth in the heat. Most players radically change their practice schedules for outdoor courts in the summertime, showing up to play either in the earliest hours of the morning or well-after the sun has begun its descent at night.

This year, however, India will be gearing up for a big summer of basketball. With our national men and women’s teams both involved in the most-prestigious Asian basketball events, the hottest action this season will be performed by star players on court.

First up on the calendar is going to be the 2017 FIBA Asia Women’s Cup, the top women’s basketball championship for teams from the Asia and Oceania region and an initial qualifying tournament for the 2018 FIBA Asia Women’s Basketball World Cup in Spain. This tournament will be of added importance for India: scheduled from July 23-29, it will be held at Bengaluru’s Sree Kanteerava stadium (indoor and safe from the boiling temperatures outside!). It will be the first time since 2009 that India will host a major senior Asian basketball championship.

This is a biennial championship which was last held in Wuhan, China, in 2015. Japan’s Women’s squad have been on a hot streak in recent years, winning the last two iterations of this tournament. India have had a rollercoaster experience in the same span of time: in 2013, India gave their best-ever performance to finish at 5th place in Asia for the first time in history. In 2015, however, India lost all of their game and were relegated down to the lower division.

This is the first year that teams like Australia and New Zealand from Oceania will join Asian powerhouses like Japan, China, Korea, and Chinese Taipei to contend for the trophy. At the official draw for the event in Bengaluru last week, India were placed in the lower Division B, Group A, along with Sri Lanka, American Samoa, and their possible-toughest opponent in the Preliminary Round, Uzbekistan. India should be able to top their group, and if they can go on to win their division, they will qualify for the higher Division A in the next iteration of the championship.

Led by coach Paramdeep Singh, India will be hoping to qualify for the top tier with good performances in their homeland. The preparatory camp for the tournament began early this year and an exciting mix of veteran and youth talent – including Jeena Scaria, Anitha Pauldurai, Bhandavya Mahesha, Poojamol Subhashmon, Kavita Akula, Barkha Sonkar, Shireen Limaye, and Poonam Chaturvedi – will hope to have the team firing on all cylinders by July.

Meanwhile, India’s national men’s team will play in their corresponding event – the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup – from August 8 to 20 in Lebanon. This tournament, also including Oceania teams from the first time, will serve as an initial qualifier for the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China.

Like the Women’s tournament, the Men’s FIBA Asia Cup is also a biennial event. China, the host nation at the previous FIBA Asia Championship, are the reigning champions and have won gold for 16 of the 28 iterations of the event. Iran are the next best team in Asia and will enter this year’s tournament among the other favourites. Other top teams to watch will be Australia, Philippines, and Jordan.

With a fifth-consecutive victory at the South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) basketball championship in Male, Maldives earlier this week, India’s Men’s team secured their place at the FIBA Asia Cup. India have made steady improvements at the international stage and played in the tournament’s Quarter-Finals in 2015, where they finished at their highest position (8th) in twelve years.

Expectations are high for India this time around. Last year, the ‘Young Cagers’ made a splash at the FIBA Asia Challenge (a secondary international event) by defeating China, Philippines, and Chinese Taipei to post their best international performance in 27 years and finish at 7th place. Led by Coach Sappaniambalam Baskar, India could boast of a deep roster of talent, featuring Amritpal Singh, Amjyot Singh, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Yadwinder Singh, Palpreet Singh Brar, Akilan Pari, and potentially, India’s first NBA draftee Satnam Singh. Anything less than another quarter-final appearance would be considered a disappointment.

There is more international basketball for India’s youth squads later in the year as seasons change. Both India’s U16 Men and Women’s teams will be taking part in FIBA Asia U16 Championships. Bengaluru will again play host to the U16 Women’s tournament in October.

For now, the summer beckons, and no matter how difficult the season gets, there will be cool cocoons of basketball around the country, in early mornings, at late nights, and for some, in indoor courts. As India locks in for the massive international events, it could surely become a season to remember.

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