July 29, 2017

India needs to make home support count for the FIBA Asia Women’s Cup 2017

This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India Sports on July 19, 2017. Click here to read the original piece.

One of the theories of how ‘Bengaluru’ gets its name dates over a millenia ago. An inscription found in Begur village, 14 kilometres from the city, states that the place – called ‘Bengaval-uru’ was part of the Ganga Kingdom till 1004. To face the battles fought at this spot, the inscription means ‘City of Guards’ in Halegannada (Old Kannada).

A few hundred years, many more kingdoms and governments, and a couple more name changes later, the city named Bangalore became Bengaluru again. And in 2017, some of the best guards on the continent- the basketball-playing kind- get set to invade India’s third-largest city.

Starting from Sunday, July 23, Bengaluru will host Asian basketball’s most-prestigious women’s trophy- the FIBA Asia Women’s Cup 2017-at the Kanteerava Indoor Stadium, situated in the heart of the city’s Central Administrative Area. This will mark the first time that India will host a major FIBA (the International Basketball Federation) tournament since the same tournament was held in Chennai back in 2009.

Basketball is still a niche sport in India, but a major tournament like this should shine a spotlight not only on the beauty of the game itself but also on India’s potential. With the help of home support, India’s national squad will be hoping to rise back to the elite division of teams in Asia.

India have never finished better than fifth-place in Asia, after the continent’s usual powerhouses: China, Japan, South Korea, and Chinese Taipei. This year, the addition of Oceania squads like Australia and New Zealand will add the two squads among the long-list of title contenders, too.

Following a miserable performance at the same tournament in 2015 in Wuhan, China, India fell to the lower level-Division B-of the championship, meaning that the home team will not have a chance to contend for the title with the Division A teams. But there is a silver-lining to this cloud: with most of the top teams in the continent in the tougher division, India will have a chance to put out winning performances against lower-ranked teams to delight the home fans.

The team’s hope will be to finish top in Division B and qualify for Division A for the 2019 iteration of the championship. India were drawn in Group A of Division B, along with southern neighbours Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, and American Samoa, but the latter eventually pulled out of the competition. For India to be promoted to Division A, we will have to win Group A in our division, and then defeat the top ranked team from Group B, likely to be Lebanon or Kazakhstan.

To help see India through this task, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) appointed veteran Serbian Zoran Visic as Head Coach of the Women’s squad a month before the championship. Although Visic will face the challenge of getting the team prepared for this big challenge in such a short span of time, he will have a good mix of veteran and youth players on the roster to help lead the brigade. Team India will be captained by Tamil Nadu’s veteran star Anitha Paul Durai, and she will definitely be one of the stars to watch in the tournament. India’s best player is most likely Kerala-born Jeena Scaria, a multi-talented forward who was our leading scorer at the tournament in 2015. Others likely to play major minutes in this team will be Raspreet Sidhu, Kavita Akula, Rajapriyadharshini Rajaganapathi, and Shireen Limaye. Our tallest-ever women’s player-the 6’11” Poonam Chaturvedi-will hope to shrug off her injuries to play an important role, too.

Visic’s squad stammered in their first exposure against international challenge at the William Jones Cup in Chinese Taipei earlier this month, finishing without a win in five matches against all higher-ranked squads. But the experience should definitely pay dividends when the team returns home to face more beatable competition.

The last time India hosted a tournament of this stature, Arjuna Awardee Geethu Anna Rahul ended up finishing as the leading scorer in the entire tournament. There is no game-changer like Rahul in the squad anymore, but between Scaria, Paul Durai, Akula, and more, India has players who will hope to make their turn towards superstardom in Bengaluru.

But as important as India’s performances on-court will be the performance and participation of fans off of it. This tournament is going to offer a chance for Indian sports fans to watch some of Asia’s best basketball talent competing at the highest level. Reigning champions Japan will return to defend their title with stars like Asami Yoshida and Yuka Osaki. Australia will feature many players that starred in their team for the Rio Olympics like Mariana Tolo, Belinda Snell, and Abby Bishop. Other players to watch will include China’s Sun Mengran, Chinese Taipei’s Lin Yu-Ting and Huang Ping-Jen, and South Korean superstar Danbi Kim.

The priority for home fans, however, will obviously be the home team. For those who are based in or near Bengaluru, the tickets to watch high-level basketball action for a whole day are going to be just ?100. The games can be followed online via the tournament’s official website. And there is hope that a domestic TV network (most likely Neo Sports) might show some of the games live in India.

So, watch the games, cheer on the team, and support the other stars showing up in India for the championship, too. Tournaments like these don’t come often in Indian Basketball, and it is a responsibility for fans like us to make them count. A successful performance by our home team – whom I like to call ‘Desi Heights’ – will just be the cherry on the cake. Let’s make the ‘City of Guards’ showcase its skills on battles on the hardwood, too.

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