This article was first published in my 'Hoopistani' column on The Times of India Sports on November 19, 2017. Read the original version here.
Thirty-seven years ago, in the pleasant late-summer in Moscow, Indian basketball made history. A series of fortuitous circumstances—including a golden generation of Indian basketball stars and a series of international diplomatic breakdowns—made India an unlikely entrant in the Men’s basketball fray of the 1980 Summer Olympics. India were the weakest team in the tournament and lost all seven of their games. Still, it was the competitive high-point in Indian hoops, an achievement that has never been matched again.
Indian basketball has since dipped out of contention of major world tournaments, and India has generally been one of the weaker teams in the Asian level, too. But now, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) has introduced a new competition system that could help India gain international experience and have a chance to participate against world superpowers at the highest-level.
In a few days, India will begin their First Round games of the 2019 FIBA World Cup Qualifiers. India has never played in the World Cup (formerly known as the FIBA World Championship), which FIBA is now angling as a competition with equal prestige as the Olympics. The road ahead to be amongst the 32 best teams to play at the tournament in China in August/September 2019 will be difficult for the Indian Men (currently ranked 64). But India has been able to unearth a number of exciting young players in recent years with better scouting and development. For the current “golden generation”, the road to play in a prestigious world tournament begins now.
India have been drawn in Group C for the First Round of the World Cup’s Asian Qualifiers, along with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. India will play each team in home and away between November 2017 to July 2018. To qualify for the Second Round, India have to finish amongst the top three of their group. The Second Round will be held between September 2018 to February 2019, where India will have to finish top three from their group of six.
India’s last major basketball appearance was at the FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon in August. Despite entering with high expectations, India performed poorly, losing all three of their preliminary stage games and being ousted in the First Round. Two of those losses came against Jordan and Syria, and in the World Cup Qualifiers ahead, India will have a chance to make amends.
India’s first two qualifying games are on the road against Lebanon on November 23 and then, back home in Bengaluru, for a historic first qualifying home game against Syria on November 26. The next international breaks of qualifiers for India will be held in late February and June/July 2018.
After helping India’s women’s senior and under-16 squads put up respectable performances at FIBA Asia events earlier this year, Serbian head coach Zoran Visic has been named head coach of India’s men’s squad for the first string of qualifying games, too. Visic is a FIBA World Instructor and has over 34 years of professional basketball coaching experience across Serbia, Romania, Russia, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, and Singapore. He will be assisted in coaching the team with former international player Sambhaji Kadam.
The final, 12-man roster of India’s squad was released by the BFI on Saturday. India will be captained by veteran point guard Akilan Pari and will feature one of the country's top players Amritpal Singh, who is on international break from his professional club in Australia's NBL, the Sydney Kings. Amritpal is sure to be the team's centrepiece in the next two games. India is loaded with talented bigs, including the country's first-ever NBA draft pick and former NBA G-League player Satnam Singh, former G-League draft pick Palpreet Singh Brar, Rikin Pethani, Jagdeep Singh Bains, Aravind Annadurai, and more.
However, the team will be without the services of two of their top three players: Amjyot Singh, who is playing for the OKC Blue of the NBA G-League; and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, who is recovering from a right knee injury.
India has featured a string of talented post players in recent years. Unfortunately, the team will again be relying too much on the performance of the bigs. Amritpal, Satnam, Palpreet, and co. can all be wonderfully dominant under the basket, but India is weak in terms of ball-handlers and creative wing players. There will be a lot of pressure for Pari to outplay opposing point guards, and the qualifiers will also be a good litmus test for his young back, Prudhvi Reddy. Without Bhriguvanshi, however, India will again struggle for consistency in setting up their offense as they did when he was hurt at the FIBA Asia Cup. Without Amjyot, they will also need more offense from sharp-shooter Prasanna Venkatesh from the wing.
Lebanon, who made it to the Quarter-Finals of the FIBA Asia Cup, will be a handful for India, especially on their home court. It is unlikely that a weakened Indian squad will be able to earn a victory in Beirut in their first game, but they should be prepared for the second matchup against Syria later in the week. India will be in the comfort of home, playing in front of home fans at the Sri Kantaveera Stadium in Bengaluru, against their weakest competitor in this group. Syria defeated India two months ago, but a more focused performance this time around could help India get a morale-boosting international victory.
Finishing in top three in the group is attainable for India, and with the rise of the next generation of young stars, the team can hope for a strong performance looking ahead into the Second Round of qualifiers, too. Qualifying for the 2019 World Cup might be unlikely, but the matches will surely help India gain some valuable international experience. Hopefully, it prepares the next generation of the squad to make new history and have the national team playing at the highest basketball level once again.