Editorial Note: Exaggerated for comic effect. Not to be taken seriously. The name 'Raju' is a fictitious reference and doesn't refer to any actual person alive or dead.

Illustration credit: Deepak ‘Chuck’ Gopalakrishnan. Editorial Note: Above cartoon exaggerated for comic effect. Not to be taken seriously. The name ‘Raju’ is a fictitious reference and doesn’t point to any actual person alive or dead.

“Everybody does it.”

The first Indian national basketball tournament I closely covered were the Sub-Junior (under-14) nationals in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, back in September 2010. The tournament featured the youngest members of the Indian basketball family from dozens of different states. While my first order of interest was obviously the result and the performances of the teams during the week-long tournament, it was also fascinating to wonder which of those young players could one day grow to become future stars of India’s Senior teams.

Scouting talent – especially among 12 or 13 year olds – is a wild and hugely unpredictable science. When a young player shows promise, the scout has to think more about their potential for growth over the next six or seven years instead of their performances in the present day. In many cases, the best performers at the sub-junior level can fizzle out and never reach their potential. In other cases, the converse could happen, and a wiry-thin bench warmer at 13 could enjoy an unbelievable growth spurt and become a superstar by 18.

There was one player in Kangra who stood head and shoulders above the rest, a player with performances so sublime that even the casual observer could bet that this young man was destined for stardom. He was taller, stronger, and quicker than the rest. He attacked the basket with ease and bullied his opponents on the way to a dominating performance. No matter who won the tournament, it was this individual that stole the hearts of all observers.

But then, like there always are in such cases, there were whispers. Whispers of cheating, of a lie. Whispers that said that there could be no possibility of this star player being under 14. Whispers of ‘age fraud’.

There is a reason why those whispers never turned into louder discussions in Kangra, and why, in every junior level national tournament in India (under-14, under-16, or under-18), there are similar whispers that go ignored. That is because most of those whispers come from guilty parties themselves. There are rarely any innocents in Indian basketball when it comes to age fraud. Only ones without sin could throw the first stone, and thus, there are no stones thrown at all.

And over and over, the whispers die down with the same sign and defeated acceptance. “Everybody does it,” they say.

That star player from Kangra – along with many of the other young talents I saw in 2010 – are now on the cusp of senior level in India. Many of those under-14s are at the under-18 level, and some of them were even part of the team that represented India at the FIBA Asia U18 Championship in Doha (Qatar) last week. India didn’t perform very well in Doha for a variety of reasons. India rarely performs well at the Asian/international level at all. Age fraud from a younger age isn’t the only ailment that hurts us at the national level, but a senior referee from Maharashtra recently told me that it doesn’t exactly help either.

“Our federations want better performances at international level,” he said, “But rather than focusing on our players getting better, they focus on trying to get better results from older players.  Meanwhile, the younger players don’t get a chance to shine and improve. The older ones only play for instant glory instead of long-term improvement.”

Because “everyone does it”, it has become the only way for various state teams at the National tournaments to remain competitive. At every national tournament, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) appoints an Age Verification / Medical Committee to conduct a medical test. Every once in a while, a handful of players are adjudged to be older and barred from taking part. But this test – and its results – only hit the tip of the iceberg.

Frankly, the numbers of age frauds at these nationals are much larger than what the Medical Committee reveals. It is easy to forge documents for the kids at a young age, and unless they truly stand out in their muscular built, they are rarely suspected of age fraud. The result is that it becomes common to see 16-year-olds at the under-14 nationals, 18-year-olds at the under-16s, and 20-year-olds at the under-18s.

So how deep rooted is the problem truly? Experienced Indian basketball scout and development expert Jonathan Rego believes that around 80 percent – if not more – of participants in any junior level national tournament may be lying about their age.

“It is way too rampant and blatant for my comfort,” Rego told me, “It’s a problem so deeply entrenched in the system that those who cheat, continue to do so because those who don’t have accepted it as part of the system. There are protests, but more often than not those protests are dismissed by verification of a birth certificate, which can be easily forged especially in smaller towns and cities which is where most of the better players come from.”

It might sound like a quick and easy solution to get a result by playing an older player at a younger tournament, but in the long run, age fraud hurts both the player involved and the teams he plays for, including India’s national teams. For the player, it keeps him or her at the lower level for too long, denying them the opportunity to practice and glean experience by facing off against more players of their own age group. A 20-year-old might dominate a field of 17-18 year olds, but by the time he’s 22, he is inexperienced against foes his own age.

“For players who aren’t cheating, they constantly feel like they are going up against ‘better’ competition and that maybe they aren’t cut out for the game,” said Rego, “This is also a big factor since juniors are easily impressionable and take their early victories and defeats to heart.”

Eventually, the problem hits India where it hurts most: the national team. As younger talents are forced to play second-fiddle in the appropriate age group, age frauds deprive them of much-needed early exposure and the chance to develop in the appropriate way as they get to the senior level. Meanwhile, Team India stuffs up with players who had made a name for themselves domestically at a junior level before realizing that many of the same players peaked too early against younger and less developed talent.

A lie is like an errant pass: once you commit the turnover, it is difficult to recover the ball in the same possession. Once a player begins to falsify his or her records, it is difficult to undo the deed. Age fraud denies certain players who have the talent to play high-school or college basketball abroad from starting their development and education at the right age. While they pretend to be younger, they really get older, and are only wastefully repeating those years of their youth instead of improving (on the court as well as the classroom) with their own age-group.

The problem is beyond basketball or sports, and is entrenched as a systematic part of corruption in India. In smaller towns, registration offices will happily take a bribe to change birth certificates. District level or state level tournament organizers will gladly turn a blind eye to favoured coaches or teams that are fielding clearly older players.

It’s incorrect to only blame the players in this regard. All of them are influenced to make a decision about changing their age by an adult when they are only in their pre-teens, and thus may not understand the long-term consequences of their mistake. It could be a parent, the first coach at the district level, the coach of the state team, or the team manager who encourages the age fraud: and by the time the player is passed on from academy to academy and coach to coach, it gets murkier and hazier to identify the true culprit.

So how do we curb this rampant problem? In 2009, India’s Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport – at least officially – set up the rules and consequences of age fraud. The ministry told state federations to ban any overage athletes for two years if caught cheating in first detection and for five years with any subsequent detection. The ministry also asked for mandatory ID cards for all athletes and conduct random age verification at regular intervals.

But these policies have been more talk and less action. As mentioned earlier, any type of age verification document is easy to forge. Secondly, despite the rule to ban overage athletes for two (or five) years, in practice, the ban ends up only applying to the player for the duration of the said tournament, before they are reinstated to be back in action the next time around.

As a solution, Rego suggested that players should be registered in a central database from the very first moment they play in a tournament that is affiliated or authorized by the Federation. Once registered, the centrally-managed database should be made available to all state federations and thus make tampering with age more difficult.

He also believes that a more advanced physical test by the medical committee at the nationals could make a difference, too. “The bone density test is still a widely accepted and respected method of determining age,” he said, “There is argument against its high cost, but my counter is that, if administered and recorded properly, there is need to do it just once in a player’s lifetime.”

“Nobody follows the rules,” said the referee from Maharashtra, “We need to hold both the state associations as well as the BFI accountable for letting this problem get worse. It shouldn’t be allowed to go haywire.”

Unfortunately, as of now, the problem has clearly gone haywire with no real resolution in the horizon. It will take a few brave and honest coaches, managers, or state associations to swim against the tide and refuse to play older players in junior tournaments – no matter the consequences. But, this being a circle of cause-and-effect, their efforts will only be recognized and emulated by others if they are able to be successful. With so many cracks in the system, it will ultimately come down to the honour of the coach to stick to doing the right thing.

Four years ago, I was in awe of that star player at the Under-14 nationals in Kangra as he dominated his competition with ease. Four years later, as the same star player reaches adulthood, I have begun to pity him a little: for the last few years, he was always the alpha dog in any team he played for or against. No doubt he was talented, but this was mostly because he also usually went up against those younger than him. Now he reaches an age where the difference of two or three years doesn’t matter as much anymore, but since he never learnt the ability to muscle past those as strong, fast, tall, or talented as him, he remains in grave danger of getting left behind. He might be a participant for India at the international stage but it’s unlikely that he’ll ever be a star.

Pity, because Indian basketball could sure use young superstars to peak at the right time. Hopefully, there is a steady change in the system so we can look past instant glory to ensure more long-term success.

If “everybody does it” then perhaps, together, everybody can stop, too.

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[KARAN MADHOK]

Editorial Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are the personal views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the Ekalavyas website.