You can find them everywhere. In Canada, Great Britain, Australia and the Americas.
For various reasons, Indians migrate to other countries: to join relatives, higher education, better employment opportunities or in the case of inter-racial couples. These families grow up abroad but remain very much rooted to Swades: by watching Bollywood movies, visiting India every summer or celebrating traditional family functions wearing dhotis, salwar kameezes or pathan suits. They may live thousands of miles away, but sure enough, the Indianness is still there. As they say, distance makes the heart grow fonder.
Eban Hyams is a journeyman. He was born in Pune only to shuttle between Australia, Los Angeles, Israel and India. Inderbir Singh Gill is a Punjabi-American who has played college ball in Canada. Varun Ramasamy is a 21-year-old neurobiology major who is a native of Maryland, USA. These three don’t know each other, but are tied by a common thread— that of being Indian origin basketballers holding foreign passports, with a desperate desire to play on the Indian national men’s team.
In last year’s FIBA Asia championships, India lost to Japan, Kazakhstan, South Korea and Bahrain. All these teams had foreign born players who had become naturalised citizens of these adopted countries. “For instance, when we played the Philippines, they had a seven foot ‘naturalized’ player from the US and two other Americans who had family members of Filipino origin. These were three of their best players,” reveals Indian men’s Head Coach Scott Flemming to tadpoles via an email interview.
These highly trained foreign athletes develop their skills in the ultra-competitive basketball programmes in the US, and ultimately prove to be the difference between India and the rest of Asia’s top teams. International Basketball Federation (FIBA) rules permit India too from fielding one naturalised player. So why don’t we?
“I have probably been contacted by at least 10 to 15 players of Indian origin since I took the position here in India,” says Coach Flemming. “Apart from Varun Ram, the other player that originally wanted to come here and play for our national team is Inderbir Gill, who joined BFI as an intern last year.”
27-year-old Gill has since returned to USA and is close to abandoning hope of being a ‘Young Cager’. “Rules are rules and I can’t do anything about them,” he tells us with resignation.
Understanding the ‘naturalisation’ rules
Naturalisation is the legal process of granting citizenship to foreigners who are otherwise not entitled to it. This can be achieved in a many ways. ‘Dual Citizenship’ is one enabling mechanism whereby a person can be the full citizen of two different countries and hold passports of both these countries.
India doesn’t allow for ‘dual nationality’, but permits a diluted version of citizenship for its robust diaspora (or ‘persons of Indian origin’ living aboard), termed as ‘Overseas Citizens of India’ or OCIs. OCI card holders are entitled to certain benefits but gain no political rights in India, such as the right to vote, contest elections or hold constitutional posts.
As per FIBA rule 21a (in Chapter 1, Book 3), each member country is allowed to field one ‘naturalised’ player in its national team. It is upto the particular member country on whether it wishes to take advantage of this rule.
Since India has no provision for dual citizenship, foreign born athletes can only represent us if they become ‘naturalised’ Indians. This is problematic as such persons are expected to give up their foreign passports and all the benefits arising out of it. In other words, as things stand, Overseas Citizens of India like Varun Ram, or others like Inderbir Singh Gill and Eban Hyams can’t play for India.
Why they should be allowed
“I would just like to see all FIBA teams play under the same rules. If all countries were required to use only players with their country’s passport, that would be fair for all teams. But since that is not the case I think it is only fair for India to take advantage of using a limited number of outstanding players of Indian origin,” says Coach Flemming. “Some of these players have started playing at a younger age and have been competing at a higher level. Most of them have played NCAA college basketball in the United States and express a real desire to play for India, which they consider ‘their country ’.”
“If you look at the Indian team, the one position that they need significant improvement in is that of a point guard. I play as a point guard and have led a team to a championship. If I’m allowed to play then my skills of leadership, playmaking, and experience of being an elite level player will fill the gap that lies in the Indian team. ” says Gill.
Guards like Hyams, Gill and Ram can definitely add depth and physicality to the backcourt and free up India’s already formidable shooting trio of Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Pratham Singh and Narender Grewal to focus on scoring.
More harm than good?
Apart from the legal restrictions discussed earlier, the question of allowing Indian origin players remains a particularly prickly issue.
Firstly, there is the question of loyalty— that foreign born players are only turning to India because they are unable to make the cut for the more competitive national teams of USA or Australia. Opponents argue that this will limit the exposure to local players, as these Indian origin players will ‘take away’ a few of the 12 spots on the team.
“I admit that I don’t have much of a chance of making it to Team USA.” concedes Ram, adding in the same breath, “but that is not why I want to play for India. If I had to pick between the two countries, playing for India will always come first.”
There is also the ‘lack of development’ criticism that is often cited. A foreign trained player might help India win more matches today, but in the long run it could result in overly ‘depending’ on external talent and not improving the grassroots situation by way of better coaching and facilities.
Finally, there is the question of team chemistry— predominantly English speaking players from ‘western’ upbringings may not gel with the Indian team. This is something that Gill puts to rest. “I was only with the players for a short time and even then, I got along with them really well. I felt that I was being welcomed with open arms.”
In last month’s FIBA Asia Cup, India beat China in China for the very first time, led against eventual champs Iran at halftime and almost overcame reigning Asian championship silver medallists Philippines in the quarterfinals. It seems therefore, that the Indian team is doing very well without the aid of foreign trained players.
Unlike smaller countries such as Philippines, Qatar or Bahrain, India is a one billion plus nation and there is no shortage of local talent. After all, Asia’s two best teams Iran and China rely completely on ‘homegrown’ players.
It is easy to scale initially, but at the elite level of international basketball, even small improvements take much longer. No doubt, Indian basketball will continue its upward trajectory. The only problem is that we seem to favour the toughest route possible to the top.