In light of recent men’s team success, India needs to beware not to let women’s basketball trail behind.
In the course of one historic week, India’s men’s basketball team defeated the Philippines, China, and Chinese Taipei at the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge, the first time that they upset three higher-ranked teams in the same tournament. For good measure, they added a victory over Kazakhstan, too, and when the dust settled, India had completed their finest international basketball performance in twenty-seven years with a seventh-place finish.
The squad received well-deserved adulation and praise back home, and the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) decided to reward the team for its achievement with a Rs. 5 lakh bonus. The result was the latest bit of positive news from the Indian basketball circuit, a miracle achieved despite some of the backroom troubles that plagued the BFI’s executive committee last year.
In recent years, India’s men’s teams have performed wonders, beating China at the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup, making it to the Quarter-Finals of the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship for the first time in twelve years, seeing one star drafted into the NBA (Satnam Singh), another win a D-League contract (Palpreet Singh), and two more play professionally in Japan (Amrit Pal Singh and Amjyot Singh). Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Rikin Pethani took their pro talents to the Maldives, and back home, the UBA Basketball League provided opportunities to several athletes to play in short pro leagues.
Youth prospects are getting their chance to develop their game abroad, too, including Harshwardhan Tomar, who has signed a contract in Italy, and Prince Pal Singh, who got a scholarship to study and play in Ohio, USA. Last week, the NBA announced global academies to develop youth talent around the world, including in India. And of course, our national team returned with laurels and success from the FIBA Asia Challenge.
All of these achievements and interest towards Indians in basketball have been a positive consequence of improving grassroots development, coaching, and investment towards basketball in India. Alas, all of these achievements also only involve men.
While India’s women may still rank much higher on the FIBA rankings (40) than the Men (53), the numbers don’t tell the full story. At the domestic level, India’s women have always lagged behind the men in terms of job placement opportunities at units around the country. Now, suffering from a lack of attention at the grassroots and fewer opportunities to play against top teams abroad, the international performances have suffered, too.
Back in 2013, the picture was much different, and women’s basketball proudly stood toe to toe with the men in India. India’s women’s team had completed history, under the tutelage of Coach Francisco Garcia, who helped them finish at their best-ever 5th place finish at the FIBA Asia Championship in Bangkok and win their first-ever game in Level 1, against Kazakhstan. Around the same time, the duo of Geethu Anna Jose and Anitha Paul Durai had gotten an opportunity to play professionally in Thailand. At the international 3×3 stage, India’s women truly made their mark, winning gold medals at the Asian Beach Games, the 3×3 FIBA Asia Championship, and performing well in several other tournaments.
But a couple of years after the historic FIBA ABC in Thailand, Jose – an Indian basketball legend and Arjuna Award winner – stepped away from the game, leaving a huge void in the center position with no clear successor. Meanwhile, the BFI tensions led to the end of Garcia’s tenure in 2015, and even though he returned for one more FIBA ABC at the end of last year, the team had lost their positive momentum.
By the 2015 FIBA ABC, India had lost their magic touch. The squad went winless at the tournament in China and were relegated down to Level 2. The pain of defeat stung a little extra when Garcia left the team for good right after.
And ever since then, for over a year, India’s senior women’s team has not played in a single competitive match. Even in a year without the FIBA ABC, the Men’s squad still got a chance to play in the South Asia Qualifiers for the FIBA Asia Challenge, the William Jones Cup, and then the FIBA Asia Challenge itself. There was no equivalent tournament to the FIBA Asia Challenge for Women and unlike the men, the Indian women’s team wasn’t invited to Chinese Taipei for the Jones Cup.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment, however, were the South Asian Games in February this year. The event was organised by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) who have been in conflict with the current committee of the BFI. The IOA selected teams to represent India for the basketball tournament at the South Asian Games without the BFI’s approval; FIBA – the international basketball federation who have recognised this executive committee of the BFI – reacted by cancelling the basketball tournament at the Games altogether. The victims of all this drama were India’s international players. After spending time in camp in preparation for the Games and then flown to Guwahati to take part, India’s teams had to settle for friendly exhibition matches that weren’t officially recognised by FIBA.
While young male players from the country are starting to garner hype domestically and abroad, there has been little attention to develop individual women’s talent in the same way. During her career, Geethu Anna Jose got to play professionally in Australia, Thailand, and work out with three WNBA teams. But now, with the exception of high schoolers Pallavi Sharma and Anmolpreet Kaur getting a run in Japan, there has been little other positive news for the top players getting a chance abroad.
For the NBA, it makes commercial sense to promote Satnam Singh, who became the first Indian to be drafted into the NBA, and Palpreet Singh, who won the (men’s only) ACG-NBA Jump programme and has signed on to a NBA D-League contract. But with lesser opportunity and financial backing, Indian women haven’t received the same attention.
Back home, the UBA League, which has completed its third season this year, is still only a men’s competition. Indian women have no other professional option and have to settle for the few jobs – like Railways – available in the basketball quota.
Pratima Singh, one of the star players for Delhi’s state team and the Indian national squad, rued the opportunities missed for India at the international level, including the most recent failed trip to Guwahati for the South Asian Games.
“Indian women need more exposure to play basketball abroad, and more practice, to rise up to the level of our competitors,” Pratima said, “A great example is Geethu, who became even better when she returned from her pro stint in Australia, her game and fitness improved considerably. We have seen the same improvement in male players like Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh who have played in Japan. More players need this experience. It is not an impossible task, and with some initiative, we can get there.”
Where the women have a potential advantage over the men is in the relative parity of competition. For years, India’s women’s team has ranked higher in the continent, particularly because of the lack of competition from Middle Eastern teams that India’s men face in Asian tournaments. Furthermore, in larger, global 3×3 meets, India’s women have shown that they can compete with and upset some of the top teams in the world.
Pratima’s older sister Prashanti Singh, a former captain of the national team and one of the most decorated athletes in the country, believes that domestic growth will eventually positively influence international results.
“If the same effort is put in the women’s game in India as the men, there will be much more success for us, because the competition is lesser worldwide,” said Prashanti, “In India, there are about twenty employers for men’s basketball and just two for women. If we add more domestic teams, we can definitely get a podium finish at FIBA ABCs. If there is a domestic league and more tournaments for women, then there will be more participation, and more quality will come forth.”
In 2017, India’s women will finally get a chance for competitive action again, most notably in the FIBA Asia Championship. The team needs to prepare in advance for this upcoming challenge to ensure that they overturn the disappointments improve on their rankings again.
In the past, the BFI has always maintained the importance of gender neutrality in basketball, providing the same level of foreign coaching, infrastructural access, and competitive experience to both men and women. India’s rise in the men’s version of the game has been a pleasant surprise. But in the light of their recent success, India needs to beware not to let women’s basketball trail behind.
*Views expressed in this column may not necessarily reflect that of Ekalavyas.