The seats were sold out.
Not for a movie. Nor a cricket match. The above scenario pertains to a certain tournament that 12 girls from India participated in starting 6 days ago.
The Division B Final of the 2017 FIBA Women’s Asia Cup was an important tournament in more ways than one. After grabbing the attention of the keen Indian sports fan with a fantastic run in the initial stages of the competition, these girls ensured that the eyes of spectator never left them. A charismatic performance, several moments that left one at the edge of their respective seats and a thrilling unbeaten performance- the Indian Women’s Basketball team ensured that this is one victory that will not be forgotten in a hurry. In a sense, the team is back where they belong, back to the top tier of women’s basketball and this promotion is all the more special since it was achieved in front of a home crowd.
The elation of the team and crowd was quite apparent and infectious. In what was perhaps one of the most significant moments of Indian basketball in recent history, Shireen Limaye effectively provided a comprehensive result to what was a nail biting match. Kazakhstan led the scoreboard for nearly four times as long as India did but despite being in the dumps for the most time, the hosts never faltered.
When the tournament began, coverage was quite minimal. With no takes for the live broadcast of India’s matches, even people who intended to follow the game without watching it live had to resort to text commentaries and play by play analyses of people who were actually present there. Within a week, that was overturned but it took no small effort on the part of these girls. It might be safe to conclude that India winning Division B is a small step in the right direction when it comes to promoting a sport other than cricket in the country.
Saturday was an important day. For the first time in the tournament, two of the only unbeaten teams in the tournament were about to engage in a face off over four very tense quarters. A promotion to Division A was at stake and it was expected that both India and Kazakhstan would fight tooth and nail to achieve it. A loss would mean that India would remain among the inferior ranks; it has been two years since India was ousted from the first division tournament and relegated to Division B. After spending nearly a decade among the top division teams, India’s relegation was definitely a huge blow.
And who can forget Shireen Limaye? The girl who had been threatening danger throughout the tournament finally managed to culminate her simmering brilliance into one moment of glory. The final 19 seconds definitely had most of the crowd at Kanteerava Stadium hanging at the edge of their seats- waiting to erupt when India finally gained a spot back among the elites.
It took nerves of steel on Limaye’s part to capitalise on what was her only chance at the basket in the final few seconds. Despite tight opposition and scrambled play, Limaye’s calculated manipulation of the opposition ranks to score what would eventually be deciding points of the match was praiseworthy and it made Shireen completely deserving of the accolade of India’s MVP.
It is probably prudent, at this point, to mention Anitha Paul Durai. The captain of the Women’s Team and a veteran of Indian Basketball, Durai reportedly cut short her maternity leave to play in this tournament. And play she did. She was forever the silent support guiding her team, providing that extra nudge when her juniors needed her to step up. As a captain, she epitomised the prized qualities of leadership and scored points whenever needed.
Yesterday’s top scorer was Jeena Skaria, the player who stood the test of intense pressure to emerge as the top scorer in both the semi finals and the final game. Dubbed as the “cool one” by her team mates, she performs exactly when her team is backed up against the wall. 18 points from 8 doubles and 4 free throws is no mean task, especially when your opponent is as intent on winning as you are. But Skaria, known for her temperament, did what she apparently does best. With 6 rebounds and 4 assists, she was a treat to watch.
Talking about positive takeaways from this tournament, the names Grima Merlin Varghese and Barkha Sonkar stand out. Though the latter did not play in the final match on Saturday, she has certainly left her mark on the tournament with her unassuming poise and stature, none of which give away the fact that she is a definitive beast on the court. On the other hand, Grima Varghese just played her first international tournament at the Asia Cup. Already, she top scored in one group game and in the quarter-final match to help India progress through to the finals.
As mentioned before, while this is a step in the right direction, a consistent effort to identify and hone remote talents should be carried out. More than anything a comprehensive structure needs to be put in place so that Indian basketball can capitalise on this victory. Now that India has been promoted to the top tier league, the need for young basketball talents is especially high. Women’s sport is already neglected in India. Hopefully, what these girls have achieved will go a long way in laying an unshakable groundwork for the future.