“Ladies and Gentlemen, please put your hands together for the team from India.”
The 150 strong crowd at Bengaluru’s Sree Kanteerava Stadium was less than anything you might expect at a game of cricket or football. The four boxes in the stadium seemed to be inconsistently littered with people as there were many seats that were left unfilled. It was this kind of audience that the girls of India’s basketball team played in front of. The size of the crowd was small and close-knit but, even so, there was not a single silent moment during the course of the game. Screams of “Let’s go, India” were smattered across the night and it was evident that the girls were heartened by it.
In an atmosphere of competitiveness, which was routinely interrupted only with the occasional bursts of popular Western music, the team from India seemed totally unfazed by the grandeur of the event. Right from the initial moments, the girls looked perfectly comfortable as they warmed up for their second group game. Perhaps it was this show of calm that propelled India towards their victory last night and put them in a comfortable position to eventually win Divison B and, consequently, make a comeback among the top tier teams.
The one thing that was very prominent to anyone watching the game was how effortlessly the girls played as a team. A cohesive understanding of a teammate’s positions and numerous brilliant passes resulted in India steaming far ahead of Sri Lanka since the first quarter itself. Comparably, the Sri Lankan eaves seemed to get off to a rocky start with a very shaky display in the first quarter. Things improved for the visitors as the game progressed but they never seemed a viable threat to their dominant opponents.
The night was all about the Indian team and one name that stood out was that of Grima Merlin Varghese. She played for 20 minutes and, during that time, successfully completed 4 Offensive rebounds and 6 Defensive ones. But the standout of the night were her long shots. With a conversion rate of 75%, Varghese capitalised on 3 out of her 4 attempts at a three-pointer. And then there was the ferocious Barkha Sonkar.
At first glance, Sonkar’s unintimidating stature might seem to be quite out of place in the towering team of Indian girls. Standing at 5’3”, there is nothing in her unassuming demeanour that might seem remotely threatening. Even off the court, she gave off the impression of being extensively quiet, with a Mona Lisa smile that gives away nothing.
But that impression falls away the very instant she steps onto the court.
Tearing through the ranks of Sri Lankan defense with remarkable speed and ferocity, Sonkar’s only job was regaining possession for her team once they had lost the ball- and she did it with a calculated vigour. Whatever she lacked in height, she made up for it in skill and, consequently, ended up with impressive statistics of 6 assists and one defensive rebound. She never tried to shoot in for a goal. Rather, she always found the right person to pass the responsibility to. In a way, she set up a few key playthroughs.
It may be conclusively said that Barkha Sonkar is a storm to watch out for. The 20-year old is playing her first senior tournament and with a similarly impressive showing against Uzbekistan (a two pointer, four assists, and two rebounds), her future in the senior side certainly seems secure.
Her journey up until this stage has been anything but easy. The fourth daughter in a family of seven from a quaint family of Varanasi, Barkha’s association with sports began initially with cricket before she switched over to basketball at the age of 10. She represented Uttar Pradesh’s U14 and U16 teams within a year of taking up the sport and progressed through the ranks to eventually make the cut for the national team. With the way she is going, she definitely is definitely staying in the team for years to come.
No one can forget Shireen Limaye and her game last night. If there is one prominent aspect of this player, it is her aggression. Or perhaps that is to be expected from someone who comes from a long line of basketball players. Her family legacy aside, Limaye is an indispensable part of the Indian team. Against Uzbekistan, she scored a two pointer and a three pointer and finished it off with 9 defensive and 1 offensive rebound. Building up on her form from the previous game, she struck up a 50% conversion rates on her total shots and scored 8 points off four two pointers. 6 offensive and 4 defensive rebounds just proved to be the icing on the cake.
The 22-year old from Pune is the daughter of Suvarna Limaye, a former national level player. Her brother, Animesh, represents the Maharashtra senior team. But her familial associations seem distant. In all her years of playing, Shireen has carved her own space among the greats of Indian basketball; and the best part is, her peak playing years are yet to come.
Among the opponents, one player who grabbed eyes was Nadeeshani Kumarine Silva. During her 23 minute stint on court, she played the second quarter with rare gusto, with a spectacular block coming in halfway into it. 2 two pointers in the third Quarter and three two pointers in the fourth quarter. At a time when the entire team was discouraged into a lacklustre performance, Silva shouldered the responsibility to redeem her team somehow. The 46 point deficit in the final scoreline seemed a lot less harsh.
There are people in India who do not even know of the existence of a national women’s basketball team, and then there are these girls. Girls who relentlessly pursue glory even without the satisfactory glare of the limelight. After the spectacle of competence yesterday, it is safe to conclude that the future of the game is safe in the hands of these 12 young girls.