It is that time of the year again when the desire for a national award finds a common ground with many athletes who claim they deserve that recognition. Every year, true to habit, the controversies surrounding the names recommended is quite high and 2017 is not different. From the glaring absence of Rohan Bopanna’s name to the controversial inclusion of Satyawart Kadian, the world of sports is often rocked every time talks of the award come up.
While there are some who reckon that the entire points system on whose basis the titles are conferred should go through an upheaval. Currently, a sport where an athlete competes and wins in the Asian Games, Olympics, Commonwealth Games and the likes are bound to score quite a few points on the system in place. They are at a decided advantage over their athletic counterparts in sports like basketball, cue sports, motor sports, tennis, and chess. These sports have their own Calendars and do not adhere to a particular edition of Asian games or Olympics.
Which is why it becomes particularly difficult to justify the selection of some names in the current list of Arjuna Awardees. Take Prashanti Singh, for example. After 10 years of seamless and relentless contributions to the sport of basketball, the former captain of the Indian Women’s Basketball Team feels she has finally been given her due. In an interview with The Times of India, the now 33-year old calls this award a recognition of 25 years worth of hard work put in by her family.
Prashanti, it must be noted, is a part of the illustrious “first family” of Indian Basketball. Her textbook-like inspiring story of a small town girl defying all odds to excel in her chosen line of sport is sweetened only by the fact that all the five daughters in that specific family have something to do with Indian basketball. While her sisters Akanksha and Pratima have been regular stalwarts of the Indian team, the two eldest siblings, Divya and Priyanka are certified coaches and, as such, are as important parts of the Indian basketball scene as their player sisters.
Naturally, the story of five girls from the same family playing and excelling in the same sport has garnered a lot of media attention in recent times. It makes for a perfect story- complete with inspiration, rebellion and the quintessentially large dose of happy endings.
But has this attention paid towards the Singh sisters taken away the much-deserved limelight from other players?
When asked to justify Prashanti’s place in the list of Arjuna Awardees, the most common argument available is that she and her sisters contributed towards breaking the mould about women’s basketball in India. And it is hard to argue with that notion. Indeed, if the unseasoned sports fan is asked to randomly name a female basketball player, it would invariably be the name of one of the Singh sisters. What they have achieved is indeed commendable but just media and fan adulation cannot be the basis for an Arjuna Award.
Pre 2013, the year from which the stipulated time period for evaluation for Arjuna Awards begin, Prashanti was a force to be reckoned with. Not only has she been instrumental in helping the Indian team stay within the top 6 at the Asian level for many years, she also captained the team at the Guangzhou Asian Games in 2010. In the William Jones Cup held in 2011, she was the star player in one rare and hard fought victory over the very strong team from Korea.
But what since then?
Statistically speaking, Prashanti may be the poster girl for women’s basketball in India but she is far from being the only formidable player in the country who has long years of contribution to her name. In ignoring Anitha Pauldurai’s name for the elite list, the committee in charge of the Arjuna Awards may have indulged in a huge faux pas.
In her 16-year long career as a member of the Indian Women’s basketball team, Anitha Pauldurai has achieved all there is to achieve in the sport. She has, as of yet, played in eight Asian Basketball Confederation Championships since 2001 which is the most by any Indian woman. This alone is enough proof of the remarkable consistency displayed by this now 31-year old. The veteran cager is now the captain of the Indian women’s team and is as efficient at her job as you would expect. With an extremely calm disposition, Anitha shoulders the responsibility of her team with remarkable ease often leading from the front and delivering just the right amount of motivation when needed.
This is more pertinent at the recently concluded Asia Cup where she averaged 4 assists and 3.6 rebounds per match. Her graceful yet threatening skill coupled with an easy going leadership persona made Pauldurai a treat to watch at this tournament. A look at her past statistics is enough to conclude that she has always been this brilliant.
With top figures for assists at the 2006 Commonwealth Games and top steals at the Asian Games in 2011, Pauldurai has left no stone unturned when it comes to carving her name among the greats of Indian Basketball. She has also amassed an impressive 11 National titles during her association with the Railways. And she did all that before going for a maternity leave. Despite injuries dogging her career at every step, her fierce determination is what makes her unstoppable.
Both the Basketball Federation of India and the Tamil Nadu Sports Authority are known to have repeatedly put her name forward as their recommendations. So far, the much sought after recognition has eluded her.
Is this another case of awards recognising the wrong people and undermining deserving achievements?'It would certainly seem so. Without intending to belittle Prashanti’s long term association with the game, it must be conceded that based on the stipulated time period for award consideration, Pauldurai clearly outclasses her. The Awards panel certainly has a lot to answer to especially since Prashanti is only the third female basketball player deemed worthy enough for this recognition. The point as to whether the awards are serving their purpose still remains unresolved.