Recent media interviews of India’s top two men and women internationals – Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Jeena Scaria PS – reveal contrasting takes on the future potential of India’s national basketball teams.
In an interview with Lakshmi Kant Tiwari of Power Sportz, both players were asked what India needs to do in order to beat the top Asian teams.
While Bhriguvanshi expressed optimism ahead of the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers to be held in February next year, Scaria had certain reservations.
"All other top Asian teams have naturalized players" - Bhriguvanshi's take
The talismanic playmaker pointed out that almost every top Asian team had at least one or two naturalized players. These naturalized players are usually originally American citizens, who later acquire the citizenship of the Asian countries they go on to represent. A prominent example is the Philippines' Andray Blatche, who played for ten seasons in the NBA, before acquiring citizenship of the basketball-loving South-East Asian country in 2014. That said, Bhriguvanshi expressed confidence in an improved show by India in the upcoming FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers.
"We need exposure trips and a Pro League" - Scaria's opinion
Jeena, one of India's top women's cagers, and the only one from the current lot of internationals to have played semi-professionally in Australia made it clear that only five-six months-long camp without any pro league or international exposure will not provide India with the experience needed to beat the top Asian teams (like Japan, China or Korea).
"Resolving IMG-Reliance Dispute is the only real solution" - My Take
Both players have highlighted very real issues that are affecting India's results at the international level. While the increasing number of naturalized players in Asia is undoubtedly a growing problem that may well be considered borderline player trafficking, that alone cannot absolve India of its responsibility to finish with a better standing at the Asian level.
Bhriguvanshi himself admitted as much when he said that until a few years ago, India had in fact begun climbing the ladder in Asia (finishing as high as 7th in the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge ahead of teams like Chinese Taipei, Qatar, Kazakhstan, and Iraq). Many of these opposing teams had naturalized players in their line up back then as well. So if India could find a way to beat those teams then, there is no reason to not be able to do so now.
Even if the naturalization of foreign or Indian origin players into the Indian national team was to be considered, India's existing citizenship laws which don't provide any scope of dual citizenship, render this option moot.
This is why Jeena's take is more instructive.
Back in March this year, the BFI had announced a women's pro league "within three months". Nine months on, there has been no further utterance on this front. If anything, the BFI Secretary General's regressive comments in October that India lacks enough talented players to start commercially viable Pro Leagues means that this problem of lack of competitive exposure is only going to continue for the foreseeable future.
What Mr. Sharma is omitting to mention is that even if BFI decides to actually launch pro leagues tomorrow, the fact is that until BFI's longstanding contractual dispute with IMG-Reliance is resolved, there can be no significant financial investment into the sport.
So amicably resolving the ongoing funds freeze, which has crippled the growth of basketball in the country, will be the first real step towards India eventually being in a position to beat the top teams in Asia. After all, neither pro leagues nor foreign exposure trips can happen without money in the bank.
The real question then, is whether the Basketball Federation of India is showing any eagerness at all in resolving the IMG-Reliance dispute, or whether it is content with dragging its feet on the matter. Until then, India's basketball players and fans will have to continue to bear with middling performances at the Asian level.