Taking India to first base

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Is the next wave of Americanisation in India happening in sports, asks Samrat Chakrabarti

Photos: (Left To Right) Fotocorp, Tarun Sehrawat, Reuters

IF YOU HAVE been witness to the Indian cricket team’s laborious struggle towards athletic agility, here is a disquieting thought. We are now diversifying into football. Not football as we know Lionel Messi play it, but the American version — big muscled bodies retro – fitted in protective armour and helmet, clashing over an ovoid in a field marked at two ends by tall upright poles; rugby on steroids, kabaddi on crack.

The United Football League (UFL)—a professional American football league, second highest platform for the game after the famed National Football League (NFL) — is going where no one has gone before. To Bhubaneshwar, among seven other Indian cities, to kickstart the Elite Football League of India (EFLI) with players drawn from as far a field as kho-kho and kabaddi.

The development is surprising on several counts, not least of which is the fact that to most Indians the word ‘Super Bowl’ is more likely to invoke images of crockery as opposed to the most prestigious tournament in American football. A sporting phenomenon of such scale and import that the Super Bowl halftime, the period of rest between two halves of the game, occupies a hallowed space in American advertising.

UFL, however, is not the only one. Over the past two years, other American names, both equally out of place in India, are featuring on the national sports pages in the country: the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB). There is a new wind blowing across the Indian sports landscape and it smells of hot dog and apple pie.

The Indian engagement with basketball began in earnest in the early 1990s, coinciding with two things — the opening of the Indian economy that brought 24×7 sports broadcasting to us for the first time and, secondly, the meteoric rise of the first modern global American sporting superhero — Michael Jordan. For teenagers growing up in the ’90s, Jordan and his supporting cast from Chicago Bulls unfurled, to the tune of a Nike Air squeaking against the wooden court and chants of ‘defence’ from an audience just feet away from the players, a global spectacle. The generation’s first brush with international sporting chic.

Basketball became aspirational and, in English medium schools across the country, one heard the insistent thump of a basketball hitting concrete. In India, however, it was finally subject to what Karan Madhok, director (communications) of Basketball Federation of India (BFI), calls the two-nation theory — the India that watched basketball and the one that played it as a career sport. The class that watched basketball, after Jordan’s retirement, moved on to sports like football and Formula One. As for the players who played it, the endpoint was a government job and mediocrity. But if the past two years are any evidence, Indian basketball is about to change.

Big swing Morning baseball practice at Imphal’s polo ground
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

Rajesh Patel, associate secretary, BFI, belongs to the second part of the twonation theory. Awarded the best basketball coach in Chhattisgarh in 2008, he is now training some of the best basketball players in India. He explains his strategy in clipped military speech, “I pick up the best children from Adivasi communities across the country and turn them into basketball players. They are fast, athletic, agile and hungry. They do four things here — eat, sleep, study and play basketball. They study only to pass. Playing for India is all they think about.” Rajesh’s kids have put Chhattisgarh on the Indian basketball map. The largest presence at the ongoing national basketball camp in Delhi are Rajesh’s ball players from Chhattisgarh. “With some help from the NBA, the BFI has completely changed the scene. They’ve brought international coaches to train our seniors, the coaches in India are regularly taken to the US to be given advanced training and exposure. Earlier, the camps would take place barely a month before an event. Now there’s long-term planning. The IMG Reliance tie-up and the new grading system will revolutionise the sport. With the NBA coming to India, basketball is in a position to set up a home-grown league that will compete with the Indian Premier League (IPL),” says Rajesh.

The IMG-Reliance collaboration is the biggest deal that the BFI has cracked, says Madhok. It’s a 30-year partnership to promote and develop a basketball league in India. Also, the newly-introduced grading system incentivises the growth of skill. Says Madhok, “We’ve introduced a monthly honorarium for the best 60 players — 30,000 per month for the top among them. It’s a dynamic list that is reviewed every three months. Hence a player has to keep playing well and grow.” While the IMG-Reliance deal is bringing in the money, the NBA is bringing in quality. “They’ve been very smart about their entry into India. They have come with a long-term view of focussing on the grassroots level of the game — improving the standard, getting more kids to play through a community basketball league and, most importantly, adding legitimacy to the BFI, which is a huge help,” says Madhok.

The NBA, in partnership with the BFI, has already begun two basketball programmes in India, both aimed at developing the street-level game. A community league programme called the Mahindra NBA Challenge was started 14 months ago and currently includes 6,000 players across all age groups spread over five cities. The other programme called the Junior NBA Skills Challenge includes over a thousand 10- 11-year-olds. Over 500 coaches have been trained to teach better basketball under this programme. Troy Justice, director (operations), NBA India, says, “The idea is to provide a new platform in which anyone can play basketball. It is already the most comprehensive league in India. The basketball community here is passionate because they play it primarily for the love of the game. It is the fastest growing sport in India.”

In 1990s, basketball was subjected to what Madhok calls two-nation theory — the India that watched basketball and the one that played it

Why India? The NBA has been in China for the past 20 years where it has successfully managed to establish basketball as a major sport, thus opening a huge market for viewership and merchandise. The greatest help came with the emergence of Yao Ming, who at 7 foot 6 inches is not only the tallest player in the NBA, but also the first Chinese home-grown basketball hero. In India, the bigger strides, according to Madhok, might come first with women’s basketball. “The women’s game is more about the fundamentals — good shooting, good passing. The men’s game, on the other hand, is about toughness and speed. You need greater levels of physical prowess that needs better physique and takes time to develop.” And it’s in the women’s game that India might have its first NBA success through Geethu Anna Jose. Born in 1985 to a Catholic family in Kottayam, Kerala, Jose went from athletics to high jump to volleyball along with her height. By the time she was 6 foot 2 inches, she had stopped at basketball. “She has been the leading scorer in the Asian Championships and is the best basketball player in Asia,” says Madhok. Justice calls Jose a legitimate prospect — a claim that is underlined by the fact that three teams in the Women’s National Basketball Association invited her to the US recently for try-outs.

Aiming high NBA legend Robert Parish interacts with Indian ball players
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

The growth of basketball in India is incumbent on the game becoming a viable career option. The BFI’s dream is to start a home-grown league that will make this possible. Says Patel, “My request to all parents is if you have tall kids, please push them into basketball.”

DINESH PATEL, 22, is a resident of Benares who has just returned from the US. In 2008, as a javelin thrower training in Lucknow, he heard about a new contest in town. If you were between 16 and 21 years of age and could throw a ball at a speed above 145 km an hour, you could win a million dollars.

Sports agent JB Bernstein noticed that the throwing action in cricket is similar to baseball and decided to use a reality TV show, Million Dollar Arm, as a vehicle to scout for pitching talent in India. Dinesh and Rinku Singh came second and first respectively among the 40,000 athletes who auditioned. What followed was to change their lives. They were taken by Bernstein to the US to play baseball. “I saw the game for the first time in the US. We were trained for six months and then picked up by the minor league team Pittsburgh Pirates. We were treated like Americans. I played along side the Japanese, Koreans, Americans and Mexicans. We can do very well in baseball,” says Dinesh. The story behind how Bernstein used a reality show to find Singh and Dinesh is now being made into a Hollywood film by Disney.

First the news flash. Baseball is played in India. The Indian Amateur Baseball League (IABL), which has operations extending as far as Bhubaneshwar, Raipur and Gulbarga, was started in 1983. In the second nationals that happened in 1985, the semifinal between Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka was a spinetingling affair when the closely fought game extended beyond the usual nine innings to a total of 13. Says PC Bharadwaj, secretary general, Amateur Baseball Federation of India (ABFI), “In 1992, when we organised a baseball match in Patna, almost 10,000 people turned up to watch and we had to stop the game because the crowd would have turned ugly if the home team lost.” Besides Singh, Dinesh and that exciting afternoon in Patna, Indian baseball hasn’t known too many highs. But that was until Manipur put its weight behind the game.

In the first baseball training camp, Somi Roy made the players chant Manipuri war cries ahead of the game

Walking tall Geethu Anna Jose was called by three WNBA teams for try-outs
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

In 2005, MLB got a pitch that it could not refuse. L Somi Roy, an American film curator of Manipuri origin, had been contacted by a cousin who was running for municipal elections in Imphal. “Sports is big in Manipur and there was a need for sports equipment in his constituency, but I told him that I live in America and we don’t play cricket here. You should ask someone in London. Then he tells me that he requires baseball equipment. Baseball. In Manipur? This I had to see and so I to travelled to Manipur to see it for myself,” says Roy. His first impulse was to make a documentary but then Roy realised that what Manipur needed was good equipment. This is when he approached the MLB. At the time, American baseball was facing a huge crisis. A major performanceenhancing drug scandal had broken out, tainting the game, involving Congressional hearings at Washington and the disastrous prospect of having a whole season cancelled. “It was an awesome story. A small place, closed to the world, ridden by conflict, drugs and social decay, playing baseball to make something of themselves. The MLB said, ‘This is what we are talking about. This is why we play the game, for the love of it, not by spoilt multi-millionaire sportsmen who will do anything to win at all costs.’ They sent two baseball coaches who had experience in China and Cambodia to teach the game in Manipur.”

The MLB, according to Roy, had made tentative forays into India thrice before he approached them, coming away excited by the athletic potential for baseball in a country where the biggest sport relies on hand-eye coordination. “But they were thwarted by two things. One was the ineffectiveness of the body governing the sport in India and, two, cricket. The dominance of cricket was difficult to overcome.”

Manipur provided a clean slate for the MLB and the focus changed from developing players to developing coaches so that the teaching of the game continued of its own accord. In the time since the MLB first made its way to Manipur, the game has gained momentum. The Youth Affairs ministry, an important portfolio in Manipur, has taken over the reins of the sport and is providing eight acres of land to build Manipur’s (and India’s) first baseball facility.

Roy, who in the first training camp made the players chant Manipuri war cries ahead of the game, says baseball is now feeding into the aspirations of state. “It is huge in Asia. Japan, Korea and Taiwan are already tier-one, at par with baseball in America. The gap between them and us is too huge to bridge any time soon. China is headed there, thanks to the MLB’s involvement as well as the country’s strong sports policy. So what can we aspire for? The tier-two centres of the game — Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore.” The next step, he says, is to put in place a regular playing season — from October to March. “Manipur has enough players now to support eight teams,” says Roy, and the hope is to have an exchange programme with teams in the tier-two hubs of baseball, not too far east from Manipur.

MEANWHILE, after the successful foray, Million Dollar Arm is back, this time with more prizes (for the top 10 players with cash prizes going from $50,000 to $5,000), covering a greater distance and with an MLB tie-up. Rinku Singh, Dinesh’s compatriot, is still pitching baseball in the US and, according to Dinesh, has a genuine prospect to hit the big league. “It’s very competitive to graduate on to the major league but Rinku has an advantage. He’s 6 foot 3 inches and pitches with the left hand. There is a great demand for a lefty in baseball. The breaking pitches — the curveball, the slider — come more easily to a left-hander and so if he works hard, he can do really well for himself.”

The IPL’s lasting effect could be in heralding the arrival of the modern sports league, along with its big spectacle TV viewership and aggressive merchandising. When you combine this with how sports following in India has become fractured — niches that co-exist, to a lesser extent in actual play and to a much larger extent, in viewership — the interest in India from global sports brands is real and unsurprising.

The most exciting prospect from this is for our neglected sportsmen. The EFLI is reportedly going to source its players from the large catchment of Indians practising kabaddi who will be paid Rs 20,000. Dinesh earned Rs 70,000 a month during his stint as a pitcher in the US. “I earned Rs 1.5 lakh from signing 4,000 baseball cards in one day,” he says. This has never been possible before for a javelin thrower from Benares. If Singh or Jose make it big, it could be the start of something new.

Samrat Chakrabarti is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
samrat@tehelka.com

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