India fought valiantly against an unbeaten, higher-ranked Jordan in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) World Cup qualifiers on Friday. But by the end, the result itself, an 88-102 defeat for India, had turned into a footnote. What stuck out was the conspicuous absence of two of India's star names, Amjyot Singh and Amritpal Singh, who were confirmed to play until the eve of the match.
Having arrived in Bengaluru a few days ago for India's matches against Jordan and Lebanon, Amjyot, contracted with Oklahama City Blue in NBA's G-League and Amritpal, who turns out for Sydney Kings in Australia's National Basketball League (NBL), did not figure on FIBA's roster for the match, never made it to the court and were forced to fly out of the city on Friday night itself.
Attempting a hasty cover-up, Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and national coach Rajinder Singh offered contrasting theories for the no-show. While a senior BFI official reasoned that both players had confirmed their participation after the FIBA deadline for team probables had run out, Singh floated a wholly different theory of not wanting both players to risk an injury during the matches, which could, in turn, jeopardise their contracts with the respective foreign leagues.
The players themselves refused to comment following the federation's gag order, but talking to ESPN, BFI secretary Chandra Mukhi Sharma pinned the blame squarely on both the players. "They sent us their confirmation for the matches after the deadline so we couldn't include them in the probables list of 24. Despite that, we still put their names down in the final 12 once they reached Bengaluru. But we received a mail from FIBA on Thursday saying that both players cannot be considered for the games since they were not part of the probables list at all. So there's nothing we could have done."
Even if the players are to blame for late confirmation, what defeats logic is BFI inviting both of them to travel such huge distances to join the national camp and assuring them a place in the side despite FIBA guidelines disallowing players not part of the probables from being included in the playing line-up. Amjyot, the second Indian to be drafted by a G-League club and Amritpal, the first Indian-born player to be picked by Australia's NBL were informed that they could not play only on the eve of the match.
To put things into perspective, BFI had slapped both players with showcause notices last month for 'causing disrespect to the nation', since they had not turned out for the earlier fixtures. While Amjyot missed both the previous fixtures and hasn't played for India since his NBA G-League draft last year, Amritpal could not play the last match against Syria since he had to rush home to be beside his ailing father.
With this loss, India is now placed bottom-most in Group C with three defeats in as many games and has pretty much shut the door on its chances of qualification. Only the top three of each group qualify. On Monday, they play Lebanon, who've won two out their three games so far.
On Friday though, India played their hearts out, with captain Satnam Singh logging 20 points and forward Aravind Annadurai keeping up his stellar form, bringing home 28 points and 11 rebounds. From a yawning 38-51 gulf at the end of the second quarter, India narrowed it down to a slim five-point gap by the end of the third, but successive turnovers did them in and they never recovered. It's when the star turn of Amjyot and Amritpal, who make for a formidable front-court combination, was sorely missed and frayed egos cost dear.
Their presence may well have been the difference between a hard-fought defeat and a win.