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"I used to cry myself to sleep" - Indian basketball captain Shireen Limaye on being trolled after the team lost

'No one plays to lose' - Shireen Limaye in action at the 2021 FIBA Women's Asia Cup Division A. FIBA

After India's loss to Pakistan in the T20 World Cup in Dubai, fast bowler Mohammed Shami was trolled on social media - he had bowled the final over of the match that sealed Pakistan's win. It was not the first instance of public abuse of sportspersons and it's not only high-profile athletes who are targets. Shireen Limaye, the captain of India's basketball team, has spoken about how she was viciously trolled and body-shamed following the team's loss to Japan in the FIBA Women's Asia Cup Division A last month - and, as she says, it's been the case since she started playing.

"It's extremely hard to go through all that negativity, fat shaming and cyber bullying," she told ESPN. "It's demotivating and degrading to see those comments and DMs. People just sit at home and sh*t on me for no apparent reason. They can't do anything themselves and they say cr*p about me on social media...that's just ridiculous and pathetic."

Limaye says she asked her teammates to stay off social media till the tournament ended but she did see some posts after the Japan match, which India lost 136-46. "The negative comments and the negative posts [on my] Instagram pages about how Japan killed us and how I have ruined the team by being captain."

Four-time Asia Cup champions Japan, ranked eighth in the world, were coming off a podium finish at the Tokyo Games. The Indian girls were playing their first game as a team since the 2019 South Asian Games. Ranked 70 in the world, India finished the eight-team tournament at the bottom and were relegated to Division B. With 35 points, 29 rebounds and 13 assists across the tournament, Limaye was arguably the best performer for the Indian side in the competition. "Japan hasn't stopped playing in the last two years, they just came back from the Olympics. We hadn't played in two years and that says a lot. There were comments by some random people who hardly understand the sport saying they'll go bald if India wins at least one game. It can be disheartening to see that kind of lack of belief in the team. For us it was extremely upsetting to lose by that much of a margin. It's not easy playing the best teams in Asia."

The trolling, however, Limaye explains, hasn't been specific to a poor result. "I've been facing this ever since I started playing ball. In 2017, before the FIBA Asia Cup it was so bad that people DM'ed me saying that I was obese and too "out of shape" to even touch the ball. I used to cry myself to sleep." That year, India topped Division B, was promoted to Division A and forward Limaye was among the team's top three performers alongside the then captain Anitha Paul Durai and Jeena Skaria.

In the lead-up to the recent Asia Cup, the team came together for a two-month camp. It was the first time since the pandemic struck that they were around one another as a unit. "Most of the year we play against each other for different club sides and that changes a lot of things. In the coming years if we have more opportunities to play together, we can be in the top 6 in Asia. That's the plan for now at least."

However, for basketball as a sport to make headway in the country, Limaye believes a couple of things need to happen first - a set basic basketball regimen to be used to help everyone be coached in the same format with the same basic fundamentals; having at least one basketball academy in every major city; leagues to help players gain more game time and providing decent stipends and incentives to athletes and also for parents to see that basketball can be a profession.

Limaye grew up spending hours honing her rebounding and lay-ups at Pune's PYC Gymkhana courts, but basketball wasn't the only sport she was pursuing. She was into roller skating as a young kid, was ranked inside the country's top-five in U-21 billiards and snooker and was part of the Indian netball team at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. "Snooker and billiards trained me in being patient and focused," she says, "Netball taught me how to play without the ball. We cannot dribble in netball so it's all about passes. My passing and my court vision improved a lot after I started playing netball. But basketball was always my first love because of my mother. She's a former national-level player and used to take me to the court ever since I was 6 months old. I always wanted to fulfill her dream of me playing for the country."

Today, at 26, Limaye leads the Indian women's side through all the vicious bullying and body shaming. Her team, despite being far from the most followed isn't spared by anonymous trolls. "No one plays to lose, she says, "Nobody understands the hardships we athletes go through. I talk to family and close friends to unburden myself. I just keep telling myself that I'm stronger than whatever is thrown at me."