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Pratham Singh: A Second Coming

Pratham Singh: A Second Coming Local Heroes

It’s been nearly three years since Pratham Singh made his career’s — and arguably Indian basketball’s — biggest offensive plays down the stretch to beat China at the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup.

A lot has changed for the 25-year-old since then. While that win put India on a steady climb up the Asian ladder, for Pratham Singh, it turned out to be an unlikely dead end. The ecstasy of that night has since been replaced by an equanimity that can only come with having dealt with numerous ups and downs.

Chhattisgarh’s Adopted Son

Pratham SinghPratham Singh (right) with fellow India teammate Narender Grewal at the 2015 South Asian Qualifiers in Bengaluru. Image credit: Basketball Federation of India.

Pratham Singh was born in Amritsar, Punjab. His father ran a transport business, which meant that by age six, Pratham had moved to Bhilai, Chhattisgarh. In any other scenario, relocating from a popular basketball hub to a lesser known state in central India would have meant a death knell to hoop dreams. But in Pratham’s case, it proved to be a blessing in disguise.

Punjab is sought after for its frontcourt players trained at the famed Ludhiana Basketball Academy. But Pratham Singh — who would grow into a 6-foot-2 guard — needed to hone his backcourt skills. And Chhattisgarh, which is a ‘small-ball state’, proved to be his ideal nursery. Having picked up a basketball “for fun” during his summer vacations at the age of 11, Pratham’s competitive fire was stoked when he saw his teammates’ names appear in local newspapers as top scorers. Under the guidance of Coach Rajvender Singh Gaur, Pratham worked on different aspects of his game and in 2004 was selected to the Indian youth team that travelled to Russia. He hasn’t looked back since, participating in numerous international events across China, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Iran and Qatar.

The Gym Rat

Pratham SinghPratham Singh of IOB Chennai draws contact against ONGC Dehradun in the final of the 2016 Federation Cup. Image credit: Basketball Federation of India.

A tattoo of an eagle is etched on Pratham’s right upper arm. “I didn’t get it for any reason as such, I just liked it,” says Pratham Singh over the phone, speaking a mix of English and Hindi. The Hindi bits retain traces of a Bhojpuri accent, no doubt picked up from his formative years in Chhattisgarh.

While he may refuse to read much into his body art, the comparison between the elegant bird of prey and Pratham’s play is unmistakeable. Lightning quick, razor sharp in his movements and precise in his point of attack, Pratham Singh constantly circles the perimeter before identifying the opportune moment to either fire from long range or else drive into the paint. The former invariably ends with the ball at the bottom of the net while the latter is usually a tough made-layup or a drawn foul.

WATCH: The game where Pratham Singh made Indian basketball’s greatest offensive plays.

It is this perfect combination of accuracy and aggression that Pratham Singh brings to the national side, that India seemed to have lacked in years past. Both these aspects of his game have been consciously worked on. By his own admission, Pratham has been a gym rat. But his promotion in 2014 to ‘Manager’ at Indian Overseas Bank (IOB), Chennai —the organisation that had recruited him right out of high school back in 2009 at age 18 — has been eating away at crucial practice time.

IOB, Chennai is among the finest club teams in the nation, second only to Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd. (ONGC), Dehradun. Between them, the two clubs recruit the majority of India’s top male players, habitually setting up mouth-watering clashes at the national level.

In these domestic duels, Pratham Singh is assigned the not-so-pleasant task of guarding ONGC’s international star Vishesh Bhriguvanshi. The two understand each other’s games perfectly, and it is this synergy that has contributed towards India transforming into one of the most exciting teams in Asia in 2014. But from 2015 onwards, Bhriguvanshi was denied the support of his running mate, as Pratham’s work commitments at IOB compelled him to skip international events.

The Second Coming

Pratham SinghPratham Singh standing second from right with the rest of the Indian team after winning the 2015 South Asian Qualifiers. Image credit: Basketball Federation of India.

In December 2016, Pratham Singh made a comeback to the national side for the 21st Super Kong Sheung Cup in Hong Kong. He immediately had an impact, stretching the floor and in turn creating more space inside for India’s bigs to operate, not to mention lessening the playmaking load on Bhriguvanshi. The side ended up with a memorable podium finish and suddenly, it felt like India was a supremely formidable unit again. The bronze in Hong Kong was particularly special for Pratham, as his very first senior India appearance back in 2009 had been at the same tournament, when the team had ended last.

“The absence of Pratham [for a few years in between] after he had become ‘set’ into the side obviously makes a difference. Without him, we lacked experienced shooters at the international level,” says fellow India teammate Yadwinder Singh, underlining the value that Pratham brings to the national squad.

With the all important FIBA Asia Cup 2017 —that will now notably also feature New Zealand and Australia —just a few months away, Pratham’s return could not have come at a better juncture.

“I definitely think that both I and the entire team can improve further. Other countries now know what to expect of us. So we will have to come up with a completely new game plan. But I’m sure we can pull it off as our confidence level is high,” says Pratham.

It’s safe to say that Pratham and India’s basketball fortunes will remain inextricably linked for the foreseeable future.

Feature image used in this piece is credit to Rajan Vellingirinathan.

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