"It was full gallery during the final against Services," reminisced S.K. Kataria of Railways, who played in the 1973 senior Nationals at the then Egmore Stadium in Chennai.

“It was full gallery during the final against Services,” reminisced S.K. Kataria of Railways, who played in the 1973 senior Nationals at the then Egmore Stadium in Chennai.

Railways lost a thrilling match, but Kataria, a shooter par excellence, ensured that his team went down fighting. “We played on cement and mud courts. Towards the later stages, we played on cement,” said the 60-year-old. “In South India, there is always a crowd keen to watch basketball,” he added.

K. Muralinath was a starry-eyed 20-year-old representing Tamil Nadu in 1973 looking in awe at players of the calibre of Kushi Ram, Hanumant Singh and Manmohan Singh. “It was an education seeing them. The Nationals then was a gala event,” he said.

‘Gala' will not be the apt word to describe the 62nd senior National basketball championships, which returns to the city (Nehru Indoor Stadium) on Friday after 38 years.

For it'll be well-nigh ambitious on the part of organisers to expect a full house. Nevertheless, the best of players have arrived and the nine-day event is expected to provide a decent fare.

Indian Railways, the defending champion in the men's and women's categories, will be looking to add to its huge collection of winners' trophies. “The expectations are always high for us,” said Ramkumar, the men's team coach.

Railways had a setback with two key players, Yadwinder Singh and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, opting reportedly to represent Uttarakhand.

“Certainly it's a setback,” says Ramkumar. “But we have good players like Gagandeep Singh, Jasjot Singh, Dilawar, Prakash Mishra and Sunil Kumar who are capable of making a difference.”

The women's team with the redoubtable Geethu Anna Jose and P. Anitha in its ranks has been unbeatable and it will be looking to bag the title for the ninth successive time.

Delhi could be the only team that could pose some challenge to the Railways. Kerala will be the dark horse in both sections. The Tamil Nadu women's team is also expected to give a tough fight.

The loss to Railways by one point in the finals of the Ludhiana Nationals in 2009-10, still rankles Ashwini Kumar, the Punjab men's team coach.

“It was a huge disappointment. The presence of internationals Talwinderjit Singh, Jagdeep Singh, Amritpal Singh and Amjyot Singh this time does give the team lot of solidity.”

Uttarakhand's coach K.P.S. Mann reiterated that Yadwinder and Vishesh would represent the State. “We have got the court order from the Nainital High Court allowing them to play for us,” he claimed. Uttarakhand will sorely miss the services of Riazuddin and Sridhar who are down with injuries.

The Tamil Nadu men's team hasn't won the title since 2003, and the newly-appointed coach M.S. Nazar was hopeful of his young team putting up a good show.

“If we combine well, we are capable of reaching the semifinals,” he said. Vineeth Revi Mathew, S. Aravindh and Harish Koroth are the notable absentees.

Former champion Services will be without Sambaji Kadam and Jayram Jat, according to its coach Pawan Kumar.

The Nehru Indoor Stadium is being given the final touches and the championships will, hopefully, not be short of action.

The groups: Men: Level I: Group ‘A': Indian Railways, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, UP; ‘B': Services, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Delhi.

Level II: Group ‘C': Chandigarh, HP, J&K, West Bengal; ‘D': Karnataka, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Tripura, ‘E': Odisha, Bihar, MP, Rajasthan; ‘F': Haryana, Assam, Maharashtra, Puducherry.

Women: Level I: ‘A': Indian Railways, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Punjab, MP; ‘B': Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan.

Level II: Group ‘C': Karnataka, Haryana, HP; ‘D': UP, Gujarat, J&K, ‘E': Odisha, Chandigarh, Puducherry; ‘F': Assam, Bihar, Uttarakhand, West Bengal.