Andhra men corner glory

M. C. RAMAN

M. MOORTHY

From the mud courts of Chauthala, a remote town in Haryana, to the newly-laid wooden court of Kotala Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy Indoor Stadium in Hyderabad, which hosted the seventh National Games in December, it was a big leap in getting playing facilities and in the process Indian volleyball took a curious turn in just one month.

Andhra men's team, which was lying low at Chauthala, suddenly became strong enough to regain the Games title, after being out of the medal's race in 1999 at Imphal and again in 2001 at Ludhiana. Before that, Andhra, helped by players like Arjuna awardee Abdul Basith, had won the title four times in a row since the introduction of modern Games in Delhi in 1985.

How did the change come about? Just by including one tall player from the newly-formed Uttaranchal, which won the men's National senior championship at Chauthala for the first time. Subba Rao, the tallest player in the country, added strength to Andhra's defence.

In fact, for the opening Group `B' match against Tamil Nadu, Subba Rao was not ready as he was not well. He entered the court, but still Andhra went down badly. However, the home team's performance picked up from the second match onwards and it finally managed to down Punjab in four sets to take the honours. Like at Chauthala where the pre-championship favourites like Tamil Nadu, the Federation Cup champion, Kerala and Punjab were brushed aside by Uttaranchal to win its first title, Andhra went past the favourites to take the gold medal with, of course, a bit of luck too.

Even before the commencement of the tournament, Tamil Nadu and Kerala fought over the inclusion of two Railway players — Kapil Dev and Sunil Kumar. Both the players were in the lists of both the States and Kerala lodged a written protest during the managers' meeting, stating that the two players were in the Kerala camp and the Tamil Nadu coach threatened them and hence they joined the Tamil Nadu team. But the Tamil Nadu Association denied all the allegations saying that they had played for Tamil Nadu in the last Games and also wanted to play for the State this time as well. Finally, K. Murugan, Secretary, Volleyball Federation of India, intervened and solved the problem to some extent. Tamil Nadu was willing to allow them to play for Kerala, but they were asked to give a letter stating their wish to play for Kerala. But the players did not give the letter and left the venue.

It was this sudden development that affected the performance of both Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Their bench strength was reduced considerably. Tamil Nadu did not have a second setter because of the departure of Kapil Dev. So also Kerala. Sunil Kumar's block would have benefited either of them.

However, Tamil Nadu managed to find its rhythm as Sivarajan and Natarajan gave it an edge in attack in the first match itself. But Kerala lost its first match against the Services. It was lucky it could recover and make it to the knockout semi-final, despite a three-way tie.

Haryana was expected to give a good fight in the men's Group `A'. But the team, which was shaping well, suddenly suffered a setback before the Chauthala National championship in November, as two of its main players could not make it. One of them died in an accident. So they had to rearrange the team and that cost them dear in both the major events. Uttar Pradesh did have the services of Uttaranchal players but the team failed to combine well. So Tamil Nadu and Andhra, which recovered quickly from the opening match debacle, entered the semi-finals.

However, Group `B' turned out to be a real battle ground and in the tussle for knock-out slots, Karnataka, which fought hard in every match, was eliminated. Punjab, which lost to Kerala, finished No. 2 in that Group and Kerala managed to get the top slot. After beating Kerala in a five-setter in the first match, it went down. So even before the final Group clash between Punjab and Kerala, it was known that they were through and Services did not have any chance.

Tamil Nadu, which clinched the women's title.-M. MOORTHY

Of the two semi-finals, it was the fight between Punjab and Tamil Nadu that was the most exciting one. Poor officiating by referees P.K. Jagannathan of Kerala and Ilyas of Andhra also marred the tie. But the irony was that the same referee, P. K. Jagannathan, was brought in for the final also and the Punjab players showed their anger openly over some decisions. Tamil Nadu started well despite conceding six points through bad service. But this bad patch in service continued. Its inability to get back to its rhythm, coupled with the referees' bad decisions at crucial stages, led to the elimination of Tamil Nadu. Punjab came here without its main setter Suraj Prakash, yet the team was served well by Jagbir Singh with his steady spiking. Pritipal and Roy Joseph combined smoothly in block. Natarajan failed as spiker and also served indifferently. This affected Tamil Nadu's second line attack. Only Sivarajan kept the offence going.

In the other semi-final, Andhra backed by the vociferous crowd, mowed down Kerala, which also suffered because of lack of second setter. And its second line attack was in bad shape. When Tom Joseph was blocked, it did not have any one to turn to. Kishore tried to shore up its offence. Ismail was somewhat better because of experience, but Jitesh Kumar and Anil Kumar were found wanting.

Backed by the full house, Andhra got off to a flying start in the final. With neat first pass, setter Ravikanth Reddy promoted the attack quickly. Dhananjaya Rao angled his shots well. Subba Rao was strong in block. Even Ajaykumar Reddy and Srikanth chipped in with short ball attack. Punjab did recover in the third set as its block improved and Jagbir began to spike sharply. Punjab had four set points in the fourth set, but Andhra fought with tremendous grit to regain the title.

However, Tamil Nadu did not miss the bus in the women's section. It had to fight Andhra and the strong local crowd to clinch the tile in three sets. Its block did the trick. The Tamil Nadu players did not allow Radhika, Nagavardhini, Srilatha and Sridevi to spike at will. Every shot was challenged at the net by Shiji Kurian, Mini Elizabeth, Gayathri and setter Sunitha. Geeta Raju, who had sprained her leg earlier, was fit for the final and her steady spiking helped Tamil Nadu to wrap up the match quickly.

Kerala, which has an impressive record in the Games, could not enter the knock out phase as Andhra and Maharashtra moved up from Group `A'. Kerala did not have the spiking power to challenge Andhra and Maharashtra, which was helped by Hemalatha and two Priyanka sisters and Kalindhi. Punjab put up a poor performance.

From Group `B', Tamil Nadu, topped with a clean slate, and Bengal entered the semi-finals, eliminating Chandigarh and Karnataka.

In the semi-finals, both Tamil Nadu and Andhra outplayed Maharashtra and Bengal respectively. And the final too ended in anti-climax.

The results:

Men : Final: Andhra beat Punjab 25-13, 25-18, 17-25, 29-27; For third place: Tamil Nadu beat Kerala 31-33, 33-31, 25-20, 25-21;

Semi-finals: Punjab beat Tamil Nadu 22-25, 25-17, 25-22, 21-25, 15-13, Andhra beat Kerala 26-24, 25-12, 20-25, 25-20.

Women: final: Tamil Nadu beat Andhra 25-19, 25-22, 25-17; For third place: Maharashtra beat Bengal 25-16, 11-25, 25-19, 25-21;

Semi-finals: Andhra beat Bengal 25-21, 25-22, 25-19; Tamil Nadu beat Maharashtra 25-19, 25-13, 25-23.