At last, a welcome sponsor

The victorious ONGC men and Southern Railway women (below).-Pics: R. RAGU The victorious ONGC men and Southern Railway women (below).

Seeing the variety of talent in Indian volleyball, senior national coach, G. E. Sridharan, is optimistic that the country, fifth in Asia behind Japan, China, Iran and Korea, could do better in the days ahead. The signs are bright because the juniors have been doing exceptionally well in Asia and as they come up and mingle with the seniors, India should be able to make more ripples, writes S. R. Suryanarayan.

Only the hugely popular cricket is able to corner large-scale sponsorship in India. No other sport has the benefit of such largesse. Volleyball is no exception even if it is one sport in India where there is a lot of planning and organisation in achieving higher level of standards. Even if such efforts have not translated themselves into big medals or marks so to say, Indian volleyball has a place within the top 40 countries in the world. This significance can be better appreciated when it is realised that there are over 200 countries affiliated to the world body, FIVB.

So it is poignant to see the lack of sponsors when it comes to conducting volleyball tournaments, even those with an international flavour. What is more, as K. Murugan, the Secretary-General of the Volleyball Federation of India, was to admit, there have been occasions when a team, despite performing well and qualifying for a continental championship, could not make the trip for want of funds. “We need sponsors, we require more of corporate involvement if the sport has to progress unhindered,” is Murugan's plea. And he could be saying this for many other sporting disciplines as well in India.

Each sport has its champions who bring pride and joy, but it is a sad aspect of Indian sports that at the end of the day a champion has to seek the mercy of the Government or the benevolence of a sponsor to fulfil his or her ambitions to make a mark on the international plane. Volleyball faces a similar situation in India with regard to its various programmes. The latest was the national club volleyball championship. Murugan said it was one of those unfortunate experiences of the VFI in the past that a ‘club champion' could not represent the country in the Asian championship despite the host being willing to wait till the last minute.

To that extent it was a pleasing break from the past when Indian Overseas Bank, as part of its platinum jubilee celebrations, decided to organise the national club championship. Even more convincing — the VFI had been claiming that the volleyball mood in India was upbeat — was the fare, especially in the men's section, in the championship.

The best clubs in India took part, throwing into the fray some of the best known volleyballers of the day. One often hears of players being more loyal to the club than the country. Even if that is debatable, the championship produced enough moments to ponder and perhaps accept the Indian Senior team Head Coach G. E. Sridharan's claim that “Indian volleyball today has the benefit of some fine talents who are bound to add value to the sport and themselves.”

Be it a veteran like the near seven-foot Subba Rao of ONGC or the wiry John Christopher, one thing was common: the eagerness for finesse. Rao was like a stone-wall behind the net, baulking glorious smashes that in normal circumstances would have breached many a defence. John's mid-court spiking and general agility can delight any coach. No wonder he is a junior India international, who is bound to make the senior team before long.

Then, there were the tested entities like Sanjay Kumar (Haryana State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation) who has the fame of singlehandedly destroying opponents with his well-angled smashes, solid blocks and assured defence, Naveen Raja Jacob (IOB) a star already for his all-court abilities including jump serves (easily one of the best in the country), IOB's Selvaprabhu (another in the Naveen Raja mould), Sivabalan (Chennai Customs), who even when half-fit can galvanise an attack, and not to forget, Nadarajan (IOB), whose screaming act on winning a point borders on a scene from a horror movie. And Navy's Shijas Mohammed probably delivered the hottest smashes in the championship.

Add to the list eye-catchers like Mandeep Singh, Gurchand Singh, Lalit Kumar, setter Ranjit Singh (all ONGC), Kapil Dev and Rajeev (Railways) and Tom Joseph (BPCL) and one is aware of the variety of talent in Indian volleyball, a point Sridharan emphasises while sounding optimistic that the country, fifth in Asia behind Japan, China, Iran and Korea, could do better in the days ahead. The signs are bright because the juniors have been doing exceptionally well in Asia and as they come up and mingle with the seniors, India should be able to make more ripples. May be the wait, already over 25 years since the bronze medal win in the Seoul Asiad, for another top-draw show in the Asian Games or even the Olympics may end sooner than later.

The same perhaps cannot be said of the women's competition. True, this championship restored what observers claimed as a first, that of equality in prize money. But there ended the comparison. The power-packed men's action was definitely the bigger draw. At least those diehard fans of the sport, who visited the Montfort facility, a wonderful indoor stadium of Chennai's sports-encouraging Santhome Higher Secondary School, would vouch for that.

As it happened there were eight contestants for the men's honours and six in the women's category. The men went through two group leagues prior to the knock-out rounds while it was a straight round-robin for the women. As the two unbeaten sides in the championship, ONGC, Dehradun and Southern Railway, Chennai emerged the men's and women's title winners. Both of them are India's representatives for the respective Asian championships next year. Hopefully, they will not face the problem of funds!