At last, the Arjuna for Tom

Tom Joseph receiving the from President Pranab Mukherjee at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on August 29, 2014.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Volleyball star Tom Joseph received the Arjuna award this year after missing out for nine years in a row. By P. K. Ajith Kumar.

Tom Joseph’s face did not lie. The hurt at missing out on the Arjuna Award for the ninth time in a row was evident. That was last year. He almost gave up hopes.

Hope, however, springs eternal.

When the Arjuna Awards time came around this year, the 34-year-old thought, maybe, just maybe, he would find his name in that list of India’s finest athletes. And there it was. The selection panel headed by Kapil Dev found what the nine previous panels failed to find: that Tom is one of India’s finest athletes.

Ever since he burst on the national volleyball scene, Tom has been hailed as the best player of his generation, and the finest since the legendary Jimmy George. Nobody could match the power and precision of his smashes. Nobody could bring in as many spectators either.

Tom is a star. And there are few stars in Indian sport outside cricket.

One has seen the excitement of the huge crowds when Tom’s name is announced at volleyball tournaments for about a decade. He rarely has disappointed them.

Tom had no idea of how popular he was until the news came that he had won the Arjuna. “I could not take my hands off my phone till past midnight on the day the Arjuna Awards were announced,” he says. “There were calls not just from Kerala or other parts of India, but from the Gulf and African countries as well. There were reporters from some 25 television channels at my home here in Kochi. I never thought that so many people would be happy for me. It was quite a humbling experience.”

Though it is better late than never, he feels he should have got the honour some six or seven years ago. “I was performing consistently well for India then,” he says. “I have played for India from 1998 till 2012, and have contributed to some of our finest achievements during that period. I won the awards for the best player and attacker in quite a few international tournaments. And when you miss out on the Arjuna year after year, despite all that, you would feel low.”

Tom had to spend a few anxious days even after the Arjuna Awards were announced. Hockey administrators protested that no player from hockey was in the list and there was also the case of mistaken identity that denied the award for Manoj Kumar (another Manoj Kumar, a schoolboy, had been banned for doping). There were also allegations that Kerala had too many Arjuna winners — five (athlete Tintu Luka, basketball player Geethu Anna Jose, rower Saji Thomas and badminton player V. Diju are the others).

But, the selection panel stood its ground. And Tom could receive the award from the President of India in New Delhi on August 29.

“I was really relieved when the Arjuna Awards committee refused to change the list,” he admits. “I was also hurt when Hockey India President Mariamma Koshy questioned the credentials of Geethu and me. When she said that we had won nothing for India, I didn’t know whether to be angry or amused. As for Kerala winning so many awards, that is because the State has been contributing so much to Indian sport. There were no complaints when nobody from Kerala had won the Arjuna last year.”

Tom may have been out of the Indian team for the last couple of years, but he feels he is good enough for international volleyball. “I was the best player of the last two National senior championships,” he points out. “And I still enjoy playing.”