Grand double for Railways

THIS is the year of the Asian championship and the Indian junior team has qualified for the World championship, to be held in Teheran in the middle of 2003.

M. C. RAMAN

THIS is the year of the Asian championship and the Indian junior team has qualified for the World championship, to be held in Teheran in the middle of 2003. Is it fair to expose the top players to such primitive conditions? This was the question that was uppermost during the 25th Federation Cup tournament, hosted by the Triprayar Sports Association in February.

The victorious Railways team which won the men's title __ Pic.K. GAJENDRAN-

Triprayar is a small temple town in Kerala with no decent hotels to accommodate so many players, officials and media. Yet the major national event was conducted and when it ended one heaved a sigh of relief. In fact, even the senior National championship was conducted in a remote border town (Chauthala) in Haryana this year in primitive conditions. At least in the years of major international competitions, the Volleyball Federation of India should refrain from allotting national-level events to such places.

The VFI offers the tournaments in good faith, expecting that they would be conducted in decent places. But the State associations like Kerala collect their `due' and pass on the tournaments to organisers, whose credibility as sports promoters sometimes is questionable.

Two strange things happened during the concluding ceremony after the finals. The organisers wanted the help of the chief guest, the State Sports Minister, Mr. Sudhakaran, to build an indoor stadium in Triprayar. But he explained the difficulty in meeting various demands for such a big project. But what is surprising is that Kerala has got more number of indoor stadiums than any other State in the country. In the seven years four or five National championships and Federation Cups were allotted to the Kerala association, but not a single national-level event was conducted in any indoor stadium. Even the 2001 National championship was organised on a dusty and underprepared court in Kozhikode, where there is a magnificent indoor stadium with a capacity of about 10,000, causing a lot of inconvenience to players, officials and media. Why should crores of rupees be spent on another indoor stadium to keep it as a show piece as it is in Kozhikode, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram? The Kerala Government and the Kerala Sports Council should instruct the sports associations to utilise the present indoor facilities and also give financial assistance to only those bodies who comply. Why should volleyball internationals play on paddy fields and on the banks of backwaters in this century? It makes no sense.

Another sickening tendency is to spend thousands of rupees on opening ceremony dances and other unnecessary cultural activities irrelevent to sports. Already the volleyball players are complaining that they hardly get any money for their effort. In fact, the Kerala players themselves would have benefited immensely as they reached both the finals, had the wasted money been given as extra prize money for the top teams. Even the gate collection for the semi-finals and finals that was announced raised several eyebrows.

The jubilant Railways women with the trophy. __ Pic.K. GAJENDRAN-

Why is the Kerala Sports Council not appointing its observer to such major events to make its own assessment? It has the moral right to know whether the money collected from gates is ploughed back into the sport. This has been going on for sometime and there seems to be no solution to the problems.

Undoubtedly, the championship had its own quota of surprises, thrills and disappointments. Uttaranchal, the current National champion, without its centre blocker Subba Rao, who has gone to the Gulf to play as a pro, crashed out of the tournament without winning a single match in men's Group `A'. There were serious allegations against Uttaranchal that it had the `official patronage' in winning the National title at Chauthala this year. It may be a harsh criticism, but Uttaranchal did not do anything extraordinary to disprove that criticism. Even Karnataka, which did not qualify for the semi-final knock-out, outplayed it in its opening match. Tamil Nadu and Services exposed the newly-formed northern side further. The frustrated Uttaranchal players turned their anger against the match referees and faced allround condemnation. Not a good way to go out of a tournament.

Andhra won the men's title in the National Games a few months ago with the help of blocker Subba Rao, who belongs to the State, but is employed in ONGC in Uttaranchal. Without him, the team crashed out, losing all the three matches in Group `B'. These results showed how one man could swing the fortunes of two different teams in just three months.

Tamil Nadu, the defending men's champion, started its campaign badly by losing to the Services in the opening match. It landed without its main setter Thulasi Reddy, who joined the team next day, and spiker Sivabalan, who is nursing a bone injury. Still it fought its way into the semi-finals, where it lost to the Railways in an exciting five-setter in which spiker Srikanth played a great game saving four match points to help his side win the crucial tie. These were some of the disappointments.

Railways' Sunil Kumar, who shattered Kerala's net defence, tries to get this smash past Anil and Ansar in the men's final. __ Pic.K. GAJENDRAN-

Services sprang a big surprise. By recruiting one libero, Arun Jakhmola, an international, the Army squad became a strong outfit. It topped Group `A' winning all its matches and sounded a warning. It looked strong enough to win the title for the first time in years. But it squandered a great opportunity by loosening the grip against Kerala in the semi-final in which it was leading by two sets to one. But when the crowd backed Kerala, Services felt the pressure and caved in.

And the thrill came from five encounters. Down by two sets Services fought well to bring down Tamil Nadu in Group `A' from which both Services and Tamil Nadu qualified, eliminating Karnataka and Uttaranchal. With better defence, first pass and attack through Aman, Shijas Mohammed, Saji Kumar and Sunil Kumar, the Army team gave a fantastic start to the tournament. Setter Siju Joseph also did a neat job. But Group `B' turned out to be more tough, as Railways, down by one set to two, staged a strong fight back to down Haryana, ably assisted by Amir Singh, Dinesh Kumar and Sanjay Kumar. Similarly, Kerala was down by two sets against Andhra and then came back through the better block and spiking of Tom Joseph, Kishore Kumar, Ansar and Sunil Kumar. Railways and Kerala qualified for the semi-finals from Group `B', ousting Haryana and Andhra.

Both the semi-finals were thrillers and edge of the seat stuff. Whoever finished better and played well under pressure won the day's matches. Kerala made it tough for the Services, which unnecessarily allowed itself to be distracted by line calls and lost the grip. It was a fight between two superb spikers in the country. Tom Joseph of Kerala versus Shijas Mohammed of Services. Tom won the battle for the home team and Shijas' game dipped.

Kerala's Minimol jumps to block a shot by Railways' Vini Thomas in the women's final. __ Pic.K. GAJENDRAN-

Tamil Nadu was all set to make it to the final when it slipped badly with bad first passes and shaky defence. It was up by two sets to one. But libero Swaminathan's one bad patch in first pass led to the downfall of Tamil Nadu, which still fought and had four match points. But Srikanth spiked brilliantly to neutralise that and the Railways got one match point and it won.

However, the final did not rise up to that level. Tom Joseph spiked brilliantly in the first set to lift Kerala's game. With the crowd roaring it looked as if the home team would have a cakewalk against the Railways, which did not have its main setter Ravikanth Reddy and spiker Rajesh Tiwari from the beginning. Still it managed with setter Kapil Dev, who fought tenaciously, and Srikanth. Kerala was unlucky to lose the National championship to Uttaranchal a month ago. So this was its chance. But barring Sunil Kumar others failed to chip in and Kishore was a let down as main blocker and short ball attacker. Kerala's defence collapsed and the Railways rallied brilliantly to make it a grand double as its women's team also won the title, beating the host Kerala in the final. It was a creditable double for the Railways after 1988 at Udaipur . From 1990 the Cup became a competition for clubs. Now, the State teams have been reintroduced.

It was Railways all the way in the women's section. With Geeta Raju, Vini Thomas, Radhika, Shiji Kurian and Gayathri spiking well, the Railways was streets ahead of others. Its archrival Kerala, however, struggled against Karnataka in Group `B', but managed to win the five setter.

Sheeba, Preethy Kartha, who was erratic at times, Gisha Thomas and Salitha Prasad formed a strong combination in attack. But Kerala looked subdued against the Railways in the final. In only one set it finished better and took it. Otherwise the institution team was in full control. Railways and Bengal from Group `A' and Kerala and Karnataka from Group `B' qualified for the semi-finals, which were , however, tame encounters.

The results:

Men: Final: Railways beat Kerala 17-25, 25-17, 25-23, 25-17; For third place: Services beat Tamil Nadu 25-22, 25-22, 11-25, 25-23; Semi-finals: Kerala beat Services 18-25, 25-21, 20-25, 28-26, 18-16, Railways beat Tamil Nadu 25-20, 13-25, 21-25, 25-22, 19-17.

Women: Final: Railways beat Kerala 25-18, 22-25, 25-15, 25-18; For third place: Karnataka beat Bengal 25-14, 25-22, 25-21; Semi-finals: Railways beat Karnataka 25-20, 25-19, 25-14, Kerala beat Bengal 25-22, 25-16, 23-25, 25-16.