‘I was an off-spinner’

S. RAMESH KURUP

“ I played cricket and trained with M. L. Jaisimha, but my father told me that I should take up basketball, football or volleyball as cricket was a rich man’s game,” says former Indian volleyball star G. E. Sridharan in a chat with P. K. Ajith Kumar.

Last year, G. E. Sridharan completed half-a-century in volleyball. His tryst with volleyball had begun in 1964 as an 11-year-old. Over the last five decades, he had played for India, helped it win its only medal at the Asian Games and had coached some of the country’s finest talents. He has been India’s chief coach for the last two years. At the last Asian Games in Incheon, he guided India to a commendable fifth place.

Excerpts from an interview Sridharan gave Sportstar in Kozhikode recently.

Question: Are you happy with the way India has progressed over these last two years?

Answer: Yes, I am quite happy. The team has been doing pretty well. We are ranked 39th in the world now and our target is to break into the world’s top 20, this year itself. Even our current ranking is good for an Olympic discipline. I think our ranking is better than that of other Olympic team sports in India. Volleyball is played in more than 200 countries. Finishing fifth in Incheon was a good effort, no doubt, but I feel we could have done better. This is the year of Olympic qualifiers and we are working hard for those games.

Is the current team the best you have seen as a coach?

Yes, I would say so. It is a young, talented team. There are so many quality players like S. Prabagaran, who is one of the best attackers in Asia, Gurinder Singh, who is a fine universal player, G. R. Vaishnav, a super blocker, setter M. Ukkarapandian and attacker Lovemeet Kataria.

Most of the current Indian players are from Tamil Nadu. The State is producing so many players these days…

That is because the educational institutions in Tamil Nadu are encouraging volleyball in a big way. Institutions like SRM, Panimalar, St. Joseph’s and Jeppiaar, all have volleyball teams. Then there are many private institutions like Indian Overseas Bank, that employ players. Academies and hard-working coaches have also contributed to the growth of volleyball in the State.

Is it also gaining in popularity?

Yes, the game is much more popular these days, but you cannot compare it to a State like Kerala, though. When it comes to popularity, Kerala is still the No. 1 by a long distance. As a player I have competed in tournaments right through Kerala; there were big crowds everywhere. I had, in fact, made my India debut in Kerala, here in Kozhikode in 1978, in a Test series against a French side.

The high point in your international career was the bronze medal India won at the 1986 Asian Games. It remains the country’s biggest achievement in volleyball. It was a great team that you were part of. Perhaps India’s greatest ever?

It has to be. It was a privilege being part of that team; I was the setter. I was the oldest member of the team. Jimmy George was, of course, our biggest star. Besides his talent, what struck me most about him was his discipline. We had several others in the team, like K. Udayakumar, Cyril C. Valloor, who made an excellent captain, Sandeep Sharma, Sukhpal Singh and Abdul Basith. Though there were so many talented individuals, the best thing about that team was its unity. And we had an excellent coach in Achutha Kurup, who was well-assisted by Sethumadhavan. Nobody expected us to win a medal in Seoul, though. But once we took a set off the formidable Japan, we were confident, and we won in straight sets.

How did you get interested in volleyball?

It is because of my father, who used to work in the Indian Army, that I became a volleyball player. Cricket was the first sport I played, while my father was posted in Hyderabad. I was shaping up well as an off-spinner and trained with M. L. Jaisimha, but my father told me that I should take up basketball, football or volleyball as cricket was a rich man’s game. Ramana Rao was my first coach in volleyball. I played in the All-India School Games in 1964 and volleyball has been my life ever since. I remember playing for P & T for Rs. 3.15 per day. I also represented SBI, Railways and Tata before a turning a coach 25 years ago.