India learns it the hard way

IT was a dream that went unrealised. Qualifying for the World Championship is a dream for any national squad in any sport.

M. C. RAMAN

The Korean team, which beat India in a five-setter in the second phase of the qualifiers, clinched a place for the Tokyo World Championship.-VINO JOHN

IT was a dream that went unrealised. Qualifying for the World Championship is a dream for any national squad in any sport. To achieve it, a team has to be a force to reckon with in its own continent. Only then can the country think of launching itself at the world level.

There was nothing wrong in the Volleyball Federation of India's ambition to aim for a slot in the 2006 World Senior Men's Championship in Tokyo. For the last 10 years, India has been doing pretty well at the junior and youth levels by beating strong teams such as China, Australia, Iran, Korea and Japan on a regular basis. This prompted the VFI to field the national senior squad in the 2001 qualifier for the 2002 Argentina World Championship. But, the home team was unlucky as it was eliminated in a three-way tie.

The partial success of the Indian team forced the VFI to make a concerted attempt to get a place in the main World Championship this time. The VFI bid for the first and second phases, with Chennai as venue, found favour. So far so good. The VFI mobilised all its resources it could for the competition. But, in the end, the Indian team let it down very badly and made a mess of its chances in both the phases.

Left-arm spiker Byung-Chul Chang of Korea was too hot for India and Australia in the second phase of the Chennai qualifier. Here, he is seen executing one of his fiery shots even as India's Srikanth and Subba Rao try to block.-VINO JOHN

Of course, nobody expected that the path for India would be smooth. Unlike in the 70s and 80s, the challenge has now become tougher. In addition to China, Japan and Korea, there are more nations that are aiming for Asian supremacy and World attention. Iran, Kazakhstan, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and India have broadened the Asian base. Thailand and Indonesia are next in line to make it even broader.

The path is going to be even tougher in the future. And, the World Qualifiers in Chennai gave enough indications towards this. Indonesia came close to toppling India in a five-setter. And the young Thailand side gave the home side a close fight. Kazakhstan, which has been beaten by India regularly, stunned the Asian champion Korea, which had to come to India to get a slot in the World Championship. It is becoming hotter and hotter.

In fact, India had beaten China, Iran, Kazakhstan and Korea in the last two years in various international competitions. But they all prepared well and grabbed a place, leaving India to learn lessons the hard way.

The hard preparation for the qualifier and the spirit to fight produced positive results for the teams that overtook India. China, now 15th in the world, was the smartest of them all. The country has set its eyes on the 2008 Beijing Olympics and to bag a medal before its home crowd it has groomed a young squad. The Chinese squad went to America and trained hard, playing some practice matches. Small wonder it turned the tables on India in just one year. Only last year had India defeated the Chinese side in the Rashid Memorial Tournament in Dubai.

Daniel Howard (right) blocked brilliantly to help Australia beat India in the second phase match. Here, Howard and teammate Mathew Young (centre) are seen blocking India's Rajiv.-VINO JOHN

This time, the tables were turned as China crushed the home team in three straight sets thanks to the superb jump serve of setter Li Chun. Sui Shengsheng and Shen Qiong did not lag behind. Tang Miao rose to the occasion in the last match against India with an excellent display of controlled spiking. China exposed India's poor reception and defence further. The first team to do that was Indonesia. It was a big struggle for the hosts to stop a fighting Indonesia, which won the World Under 185 Centimetre Championship recently. Indonesian setter Loudyans gave its attack a lethal edge. India's ace spiker Tom Joseph might have been the top scorer in the first phase, but China beat India to qualify straightaway. Subba Rao, Rajiv and Kapil Dev were found wanting in block and libero Joby Joseph did not do well either in the back court.

China won all its three matches in the four-team first phase league and moved into the World Championship. India came second with two wins, Indonesia third and Thailand fourth. India had another chance in the second phase to get a slot in the World Championship.

South Korea, which lost to Kazakhstan in Kazakhstan, and Australia, which lost to Iran in Iran, came to Chennai to fight for the final two places as Iran, Kazakhstan and China had already made sure of their entry. Japan, the host, is an automatic qualifier. In all six Asian teams are going to figure in the Tokyo World Championship. This is the next biggest representation after Europe's nine.

Sui Shengsheng of China, seen here retrieving against Indonesia, played a big part in his country's good showing.-VINO JOHN

It was a bad start for India against Indonesia in the first phase, where it could have arranged its fixtures in a better way by taking on a weak Thailand first. In the second phase, India wanted to see Korea and Australia play to assess their strengths. But, this policy turned out to be a disaster. Both the teams got excellent match practice, though Korea did beat Australia comfortably. Australia put up a bad show. Its service was shoddy, block was shaky and its first pass and attack were poor. Korea, a newly formed team with less experience, played on the weaknesses of the Aussies. The Asian champion fielded the shortest team, but ironically won the Hyundai Cup, beating both the tall rivals.

Three Korean players really lifted the team's performance. Left-arm spiker Byung-Chul Chang, Young-Ki Jang and Sun-Kyu Lee were the mainstays of the squad and Chang was brilliant with his all-round performance. He was unstoppable in both the matches. Even setter Young-Min Kwon did his part well, but Korea's service retrieving and backcourt defence were its plus points. The team kept coming back even when it was trailing by five points.

Australia looked weak against Korea. But the team organised its game well against India, giving the home side a shocking drubbing. Its attack clicked, the block was strong and it did not play loosely. Hardy, who was erratic against Korea, spiked strongly against India. The towering Daniel Howard blocked like a strong wall. So did Van Beest and Earl. When it came to survival, Korea and Australia proved to be the fittest. India was way behind. All the Indian players played far below their potential. Srikanth, Subba Rao, Kapil Dev, Rajiv, Abhijit Bhattacharjee and Joby Joseph formed the main team and the combination did not click. It had to beat Korea in straight sets to qualify. After winning the first set, it floundered again and lost the five-setter, wilting under pressure.

"It was not just one failure. The team failed in all departments. Look at the positioning of the players. Everything looked disjointed. For their experience, the players should have visualised what was coming and tightened up the game," said former National coach Shyam Sundar Rao about India's performance.