Indian boys do their country proud

TAKING an Indian team to the summit of any World-level competition or even close to the summit of the World championships in any Olympic sport is a difficult proposition.

M. C. RAMAN

The Brazil team which won the World Youth volleyball championship.-

TAKING an Indian team to the summit of any World-level competition or even close to the summit of the World championships in any Olympic sport is a difficult proposition. There are quite a few innate problems. Selecting talented players — who speak different languages, play their own style of game in their region and come from a different culture — and moulding them into a fighting outfit is a tough job for any coach.

Even the talent hunt programme is a highly tedious job in India. Unlike as in Europe and American continents, where computer-recorded details about players are available from their young age, the Indian coach has to go and search for the talented ones. This is what coach G. E. Sridharan has been doing for the last 13 years as he has been handling the junior teams in the Asian championship.

This was how he managed to assemble one of the best youth squads for the country and had a sensational run of success in the eighth World Youth (under-19 boys) volleyball championship in Thailand, finishing runner-up to the six-time champion Brazil. It was an amazing triumph for a team that never had any serious international exposure before the championship, barring the Asian championship, and its tremendous self-confidence took the Indian team to the final.

The Indian team had a dream run before it stumbled at the last hurdle.-

Never before had an Indian volleyball team done it in any category. Be it senior, junior or youth, this was the first time that the national squad had made it to the final where it bowed to the same Brazil side that it had beaten 3-1 in a group clash.

When the Indian team landed in Suphanburi, the venue of the championship, about 160 km north of Bangkok, it was an underdog with just the tag of Asian champion. But that was nothing in world volleyball in which the Europeans and South Americans dominate. However, there was one positive factor in India's victory over Iran in the Asian championship final in Visakhapatnam three months before the World championship. As Iran finished runner-up to Brazil two years ago in Cairo, the Indian coach and team were confident that it would not be difficult to finish in the first four of the World tournament. It was this confidence that lifted India's game in the group phase.

The strength of Poland, Brazil and the Czech Republic was unknown to the Indian squad when it plunged into the pool battle. There were six qualifiers from Europe — holder Russia, runner-up Poland, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic. But Germany pulled out of the competition and Slovakia, which finished seventh, earned a slot in the championship. Similarly, India, Iran and DPR Korea were the qualifiers from Asia. But DPR Korea was suspended on disciplinary grounds because its coach threatened a referee during the Asian championship. So China was lucky to get an entry. From South America Brazil and Argentina qualified, but the latter withdrew. To fill its place Australia, which finished sixth behind host Thailand in the Asian championship, was invited. Puerto Rico and Venezuela came in as the North American winner and runner-up respectively and Egypt and Morocco figured from the African continent.

Three teams had enjoyed fantastic height advantage with most of the players being above 195 cm and the Russian team had a blocker, standing 210 cm tall. Russia, the Netherlands and Poland looked menacing on the court and physically they were too strong for even the senior teams from Asia. They relied on power in every aspect. Their block, serve and spike could break the heart of any Asian side. Still the Indian team was not overawed by the presence of two European outfits in its pool, Poland and Czech Republic. It got off to a great start, thrashing Poland by straight sets. It had some problems only in the first set, but wrapped up the match quickly as spikers Srikanth and Sanjay Kumar unleashed their shots to devastating effect. India cashed in on Poland's erratic game, going for big jump serve and high attack and conceding more error points.

On the second day, India was up against a bigger challenge facing the defending champion, Brazil. But the fancied outfit also played a highly erratic game, throwing way 32 error-points mostly through uncontrolled jump serve. India's defence was superb as Dinesh Kumar and Rathish combined well in double block to shut out Machado, Silmar and Thiago, who, however, did a brilliant job in beating India in the final with their controlled spiking.

Brazil's Thiago spikes past the Indian double block of Kamaraj (No. 2) and Dinesh Kumar in the final.-

Once again Srikanth and Sanjay played a stellar role in India's stunning win over Brazil in the league match. Then India outplayed Czech Republic to top Pool C and it was a dream run for the underdog.

In fact, there were surprises in ties for group toppers. While Pool C was a `Group of Death', Pool A was relatively easy. So Australia, which finished sixth in the Asian tournament, topped the group, winning all its three matches, two of them in tie-breakers. Puerto Rico and Thailand came second and third respectively and qualified for the next stage, but Venezuela, which was winless, had to leave the venue quickly.

Russia, however, overpowered all the other opponents in Pool B and took the No. 1 spot. It was an impressive show by the Russians. Danilov Roman led the attack and Alexei Ostapenko, the blocker and big server, gave the European No. 1 country a clear edge. China and Egypt secured the second and third places in that group and moved into the second phase. Slovakia, which filled Germany's place, fared badly and went out of the race after three days of group action.

Iran emerged as clear winner in Pool D, beating Italy, the Netherlands and Morocco, which lost all its three matches and bowed out early. This group was not as tough as Pool C, but was most competitive, compared to Pool A and B. Iran handled Italy and the Netherlands very well more through deceptive spiking by Soleymani and quick finish at the net. Iran's performance was good in the early stages and it looked well set to take the title.

However, in the ranking for group toppers, India crushed Australia and Russia avenged its last championship defeat, thrashing Iran in straight sets. That jolted the Asian No. 2 country.

Czech Republic's Kolar Pavel (left) tries to dodge Brazil's net defence formed by Machado (No. 4) and Moyses.-

In the four matches for the quarter-final qualifiers, Thailand sprang a big surprise by eliminating China 3-1. Apart from main spiker Wanchai, Teeradate helped the host team to shock China, which sank after a good start. The Wangs, who played so well in the Asian championship at Vizag, hardly spiked, but the Thais outspiked the Chinese and the crowd was delirious right through the match.

Puerto Rico scored an easy 3-0 win over Egypt, Brazil eliminated Italy 3-0 and the Czech Republic fought hard to down the Netherlands 3-1.

Then came the most interesting part of the tournament and the main focus was on the Russia-Brazil match in the quarter-finals. Australia started well against Czech Republic and then caved in. Iran braved the 3000 spectators' roar to down Thailand 3-0 and India easily beat Puerto Rico. But the real battle was between Russia and Brazil, which fought for its survival. Whenever Russia's block was good Brazil struggled, but the South American country played with tremendous spirit to knock out Russia. In fact, Brazil was down 10-13 in the decider. At this juncture, the main referee from Japan gave a wrong `ball out' decision and that helped Brazil to reduce the lead to 11-13. In video recording it was clear that the referee was wrong, but Russia did not protest. Had Russia taken a 14-10 lead, it would have brought immense pressure on Brazil, and the outcome could have been different.

In the semi-finals, India was pitted against Iran and Brazil took on Czech Republic. For Brazil it was an easy passage, but India had to be a bit cautious and played well to shut out Iran once again in four sets. This time India's block worked well. Sanjay Kumar spiked superbly and India moved into the final.

Then came the final and the Indian team seemed to be overawed by the occasion. For Brazil it was another final as the team had played in so many preparatory tournaments. But for the Indian boys there was a lot of pressure. Still the team led in the first two sets, taking a lead of 16-14 in the first set and 23-20 in the second. Though Srikanth failed and hardly spiked, Sanjay did a fine job as the main spiker. But Brazil's attack and defence rose to the occasion. Machado, Silman and Thiago hit winners superbly from any angle and when India's defence came under pressure it failed. Both Dinesh and Rathish did not click and India lost in three straight sets. Iran finished third, beating Czech Republic.

The final placings:

1. Brazil, 2. India, 3. Iran, 4. Czech Republic, 5. Russia, 6. Thailand, 7. Puerto Rico, 8. Australia.

Special awards: Most Valuable Player: Soleymani (Iran), Best Setter: Kamaraj (India), Best Blocker: Danilo (Brazil), Best Spiker: Danilov Roman (Russia), Best Server: Alexie Ostapenko (Russia), Best Digger: Mohammed Moselm (Iran), Best Retriever: Edgar Fernandez (Puerto Rico).

The results: Final: Brazil beat India 25-22, 26-24, 25-19.

For third place: Iran beat Czech Republic 25-21, 20-25, 25-21, 25-18.

Semi-finals: India beat Iran 25-15, 23-25, 25-17, 25-20; Brazil beat Czech Republic: 25-20, 25-20, 25-19.

Quarter-finals: Czech Republic beat Australia 20-25, 25-16, 25-18, 25-19; Iran beat Thailand 25-16, 25-22, 25-19; Brazil beat Russia 25-22, 17-25, 25-19, 20-25, 17-15; India beat Puerto Rico 25-17, 25-14, 25-11.