Indian team creates history

THE year 2003 has turned out to be the best for Indian volleyball.

M. C. RAMAN

The jubilant Indian team which won the Asian Youth championship. -- Pic. K. R. DEEPAK-

THE year 2003 has turned out to be the best for Indian volleyball. Two years ago the Indian senior team failed by 0.01 percent to qualify for the World championship, held in Argentina, in a three-way tie. By the end of 2002, the Indian junior team, however, brought more cheer to the Volleyball Federation of India by qualifying for the World championship, finishing No. 2 behind Iran in the Asian championship. And in April 2003, the Indian youth team created history by becoming the first national side to win any Asian title ever. It happened at the beautiful Rajiv Gandhi Port indoor stadium in Visakhapatnam in front of 7,000 spectators and the big official gathering, which included the Asian Volleyball Confederation President, Wei Ji Zhong, the AVC Control Committee Chairman, Yim Hyung Bin, the VFI President, B. Sivanthi Adityan, the VFI Secretary, K. Murgan and the All India Council of Sports President, V.K. Malhotra, MP.

So in 2003 the Indian Junior and Youth (boys) teams are going to take part in the World championships. This is indeed a great achievement for the Federation. The VFI can pat itself for its excellent talent hunt scheme, selection of coaches and the dedicated preparation for the big events. More than that the VFI's ability to bid for such a big event and conduct it in a highly professional way in a non-capital centre with limited experience, must be complimented.

In the long history of Asian volleyball, India has always had the problem of breaking the monopoly of the three giants, Korea, China and Japan. Whether it was senior championship or junior events, the trio had shut out the other nations to take the first three slots. However, in 1980 the Indian junior side broke that monopoly to get into the first three positions and qualified for the World championship for the first time. That team was groomed and the Indian seniors sprang a big surprise by beating Japan and clinched the bronze medal in the 1986 Seoul Asian Games. This was the first time that an Asian nation other than the trio managed to win a medal in Asian competitions.

After that India's stock went down again, though the Indian junior side continued to be No. 4 in Asia till 1994 when the Juniors beat China and Japan twice — in the Asian championship and Asian qualifier — to make it to the World championship under the guidance of National coach Shyam Sundar Rao. But in the last three or four years Iran has emerged as a volleyball power. In the last Asian junior championship it won the title, beating India in the final and wanted to make it a grand double at Visakhapatnam by bagging the Asian Youth title also which it won in 2001 in Esfahan (Iran).

That did not happen. India rose to the occasion and clinched the Asian Youth title. The youth event was started only in 1997 by AVC for the under-20 age group and India ignored the first two editions. But in 2001 in Iran it finished seventh and this time it triumphed.

The VFI prepared the team well for the event. The pre-tournament expectations were that the squad should reach the semi-finals. Japan's withdrawal at the last moment made India's task easy as Group `A' had been reduced to just four teams. India had to tackle only Thailand, Qatar and Chinese-Taipei to top the pool. But Group `B' became highly competitive as Iran, China, North Korea, Australia and South Korea were clubbed together. Qatar had an Italian coach and was trained in Italy for a month. Australia played some friendly matches with Thailand. So they were better prepared. Still Iran and India looked better sides as the tournament progressed. Iran had four or five junior players who helped the country win the Asian title recently and was naturally the favourite. But India assembled almost a new team and the team clicked.

In the group clashes the home team had a tough time only against Thailand and dropped a set. Wanchai was Thailand's best spiker. Wanchai and setter Ranchapoom were in India with the Thailand team that participated in the Sivanthi Gold Cup international tournament in Hyderabad before the National Games in December. They knew the Indian conditions and challenged the Indian block. Still India topped the group comfortably. Thailand, Qatar and Chinese-Taipei finished in that order behind India.

However, there were exciting encounters in Group `B' and three of them were five-setters. The Australia-China, Australia-DPR Korea and DPR Korea-South Korea ties were relished by the spectators. But Iran outplayed the rivals and it lost only one set to China. Such was its domination before it became No. 1 in the group. Mohammed Soleymani of Iran became a popular spiker because of his excellent strike rate. Sadeghi, Sadeghiyani and Salehi, along with blocker Ranjbar Mehdi, combined smoothly to thrash the rivals. None of the teams could stop Soleymani, a comparatively short man with excellent jump. A deceptive spiker he could change the direction of attack at the last moment. The Iranians spiked and served strongly, most of them using their jump serve. Left-arm spiker Salehi's serve was the strongest and he created problems for India in the final. There was no real challenge for the Middle East country in the pool phase. But in the hectic tussle for getting better placings in the group to avoid strong teams in the quarter-finals there were some surprises.

In the last Youth championship in 2001, Iran, South Korea, Chinese-Taipei and DPR Korea made it to the semi-finals and finished in that order. But this time South Korea, which looked disjointed and under prepared, lost all its four matches in the five-team group and did not even qualify for the quarter-finals as only four sides were selected from that pool. Chinese-Taipei fought to some extent, but could not arrest the slide. It finished eighth in the competition. So the tussle for supremacy took its toll.

Iran, DPR Korea, China, Australia and South Korea came in that order and the first four moved into the knock-out quarter-finals — India v Australia, Thailand v China, Qatar v DPR Korea and Iran v Chinese-Taipei.

Iran's M. Soleymani, who was in superb touch, tries to get the ball past China's Wang Zhen (No. 2) and Sun Baishun in the semifinals. --Pic. K. R. DEEPAK-

The quarter-finals exposed the toughness of Group `B' teams as Iran, China and DPR Korea thrashed their rivals and moved into the semi-finals. The only Group `A' team to survive was India, which defeated Australia, conceding one set. Before the semi-final clash the Iranian coach said it would be a 3-0 thrash for China in their second meeting. China got off to a great start as the two Wangs, Lei and Zhen, spiked and jump served with good control to give their team a head start. Iran, however, changed its tactics by using blocker Ranjbar for attack to overcome China's block. When it consolidated its position, Soleymani took over and steered his team to victory with his superb spiking.

That was a bit of an anti-climax as a good fight between India and DPR Korea was expected in the second semi-final. But India's net defence was brilliant. Still the Korean spikers, Ju Ryong, Pak Yong Nam and Ho Kwang and Ri Man made it pretty tough for the Indian blockers, Sanjay Kumar, Dinesh, Rathish and Vikas Tomar. They fought neck and neck in all the three sets, but India finished better and its net defence was sharp.

The final was between an experienced side, the defending champion and a raw team. On Sunday they drew the battle line in front of over 7000 spectators. The crowd rooted for the home team so strongly that it disturbed the visiting team a lot. Iran came under tremendous pressure and when Sanjay, Dinesh and Rathish blocked strongly the defending champion began to trail.

Iran's block had been weak and it was making up through attack and jump serve. But against India it could not gain its rhythm and Soleymani was blocked so strongly that he was confused not knowing what to do. The Indians put the fear of God in the rivals. With Kamaraj setting superbly despite poor first pass sometimes, India maintained the momentum right through. It was so confident that it even wiped out five-point deficit in the second set to win it. However, in the third set at 20-19 left-hander Salehi served well and Iran managed to take it. But India bounced back to finish off Iran amid deafening noise. There was allround celebration because of the great victory.

The final placings: 1. India 2. Iran 3. DPR Korea 4. China 5. Thailand 6. Australia 7. Qatar 8. Chinese-Taipei 9. South Korea.

India, Iran and DPR Korea qualified for the World championship, to be held in Thailand this year.

The results:

Final: India beat Iran 25-23, 30-28, 23-25, 25-20 (110 minutes).

For third place : DPR Korea beat China 25-21, 25-20, 28-26. Semi-finals: India beat DPR Korea 26-24, 25-23, 25-21; Iran beat China 24-26, 25-17, 25-23, 25-18. Quarter-finals: India beat Australia 25-19, 25-23,18-25, 25-21; China beat Thailand 25-15, 25-22,25-22; DPR Korea beat Qatar 25-19, 25-20, 25-22; Iran beat Taipei 25-18, 25-18, 25-14.