Kerala's second string proves too good

A strong second line is fast emerging in Kerala men's volleyball. Tell tale signs of this pleasant trend could be seen in the recently concluded South Zone senior championships in Bangalore.

Kerala's second string proved head and shoulders above the rest by winning the five-team league with an all-win record. But more significantly the youthful side held out rich promise that it could, in the course of time, reinforce the regular side.

There were two welcome diversions this time. The first was that the Sree Kanteerava Stadium Indoor facility was put to use for a purely sporting purpose. So often volleyball has been forced to go into the `open.' The joke is that the Indoor Stadium is more amenable to exhibitions and melas than it is to say volleyball or basketball. While these socio-economic activities spin good money, the cost of holding sporting events is supposedly quite high, making it unaffordable for the poor associations!

Secondly, the game's administrators picked this event for a round of experiment in that they shut the door on Internationals and senior national players representing their teams, virtually opening up the event exclusively for the up and coming players. In the event, the organisers were happy with what they saw and the teams knew exactly where the talent banks stood and how good was the bench strength. This rule applied to the men's section.

The God's Own Country is as much proud of its nature, the greenery and beaches, as it is with its volleyball. Little wonder that Kerala is always in possession of a dynamic set of players. Resilience was indeed the hallmark of this young Kerala side. Like any good team, Kerala's best came in times of adversity. The height factor was apparently a big plus for Kerala, which struck a good balance between attack and defence. J. Verghese and Azeez were spikers of merit. The defence was so well manned by Manoj Kumar. Overall, Kerala's secret of success lay in the fact that each member of the team was playing out his part to the desired levels of efficiency.

Tamil Nadu is another formidable team down South. It was indeed a pity that there had to be a loser in that Kerala-TN five-set thriller. It was in substance and content, `the match' of the event. Like Kerala, hope floats for Tamil Nadu that it has a good subsidiary line to fall back on.

Karnataka blew hot and cold, eventually managing second place on the strength of its resolute win over Tamil Nadu. But through it all, one player — Pradeep Kumar, who is such a natural — stood consistent. As the Karnataka coach Narayana Alva put it, "Only one player played for us in that crucial match against Kerala and it was Pradeep." Yet, Alva admits that with time and more rigorous national exposure, Vijay Kumar, Wilfred Vegas and Ujwal Shetty can blossom into formidable players. But the most exciting prospect of all, in Alva's reckoning, is Pradeep. Paradoxically, Pradeep, who has moved over to Bangalore from North Karnataka, is struggling right now for recognition.

Andhra could well draw some comfort from that last day flutter when the side unexpectedly held Kerala by the scruff of its neck before letting that hold slacken. No one expected Andhra to take Kerala that far. More than Andhra letting its own devil on Kerala, it served to show how well a good side responds when the title is rocking. If the Kerala cart had tripped then, the side would have finished third in a three-way tie!

For poor Pondicherry, it was a fruitless journey. In both sections, the side ended up with an all-loss record. While it is poorer in record, it nevertheless must feel much richer in experience.

For the tireless efforts of the Karnataka Volleyball Association in getting on stage an event of this size without any glitches, the reward came in the form of the home team taking the women's title with an all-win record. It is the first major title for Karnataka League. The clincher was Karnataka's hard-fought victory over Kerala. Interestingly, the other three sides appeared to be clearly out of depth in terms of the quality that was dished out.

Mamatha Shetty showed her mettle. Supriya came up with a useful performance but one area in which Karnataka was found wanting was in the harmony of passes. The team's coach, Anil Kumar, who did a splendid job in getting the side to this level of performance, felt that the side was in transition and with more experience would do well. Tamil Nadu players were too individualistic to make an impact as a team. Andhra, somehow, never had that settled look. Pondicherry took a pounding.

The KVA Secretary, Nanda Kumar, had a hectic time, attending personally to every detail. He is hell bent on taking the game to its peak of popularity. "We will make volleyball big in Karnataka," he said. Knowing his dynamic ways, these are no empty words.

Final placings:

Men: 1. Kerala, 2. Karnataka, 3. Tamil Nadu, 4. Andhra Pradesh, 5. Pondicherry.

Women: Karnataka, 2. Kerala, 3. Tamil Nadu, 4. Andhra Pradesh, 5. Pondicherry. — H. S. Manjunath