Points to ponder

The triumphant Tamil Nadu team.-H. VIBHU

It’s now time for Indian volleyball to decide whether it just wants to be popular in small pockets in India or whether it wants to rise and rub shoulders with the sport’s elite in Asia and the world. By Stan Rayan.

Despite being a sport that is aspiring to regain its place among Asia’s elite, volleyball is in a strange dilemma in India.

While the sport is being played in indoor halls the world over, on shining wooden courts, it is still being played on mud courts outdoors all through the country!

The recent Federation Cup, which national champion Tamil Nadu men and Railway women won comfortably on a mud court at Kizhakkambalam, a village in Ernakulam, was a classic case. It did not matter that the championship was the country’s biggest event after the Nationals and that this is an Asian Games year.

“No country in the world plays serious volleyball outdoors, except SAF countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka,” says National coach G. E. Sridharan.

So, Indian volleyball virtually belongs to a poor man’s club!

Though it is a sport that frequently sends one’s pulse racing while watching a solid smash or a hard block or a naughty drop at crucial moments like the ones which Tamil Nadu’s shrewd playmaker M. Ukkrapandian pulled off at the Federation Cup, volleyball has been driven out of the cities in India. So much so that now it faces a big threat of being looked upon as a village sport.

SMALL HALLS A PROBLEM

Last year, the Federation Cup was held in an indoor stadium at Pathanamthitta in Kerala. The district is keen to host it once again next year but the Kerala Volleyball Association Secretary Nalakath Basheer has made it clear that Pathanamthitta would get the championship only if it promises to hold it outdoors because the indoor stadium could accommodate only around 2500 spectators.

It’s a fact that volleyball is alive in villages and little towns in Southern India, especially in Kerala.

The temporary venue at Kizhakkambalam, which could seat around 8000, saw a packed house night after night. And on the final night when TN men outplayed Services with standout performances from the tall G.R. Vaishnav, whose smashes from a steep angle easily broke the rival defence, attackers Naveen Raja Jacob, Jerome Christoper and the young blocker G.S. Akhin apart from the experienced setter Ukkrapandian, the crowd went up to 10,000. Just a couple of days before the Federation Cup, Maniyur, a little town near Vadakara in Northern Kerala, saw the galleries filled to capacity during an all-India event.

PLAYERS’ DELIGHT

Players love to play in front of noisy, packed galleries. And rewarding the fans at Kizhakkambalam were Services’ attackers A. Anshad, who rattled the Tamil Nadu defence with his hard jump smashes, and Pankaj Sharma in the men’s final while Railways’ V. Soumya impressed in the women’s round-robin decider against defending champion Kerala.

The huge turnout gives players a huge thrill, a feeling that they are being loved and that their game is being appreciated. It also offers them good money. And frequently, organisers make big profits too. That is why, week after week in Kerala — the State which loves the sport the most in the country — players rush from one little town to another, for hastily-arranged tournaments which often end late in the night or early the next morning.

TIME TO DECIDE And this is where the problem is.

Indian volleyball has to now decide whether it just wants to be popular in small pockets in the country or whether it wants to rise and rub shoulders with the sport’s elite in Asia and the world for which it has the talent and the potential.

Unlike football, where India is ranked 154 in the world, and basketball which lies on the 61st rung, volleyball has a decent men’s world ranking, at No. 34. Our men were also seventh in the Asian Championship, held late last year.

The country which produced stars like ‘Pappan’ T.D. Joseph and Jimmy George who were among the world’s best, can be a major force if it just takes a few hard decisions, which could appear very painful in the beginning but which could bring rich rewards in future.

NO OTHER GO There is no other go but to go indoors!

Railways Women's team with the trophy.-H. VIBHU

One just has to listen to national coach G. E. Sridharan to understand the problems he faces before every major championship.

“After they play outdoors, it will take around 20 days for players to get used to the indoor conditions at the national camp,” says the former international who was a setter in the Indian team — and it included the great Jimmy George — which last won an Asian Games volleyball medal in 1986 at Seoul. “Because outdoor volleyball is one thing and indoor volleyball is another. Skill plays a bigger role indoors, perfection too is more indoors because there is the wind factor outdoors.

“The indoor game is much faster, you will also see good jumps and the quality will be higher too. It will be better for the national team. So, as a national coach, I prefer playing indoors.”

Ramavtar Singh Jakhar, the VFI Secretary General and a former international, is also keen to take the sport indoors. He said that the Kizhakkambalam Federation Cup would be the last one to be played outdoors.

But it is also a fact that unlike basketball’s national body BFI which now conducts all its national championships — senior and junior — indoors, the VFI is finding it difficult even to organise its senior Nationals indoors.

EMPTY HALLS IN CITIES

For, there are no crowds for volleyball in indoor stadiums in big cities.

If volleyball is keen to see the game getting popular in the cities, it needs to have people talking about it more often. For this, it has to market the sport properly. Revamping the dull and dead VFI website — it is often the entry point for young fans these days — could be nice start. Frequent and vibrant communication with the masses, through the media, could be another. Working on the grassroots and getting the sport popular in schools and colleges and reviving the Indian Volleyball League, last held in 2011, and bringing in foreign players are some of the other things which could be tried out.

The results: Men’s final: TN bt Services 25-21, 25-19, 25-19. Third place: Uttarakhand bt Kerala 25-23, 25-17, 25-20. Semifinals: Services bt Uttarakhand 25-19, 18-25, 25-23, 25-23; TN bt Kerala 25-18, 25-23, 25-16.

Women’s four-team round-robin decider: Railways bt Kerala 25-21, 25-18, 25-16. Final placings: 1. Railways, 2. Kerala, 3. Tamil Nadu, 4. Haryana.