Punjab Police finds its magic touch

IT turned out to be one of the most crowded seasons for volleyball players who moved from one place to another non-stop for two months to take part in various national-level tournaments.

M. C. RAMAN

The victorious Punjab Police team which won the men's National Super League title.-Pic. RAJEEV BHATT

IT turned out to be one of the most crowded seasons for volleyball players who moved from one place to another non-stop for two months to take part in various national-level tournaments. The Volleyball Federation of India's calendar went haywire because of the delayed conduct of the National Games in Hyderabad in December 2002. It was for this reason the VFI advanced the dates of the senior National championship, hosted by the Haryana association at Chauthala in November.

That was the beginning of the hectic season. Then came the National Games and it was followed by the Federation Cup in Thriprayar (Kerala) and the preliminary rounds of National League at four centres. The Super League was hosted by the Hindalco Company at Renukoot in the fourth week of March. This is to be followed by Inter-Departmental competitions and then the All-India tournaments and the other international competitions.

No wonder then the performance of the teams takes a heavy beating. It becomes the survival of the fittest and there is nothing left for the teams who go unprepared for the grinding season. The players are crying for a halt and this time the VFI has expressed its helplessness.

The triumphant Southern Railway women's team.-Pic. RAJEEV BHATT

For the Federation, which is bent upon completing the National level events on time and preparing the teams for Asian competitions, it is going to be a tough job in mobilising the officials, organisers and players for big events. The positive side is that the tournaments are being completed without any room for complaint, but the shortcomings still persist. And the major one is the hosting of important tournaments in deplorable outdoor conditions. Barring the National Games volleyball tournament, all the other top events were played outdoors.

It is difficult to judge the calibre of teams and players in these conditions. Punjab Police had a bad patch for two years, but suddenly the team found its touch to take the men's title and the cash prize of Rs. 40,000 winning all its encounters quite comfortably. It became so confident that it virtually thrashed ONGC, Deharadun, which ruined the chances of the defending champion Indian Overseas Bank, Chennai, in the pool phase itself by winning the five-setter. It was a big setback for IOB which went for the Super League with high hopes.

Of course, the Chennai team was depleted. Without bench strength and spikers Sivabalan, who was with the team, but unable to play because of a hairline fracture on the leg, and Joby Joseph, it struggled along. It had to fight hard to down Punjab Police in the Nagercoil leg to be No. 1 there. But by the time the Super League came there were too many chinks in its armour.

Last year the IOB was in full strength and its strong challenger was Kochi Refineries. But this time there were three strong contenders for the title and IOB came under tremendous pressure. Punjab Police was waiting to avenge the Nagercoil leg defeat. ONGC, which is virtually the Uttaranchal team that sprang a big surprise by capturing the men's title for the first time in the National senior championship at Chauthala this year, was itching to take a shot at the League title. Kochi Refineries was preparing for another assault at the top honours. So it was clear before the tournament itself that it would be difficult for IOB to defend the title.

Kochi Refineries' Tom Joseph sends a smash past IOB's Harun Khan. Kochi Refineries took the runner-up spot.-Pic. RAJEEV BHATT

Apart from being in a tough pool as three preliminary winners were clubbed in Group `A', IOB faced another problem in the form of a format which favours only the winning team and there is no room for a second meeting to fight and come back. The Chennai side started well with a facile win over ICF. But it ran into ONGC in its second encounter and that was for the group honours.

It became a battle royal as first two days saw thoroughly one-sided tussles. With better attack because of setter Thulasi Reddy and neat first pass IOB was ahead 2-1. But the match took a dramatic turn in the fourth set as ONGC blocked and spiked strongly through Subba Rao, Avinish Kumar Yadav and Mithlesh Kumar. Rahul joined in double block. In the decider ONGC tightened up its game further to shock the defending champion.

Without bench strength IOB went down and with that its chances of retaining the title. After this setback its game dipped further as it lost to Punjab Police in straight games and then to Kochi Refineries in a similar fashion. Finally, IOB had to settle for the fourth spot in the summit league.

Punjab Police's march was unstoppable. In Group `B' it outclassed every team, including Kochi Refineries (KRL), and finished on top. Both Punjab Police and KRL qualified for the summit league. ONGC captured the No.1 slot in Group `A' and IOB managed to shut out Cochin Port Trust and ICF to go to the next phase. While IOB did not relish the playing conditions, Punjab Police did not bother about them and marched on. Its first pass was steady, attack sharp and defence pretty strong because of Pritipal Singh, Ratanlal and Jagbir Singh. This gave them tremendous confidence to face any challenge. It could stop even Tom Joseph and cripple Kochi Refineries' attack in the pool match that decided the Group `B' winner.

Having crossed the big hurdle in the group, the Policemen set their eyes on the prize money. This time they virtually shut out IOB hardly giving it any chance. Without extra spikers on the bench to rest main spikers like Nadarajan and Harun Khan, IOB caved in straight sets. If that was bad what happened on the final day was even worse. In hot and humid conditions, IOB gave up quickly against Kochi Refineries and finished last in the summit league. What a fall for the defending champion !

Before the battle for the title between Punjab Police and ONGC, Kochi Refineries put up a brilliant performance by thrashing ONGC in straight sets and stunned the spectators who could not believe that one spiker Tom Joseph could play havoc with the fortunes of the Dehradun boys. In the inter-Refineries tournament, ONGC beat the Kochi side. So this was a grudge match. Tom was absolutely brilliant attacking from close to the top of the antenna. Kishore Kumar, Ismail, Rajeev and Jayaprakash lent good support both in attack and defence. KRL played like a team possessed. ONGC's net defence looked too brittle. It was a big setback for ONGC before its final clash. Though Uttaranchal has been separated from Uttar Pradesh, the crowd felt ONGC was its team and rooted for it. But the Policemen were not worried and handled the team well. They allowed Subba Rao to spike but blocked the other attackers like Mithlesh Kumar and Avinish Kumar. Abhijit Bhattacharya managed to get past the rival defence on a few occasions. But he too fell for it as the Punjab team kept up the pressure right through. Jagbir Singh as the main spiker did a great job once again. Narinder and Gurwinder Singh played their hearts out as second line spikers. Setter Suraj Prakash was sharp and steady. Libero Manoj Kumar did a splendid job in the back court. Substitute spiker Gulsher Singh also played his part neatly. It was a real team effort with less confusion and mistakes.

Income-Tax, Hyderabad, came to the venue without its coach and performed badly and crashed out quickly in Group `B' in which Southern Railway, without its centre blocker Sunil Kumar, went out of the race in the first phase itself. Cochin Port Trust did not click as a team and ICF played a fast and neat game, but it needs taller players to survive in defence. They both crashed out of Group `A'.

Southern Railway's R. Gayathri boosts the ball as teammate Mini Elizabeth and South Central Railway's K. Dhanalaxmi (right) look on. South Central Railway finished second with two wins.-Pic. RAJEEV BHATT

There were some twists and turns in the fortunes of the four women sides that participated in the round robin. Last year Southern Railway was in full strength at Tiruppur, but still it failed. This time it was a depleted side as some of the married and physically not fit players stayed back. Yet the Chennai-based side beat all the rivals to capture the women's title and the prize money of Rs. 30,000. In the process it downed the defending champion South Central Railway, Secunderabad. All the four teams were from institutions and there was no club side. And three of them came from the Railways, showing its talent base.

Though short on bench, SR proved to be the most fighting and competitive team in the tournament. There were no players to substitute. Still the main six rose to the occasion, combining smoothly and playing brilliantly. Geeta Raju was the main attacker. Vini Thomas and Gayathri formed the strong second line attack. Blocker Shiji Kurian and Mini Elizabeth were watchful and sharp in the block. Libero Hemamalini did a commendable job in the back court. It was another case of strong team work that saw SR through.

Despite its tremendous height advantage SCR did not utilise it fully to retain the title. Nagavardhini, Latha, Dhanalakshmi, Srilatha and Poongodi formed the main attack. Jothi was the setter and libero Manusmrithi. On paper it was a strong side. But it showed its vulnerability in the opening match itself against Kerala State Electricity Board in a five-setter which it almost lost because of its erratic game.

When the KSEB players like Sheeba, Ashwini Kumar, Gisha Thomas and Salith Prasad blocked the SCR attack was under tremendous pressure. But it just managed to hang on to win and finish second behind SR with two wins.

KSEB started well in every match, but lacked the ability to carry the fight on. However, it got the better of Central Railway, for which Radhika and Hemalatha were the main spikers. But the Mumbai team finished last without a win because of lack of defence. It looked more like an inter-Railway competition than the National League.

The results:

Men: Summit League: Punjab Police beat ONGC 25-22, 25-19, 26-24; beat IOB 25-16, 25-22, 25-21; beat Kochi Refineries 25-22, 20-25, 25-20, 25-17.

Kochi Refineries beat IOB 25-15, 25-15, 25-21; beat ONGC 25-21, 25-19, 26-24.

ONGC beat IOB 25-15, 21-25, 21-25, 25-15, 15-11.

Women: Round robin: Southern Railway beat Central Railway 25-11, 25-13, 25-21; beat South Central Railway 25-18, 25-22, 25-14; beat KSEB 25-21, 25-14, 25-22.

SCR beat KSEB 16-25, 11-25, 28-26, 25-16,15-12; beat Central Railway 25-18, 27-25, 27-25.

KSEB beat Central Railway 25-20, 23-25, 25-13, 23-25, 17-15.