Railways teams have it easy

M. C. RAMAN

THE front runners - including the winners of the men's and women's titles, Railways - might have been the same in the 50th senior National volleyball championship, which was conducted by the Chattisgarh Government at Raipur in the third week of December, but there were some positive developments that surfaced during the major event.

The Railways men's team which claimed the M. M. Joseph Trophy.-M. MOORTHY

The State Government-sponsored championship ended without a hitch. Free board, lodging and better playing conditions made the participating teams happy and they did not have anything to complain about. But the only regret was that the competition was allotted to a centre without an indoor stadium.

Railways, Tamil Nadu, Services, Karnataka, Kerala and Punjab were the strong contenders for the men's title, M. M. Joseph Trophy. But when the event began it became clear within a short period that Railways and Tamil Nadu were far ahead of the rest in assembling strong outfits. Kerala, the defending champion, and Punjab were under prepared. Services and Karnataka did their best, but that was not good enough to take them past Tamil Nadu and Railways in the semi-finals.

These teams were expected to do well in this championship. But some outfits, which were at the lower rung till last year, have started rebuilding. Haryana, a former National champion and a strong side in the 80s, was struggling to move into the elite group from the early 90s. However, this year, by recruiting players like Amir Singh, a pro and a former Punjab star, Raghuveer Singh, who was with the Cochin Refineries, and some junior India camp players like Darshan Singh, Rathish and Dinesh Singh, Haryana set its eyes on the men's title. It did qualify for the knock-out stage from Group 'C' and gave a good fight to the Railways before bowing out of the race. Haryana lacks experience and is yet to combine as a well-knit side. But it is a team to watch out.

Chattisgarh was another side that impressed by qualifying from Group 'D'. Bifurcation of States did really affect teams like Uttar Pradesh, which fought well against Tamil Nadu in the men's final of the National Games tournament in Punjab. Within two months Uttaranchal fielded a separate side and U.P. had to pay a heavy price, though the team did stretch Kerala.

However, an interesting aspect was that the strong old States have taken steps to assemble better teams. But North Eastern States need more preparation. And the number of participating outfits has gone up to 26. "I am happy more and more States are fielding their squads. But our effort is to encourage the participation of North Eastern teams," said Mr. K. Murugan, Secretary, VFI.

These heartening developments did not go unnoticed and the other part was the battle for supremacy by the leading States. In both the elite groups the intensity of contests was not high. There were a few five-setters like the one between Kerala and U.P. and Tamil Nadu and Services. Railways dominated Group 'A', sweeping even the defending champion Kerala aside in the process. Without its main spiker Tom Joseph and experienced setter Anil, Kerala was in low key. Kishore Kumar managed to improve the team's spiking power with his moving attack. But the team was vulnerable to strong net defence. Tamil Nadu maintained a clean slate in Group 'B', despite some hiccups.

The victorious Railways women's team with the Sivasubramaniam Trophy.-M. MOORTHY

Of all teams in elite groups, it was Railways which impressed the most. It had the strongest combination. With two current India setters, Ravikanth Reddy and Kapil Dev, prompting the attack, the team bulldozed the rivals and marched on to capture the honours in a ruthless manner. In fact, its main blocker left-hander Sudhakar failed. But he, however, made it up with his good spiking. Sunil Kumar emerged as the best blocker and that gave the team an edge over Tamil Nadu. Sivarajan, a short man with good jump, excelled both in attack and jump serve right through the tournament. Libero Selvarasu was steady in dig and first pass. Rajesh Tiwari, a spiker and Kapil Dev, who played more as an attacker, added strength to the Railways' offence.

From start to finish the Railway men's team maintained that tempo and crushed Tamil Nadu in the final in three straight sets. It was a humiliating shut out for the five-time champion Tamil Nadu, which failed miserably in its fourth straight final. Without strong net defence and steady attack, the team collapsed. There was neither the will to fight nor the ability to recover against the Railways. The former champion disappointed the crowd, which booed the team constantly.

What is disturbing is it is almost the same side that Tamil Nadu has been fielding for the last four years. Yet it surrendered meekly. On the other hand, Railways revamped its side, dropping the most experienced blocker P. V. Ramana, Ramachandra Raju and Rajeshwar Rao. The team won the title comfortably.

Railways, Punjab (which also beat Kerala), Kerala and Uttar Pradesh finished in that order and qualified from Group 'A'. Tamil Nadu, Karnataka (which beat Services), Services and Madhya Pradesh came in that order and qualified from Group 'B'.

Only a few squads showed real fighting spirit. With two good attackers in Shijas Mohammed, the current international, and Premjith, the Army side, tried to hustle its rivals. But the team continued to be temperamental. Its five-setter against Tamil Nadu was its best and it almost knocked down the former champion. This tie was marred by bad line calls. Karnataka was in Raipur with high hopes. But the team management did not do its calculation well. Rahul should have been encouraged as its main centre blocker from the beginning and Sardar was an effective lose ball hitter. But they were used only as substitutes. At this level, the teams need specialist players. Karnataka is yet to realise it. Punjab, minus BSF players, centre blocker Roy Joseph, and Surjit Singh and Amir Singh, did not have the same power to subdue the rivals. Jagbir continued to be its main spiker, but the team just drifted and crashed out in the quarterfinals.

The Railway women bounced back to clinch the Sivasubramaniam Trophy. It was an expected one. After its bitter experience against Andhra last year at Kozhikode, where the former champion lost the final in a dramatic finish after winning the title for 14 years in a row. This year, the Railway management cautiously included Radhika and Lata, the two players who were responsible for the downfall of their own institution, Railways - which also led to departmental action against Radhika and Lata - and the team made it comfortably at Raipur. It mowed down Kerala in the final. With just one strong spiker in Gisha Thomas, Kerala had no chance. "Nowdays we train players very late in the hostels. So we do not get a strong combination as a team as it was when we were playing," said Jaisamma Moothadan, a former international from Kerala.

Tamil Nadu and Karnataka were the other strong outfits. But their spiking power was nothing much to shake Kerala and Railways. The fall of Punjab and Bengal was shocking.

The results:

Men : Final : Railways beat Tamil Nadu 25-22, 25-22, 25-19 (63 mts); Third place : Services beat Karnataka 25-20, 20-25, 25-17, 25-16 (70); Semi-finals : Tamil Nadu beat Services 25-21, 27-25, 25-23 (60), Railways beat Karnataka 25-17, 25-23, 25-17 (52); Quarter-finals : Railways beat Haryana 25-22, 20-25, 25-17, 25-21 (80), Karnataka beat Kerala 25-22, 21-25, 25-23, 25-18 (77), Services beat Punjab 25-20, 18-25, 25-23, 25-21 (78), Tamil Nadu beat Uttar Pradesh 25-12, 25-14, 25-22 (50)

Women : Final : Railways beat Kerala 26-24, 25-14, 25-15 (55); Third place : Tamil Nadu beat Karnataka 21-25, 25-23, 25-18, 25-23 (90); Semi-finals : Railways beat Tamil Nadu 25-20, 25-14, 18-25, 25-20 (65), Kerala beat Karnataka 25-23, 25-14, 27-25 (70); Quarter-finals : Karnataka beat Bengal 21-25, 25-8, 25-19, 25-18 (93), Kerala beat Punjab 25-10, 25-13, 25-13 (47), Tamil Nadu beat Chandigarh 25-21, 15-25, 25-21, 25-12 (75), Railways beat Andhra 25-14, 25-7, 22-25, 25-7 (70).