Services and Railways claim titles

AVINASH NAIR

The triumphant Services team with the trophy. — Pic. G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR-

DOES Indian volleyball or at least a few State teams need somebody like Dr. Sandy Gordon? The reports from Australia following the current tour of the Indian cricket team and even during the last World Cup suggested that the contribution of a sports psychologist has been immense. Well coping with pressure or overcoming the mental barriers will need more than a pep talk from the coach. Probably someone like Gordon, from our own land, could help the cause.

For, that could be the only point of discussion when one points to Kerala women's failure to put it across the indomitable Railways, the oft-crowned champions, despite dominating the match. To say that Kerala had Railways on the mat in the first set which was to turn the course of the match on its head would be an understatement. For so much in control were the Kerala women. But for some inexplicable reasons at 24-21 the pressure began to tell and Railways rich in experience and talent seized the opportunity.

A 18-year-old wait to be crowned as champion could well have materialised for Kerala women in the 52nd senior National volleyball championship, at the District Stadium courts in Davangere. Though the fare dished out in the 13-day championship that attracted a good crowd on all the days, with over 22,000 for the finals, was engrossing in this two-phased format, there were instances of teams failing to pull it off at the crunch. Kerala men were as guilty as their women, as was the case with Tamil Nadu and the former champion, Uttaranchal.

Another notable feature of this championship has been the promise from the youth brigade. Teams with ageing stalwarts like Punjab and even Tamil Nadu could not withstand the `speed and power play, from the teams that boasted of a good many juniors. Indian juniors and youth teams did make a mark in the Asian and World volleyball championships in the recent past and the signs are promising for the coming events too.

B. P. Aman (right) of Services smashes while T. Azeez (left) and Tom Joseph try to block in the men's final of the National championship at Davangere, Karnataka. Services won the title. -- Pic. G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR-

Having cut a niche for themselves in the Asian and World level at the youth and junior events, there is a semblance of hope and expectations from the millions... . and the last senior championships sure have promised a wealth of talent to bank on. The standard that was dished out, both in the men's and women's sections, augurs well for the future. But then it all depends on the Federation to give the youngsters their due exposures.

There are a few waiting to step into the shoes of the seniors. Kamaraj for all his worth as the `best setter in the World Championship' did not have a good National but then the likes of Kashi Vishwanadha Raju from Andhra Pradesh and the senior Ravikanth Reddy did enjoy and the two played pivotal roles for their respective teams making heady progress in the event. Ravikanth Reddy, former star and Arjuna Awardee this year, was impeccable in his settings while Kashi Vishwanadha Raju looked particularly impressive with his sound tactics.

The role of the libero is of great importance in the present day volleyball and teams like Karnataka would vouch for it as given the crowd support and being the host team did not alone carry the team beyond the quarter-final league, wherein it ended losing all its matches. In T. G. Shankar, a reasonably good performer in the role of an attacker, being switched to the `libero' duties Karnataka started off with a disadvantage. But then there was not much to look beyond Shankar, was the argument.

Karnataka, despite being seeded straight into the second phase along with defending champions Uttaranchal and qualifier Madhya Pradesh did not have a smooth ride right from the start. Setter and captain T. B. Ravindra failed to control the pace and with his spikers barring international M. N. Vikram failing to bring out their best there was little to choose between the teams. Only against MP did Karnataka manage to eke out a straight sets win at 33-31, 25-12, 25-22 and qualified for the quarter-finals as the second team from Group `E'.

The Railways team which won the women' title. -- Pic. G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR-

Tamil Nadu too lacked the fighting quality. Though it did better than the host in the traditional match in the league, but even there Karnataka caved in meekly, though it should be said that Vikram's versatility won applause. Services may not have tasted the success — like annexing the M. M. Joseph Trophy, the symbol of supremacy in the men's section, in recent times. But its success here, after 26 long years, having done so in the Calcutta Nationals way back in 1977, did provide the icing for the team.

With the temperamental Balchanda Poovaiah Aman, son of a former hockey great Poovaiah, controlling the play with his all round ability and explosive spikers, Shijas Mohammed, Sudheer and Sharath Kumar, coming up with winners whenever it mattered, Services was on a roll. And its success against Uttaranchal in the semifinals and last year's runner-up Kerala in the final is a testimony of the team's consistency throughout.

Uttaranchal, though had some internationals in its ranks, lacked the bench strength. Subba Rao, adjudged the `best spiker, best blocker and most valuable player' in the recent Asian championships, was delightful in patches while both Abhijeet Bhattacharya and Avinash Yadav along with India Youth captain Ratheesh looked adequate but failed to carry the team on their own.

Haryana probably had the best-equipped team under Amir Singh. In Suber Singh and Dinesh Kumar Singh the team had its attack force all measure up and libero Anil Kumar did throw himself around but the lack of a class setter let the team down considerably. Andhra Pradesh was another team that lived up to the expectations of the crowd and followers of the game. A team that slipped from the elite group after the Calicut Nationals in 2000, did make every effort to regain its lost glory. But fell short despite a straight set defeat of Punjab, the semi-finalists of the previous edition. Besides Kashi Vishwanadha Raju, the strike force of Ajay Kumar Reddy, Dhananjay Rao and captain Pradeep carried the team through.

Tom Joseph on his own is capable of winning matches as one witnessed in Kerala's triumph over Andhra Pradesh in the quarters and again in the deciding set against Railways in the last four. But then the over dependence on the 6'6" spiker did let Kerala down in the final.

Railways' libero Manusmruthi (yellow) and Vaishali Phadtre (orange) wait for the ball, to set, even as the Kerala players watch anxiously in the final. Railways' experience prevailed in the end. -- Pic. G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR-

There was nothing much to choose beyond Railways and Kerala in the women's section barring a few notable performances from Haryana and Maharashtra.

Haryana women in fact came through the qualifying phase to make their mark, but for the straight set loss to Kerala could even have edged out Tamil Nadu to the last four stage. Chandigarh and even Himachal Pradesh besides Delhi did put up some plucky show but could not progress much further. Veterans like Vaishali Phadtare for Railways and Hemlatha Ursul, a former Railways star playing in the Maharashtra colours proved that they still have the stuff in them.

Ashwini S. Kumar is the brightest prospect in the women's section but then there is no yardstick to gauge the women's standing in the world or even Asian arena. India has seldom fielded a women's team outside the country.

The results:

Men's final: Services bt Kerala 25-19, 22-25, 25-20, 25-21. Semi-finals: Services bt Uttaranchal 25-20, 25-15, 25-20; Kerala bt Railways 25-22, 9-25, 25-23, 26-24. For third place: Railways bt Uttaranchal 25-18, 25-15, 25-23.

Women's final: Railways bt Kerala 26-24, 25-23, 23-25, 25-15. Semi-finals: Kerala bt West Bengal 25-15, 25-15, 25-20; Railways bt Tamil Nadu 25-13, 25-13, 25-11. For third place: West Bengal bt TN 25-21, 25-18, 18-25, 25-14.