Tamil Nadu men, Railway women take the honours

M. C. RAMAN

IT was like a return league. Testing the skills of the same teams that had just competed in a major event. In the last week of December, 2001, they were pitted against each other in the battle for the honours in the senior National volleyball championship at Raipur. In February, the same top eight State men and five women outfits had another chance to prove their mettle in the Federation Cup. The result - a new champion in the men's section. Railways stood out in the women's category of both the major events.

The triumphant Tamil Nadu men's team.-K. GAJENDRAN

Actually, the Federation Cup competition was for the leading clubs and the National Leauge for top eight States till 2001. During the Raipur National the Volleyball Federation of India officials decided to make the Federation Cup for the State teams and the National Leauge for clubs. So the 2002 Federation Cup became the battle ground for State sides again as it was in the 70s and 80s.

The VFI keeps changing the format back and forth. One hopes it will stick to this decision permanently.

Anyway, the Cup was completed successfully at Payyanur. And for Tamil Nadu, which won the title, it turned out to be an event to settle scores with Railways. It so happened that Tamil Nadu had to clash with the current National champion Railways in the semi-final and the host Kerala met Punjab in the other semi-final. Both Tamil Nadu and Kerala were itching for the showdown. Tamil Nadu suffered a sort of humiliation when it was thrashed by Railways in straight sets in Raipur. Kerala, without its ace spiker Tom Joseph and setter Anil, was beaten out of sight in the early stages. They came face to face again. Kerala had to restore its honour in front of the home crowd.

While Tamil Nadu avenged its earlier defeat in the semi-final and went on to win the Sivanthi Adityan Cup, Kerala, despite the presence of Tom and Anil, put up a deplorable performance against Punjab, losing in three straight sets. And the crowd kept booing the players right through.

At this level of competition, even the absence of one or two players changes the power equation. Look at the debacle of Railways. At Raipur, it was a start to finish winner. India's two current setters Ravikanth Reddy and Kapil Dev not only made Railways attack vibrant, but also lent good support in net defence. So the team looked formidable. But at Payyanur, Railways had to carry on with setter Abubecker, who did not let down the team. Whenever Railways' first pass was good, Abubecker did a commendable job. And the other man who lifted the National champion's game was Sivarajan, a short man with fantastic jump and spike. The semi-final actually turned out to be a tussle between Tamil Nadu and Sivarajan. After taking a two-set lead, the southern team struck a bad patch. Its game was pathetic to say the least. When Sivarajan unleashed his jump serve Tamil Nadu's first pass became shoddy, its attack went haywire and the defence was in bad shape. However, Tamil Nadu managed to regain its touch and won the decider. In fact, it did well in all the deciders and lost only one, that too after taking an 8-4 lead against Punjab.

As soon as the competition began it was clear only three teams were in the title race - Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Railways. But Punjab gave a new twist to the script by crushing the home team, which found the Punjab block too strong. There was no real effort to change the pattern of the game by Kerala. True, Punjab's defence was strong because of the inclusion of Roy Joseph, who did not play at Raipur. But the team struggled because of the absence of its main spiker Jagbir Singh. To some extent, Narender Singh made up for Jagbir's absence. But against Tamil Nadu, in the final the former champion found the going tough. Rajesh, Manoharan, Harun Khan and Natarajan combined well in double block to blunt the Punjab spiking. Only in one set it had the upper hand as Narender found holes in the net defence.

However, Punjab played superbly against Kerala before reaching the final. Kerala, in fact, topped Group 'A' beating all the teams, including Railways comfortably. So the team became the hot favourite. When Punjab blocked the team out, the 13,000 strong crowd was stunned.

Tamil Nadu did not have a smooth sailing in Group 'B'. It had a tough time against Services and Punjab. While it managed to down the Army team in a five-setter, it went down to Punjab in another five-setter. It also beat Haryana.

The jubilant Railways team-members with the trophy.-K. GAJENDRAN

Weak defence continued to haunt Tamil Nadu. It happened at Raipur. Again in the league matches, the team's game was shaky because of weak defence and poor first pass. It tied with Punjab for the No. 1 spot with two wins each, but finished on top because of better set average. The Army side which was anxiously awaiting the outcome of this match, was eliminated with just one win. Haryana, despite the presence of pro and ace spiker Amir Singh, put up a poor show. It did not play even half of the game it played in Raipur.

One team that really caught the attention in the beginning was Uttaranchal, which enjoyed tremendous height advantage. It did not know how to cash in on it. Subba Rao, Abhijit Bhattacharya, Avinash Yadav, Rathish and Rahul made it the tallest outfit in the country. Though Uttaranchal's attack was better, its defence was too weak to challenge the strong rivals. Karnataka did not have its ace spiker Prakash Rao, but Lakshminaryana filled the gap with steady spiking. The team, however, was unlucky as it was forced to play in the morning continuously because of heavy rain that disrupted the late night encounters.

Railways' triumph in the women's final was an expected result. It has an impressive record in the competition. In more than 20 years, it has lost the title only twice - once to Tamil Nadu and then to Maharashtra. Even when clubs played, Southern Railway had captured the honours.

However, this time the challenge came from Tamil Nadu, which almost eliminated the National champion in the five-set semi-final. Tamil Nadu set two match points, but lost the encounter. Gayathri played a great game both in defence and attack.

Railways thrashed Kerala in straight sets for the second time. It happened at Raipur and again at Payyanur, despite the home team's decision to include tall Sujatha to improve block.

The results:

Men: Final: Tamil Nadu beat Punjab 25-18, 25-8, 22-25, 25-18; For third place: Kerala beat Railways 25-15, 31-29, 25-16; Semi-finals: Punjab beat Kerala 28-26, 25-19, 25-13, Tamil Nadu beat Railways 25-19, 29-27, 16-25, 15-25, 15-11.

Women: Final: Railways beat Kerala 25-22, 25-13, 25-19; For third place: Tamil Nadu beat Karnataka 28-26, 25-21, 25-17; Semi-finals: Railways beat Tamil Nadu 29-27, 24-26, 21-25, 25-20, 18-16, Kerala beat Karnataka 25-19, 25-15, 25-22.