The SAD case of the NARROW base

M. C. RAMAN

The victorious Russian team with the ONGC Cup after beating Brazil in the final of the 13th World men's (under-21) volleyball championship in Visakhapatnam.-K.R. DEEPAK

IN world volleyball, the powerful jump serve is emerging as the strongest weapon, as the Russians proved in the recently concluded 13th World Junior Men's (Under-21) Volleyball Championship in Visakhapatnam. Then, of course, there is the block. And the attack. Mix all three in the right proportion and the product can be lethal, capable of winning world titles. If in doubt, check with Brazil, the losing finalist of the World Junior Championship.

Imagine a player, who stands at 7 feet plus, jumping to serve when things are already going wrong for the rival. He can decide the match as Alexander Volkov of Russia did in the third set that virtually took the title away from Brazil. Before that the Russian setter, Grankine Serguei, with less height but more power, swung the first set of the final in his team's favour from 16-23 to 24-23 with his superb aces. For a brief period, the 5,000 Indian spectators at the Rajiv Gandhi Indoor Stadium were stunned by the awesome power of volleyball, which they had not seen in domestic events.

This is precisely India's problem in the sport. It may not be easy for the national coaches to discover boys who are over 200 centimetres tall. But this is not the case in Europe, where the growth of boys is phenomenal. One wonders whether Asian countries can ever match them in fielding such towering players. Russia, The Netherlands, Germany and Serbia & Montenegro, who finished in that order in the European qualifier a year ago, came to the Junior Championship this time. But, normally there are 16 teams for the World Junior Championship with four groups consisting of four teams each and this means six sides from Europe. This time, the number of participating teams was dropped to 12, with two groups of six teams each. Hence, the European quota of six teams fell to four.

Normally, the World Junior Championship is a big challenge for the Asian nations because they have to face at least four European teams if they are to finish in the top eight. Poland, Bulgaria and Czech Republic could be equally as good as the first four finishers of the European qualifiers who came to Visakhapatnam. Even Italy and France have squads with good potential. For these sides, the Junior Championship is a stepping stone to the senior stage and they groom players in a phased, systematic manner. For instance, Brazil's senior squad now has eight of its youth players who won the World Youth Championship in 2003 beating India in the final.

But, India has lost most of those youth players in just two years, and hence the Indian selectors have to pick the squad from a smaller pool of players. "Unfortunately our talent base is small. We have to keep coming back to the same players whether it is youth, junior or senior. Unless we have 30 or 40 players of the same standard in each category and we force them to compete for places in the national team we are going to face the same problem that we are facing now," said an Indian coach.

Perhaps, he has a point. The Indian bench is either weak or unreliable. But this is not the case with the European teams. Their coaches use more substitutes and all of them are of almost equal standard. But the Indian coaches also are not mentally tuned to using more bench players. After India went down to Serbia in a five-setter, Serbian coach Zarkovic Milan said the manner of starting a match is not important, but finishing it is. "I used all my players and the final combination gave me victory," he said. Our coaches must also develop such positive attitude. Unfortunately, even in domestic tournaments, they are reluctant to use substitutes.

Russia's Alexander Volkov (facing camera, in action in the final) enthralled the Indian spectators with his powerful jump serves.-K.R. DEEPAK

The lack of positive thinking in Indian trainers is emerging as a big problem. Even in domestic tournaments, they do not show confidence in the bench players. Global success in volleyball is mainly based on striking a good combination of players through substitutions. Unfortunately, this approach is not taken seriously in India even though the country has participated in so many Asian and World events in the last decade.

India's National coach G. E. Sridharan arrived at a combination that took India to the World Youth Championship final in 2003. His success in the tournament was not achieved by the use of a large number of substitutes. If he had indeed taken that route, it is still a matter of debate whether the Indian team could have beaten Brazil to win the title. Sridharan tried a similar tactic in the World Senior Men's Championship qualifier at Chennai, but it did not work at all. The home team failed to qualify.

This was the third World Junior Championship in which India participated since 1995. In 1994 and 2002, the national squads qualified for the World event, but this time it did not.

Brazilian players, such as Player of the Championship and Best Spiker Thiago Alves (in yellow and playing against Cuba), may not be as tall as the Russians, but with their quality of play they can defeat taller opponents. Such quality is lacking in India, where players such as P. S. Srikanth (in action against Morocco, below) are very rare.-K.R. DEEPAK

However, it had an opportunity to play as the host of the event. Despite all these experiences, the national coaches are yet to learn. Teams such as Iran and Korea are fast learners and are better equipped to remain in the top eight.

The two teams from African continent, Morocco and Tunisia, did not pose any threat to even Asian teams. Of course, Morocco improved its performance and shocked a dejected Serbia in its last match. However, the real battle was between teams from Europe and America. Russia was pitted against the Netherlands and Brazil against Cuba in the semi-finals. This gives a clear picture of what is happening in world volleyball today.

Asian nations Iran and Korea fought well to finish third in their groups. Iran lost a five-setter against Holland and Korea beat Serbia. Of course, both Iran and Korea play more practice matches and participate in international tournaments before World Championships. They also have quality players who are not far behind Brazilian stars such as Alves Thiago and Marcus when it comes to calibre. The Brazilian duo may not be tall like the Russians and the Dutch, but they are capable of steering their team to victory with incredible performances against taller and stronger opponents.

K.R. DEEPAK

"If we want to be a force to reckon with at the World level we need players of such calibre," said former National coach Shyam Sundar Rao. Of course, in the final, the Russians wrecked the Brazilians with their incredible jump serve. This does not happen always. Brazil's phenomenal success depends on its quality players whom their officials trust will develop into fine senior squad players with better skills.

In India, too, there must be similar compartmentalisation of youth, junior and senior squads. Coaches and players have to be assigned for each category. Only then will the country improve in international tournaments. The Volleyball Federation of India has already begun the process, but it has to make it more systematic.

For further success there should be more quality players like P. S. Srikanth and Sanjay Kumar. Unfortunately, the talent pool is limited. "We have more volleyball players. But when it comes to quality coaches have nothing much to fall back on. So the only option is to groom more high quality players who can be tried in various competitions," said a national coach. It is time the VFI invited trainers from the different States and told them to pay more attention to improving the basics of players and to catch quality players in their young age and to pay special attention to them. In fact, most of the coaches are attending the FIVB clinics in Chennai, but there is nothing much happening at the grassroots level.