The signs are encouraging

Despite the defeat to Australia in the final, India underlined its ability to harness its talent and excel in the face of stiff opposition, writes S. Sabanayakan.

There is every reason for Indian volleyball fans to be optimistic. Close on the heels of winning the Central Asian Zone Championship in Islamabad in June, the Indian team put its best foot forward to ensure a podium finish in the second Commonwealth Championship in Kolkata recently.

The tournament brought out many positives for India, the foremost being the team’s ability to harness its talent and excel in the face of stiff opposition from some of the advanced countries, including Australia. And finishing runner-up behind Australia is one of the high points of the Indian team. Much of the credit for this should go to the young Indian team and its ever-optimistic coach, G. E. Sridharan.

Australia had in its ranks six players who took part in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Four of them — Benjamin Hardy, Luke Campbell, MatthewYoung and David Ferguson — played in the first six against India in both the group match and final, while the other two — Andrew Earl and Brett Alderman — played as substitutes.

Earlier, in a hard-fought group match, India defeated Australia 19-25, 25-21, 25-23, 27-25. “India’s victory over Australia in the group league was a fantastic feat,” Sridharan pointed out. “An Indian team has not beaten an Australia side in many years,” he added.

Sridharan was the coach of the Indian team that took the runner-up spot in the World Junior tournament a few years ago. The players from that junior team form the core of the current senior side.

Though India ultimately lost to Australia over five sets in the final, it was not disgraced. The Indians showed tremendous fighting spirit to regain lost ground after trailing by two sets to nil. Australia’s superior tactical sense and experience proved decisive in the end.

The triumph in Islamabad and the wonderful showing in Kolkata underlined the growing stature of the Indian team, which has been preparing for the 14th Asian Championship in Jakarta (September 1-9) since April this year.

India’s Sanjay Kumar (7) smashes past Australia’s double block in a league match.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Mandeep Singh, who played a key role in the two sets that India won in the final against Australia, is a member of the youth team. He and setter M. Ukkrapandian will be travelling with the Indian side to the World Youth Championship in Mexico later in August.

If Sanjay Kumar proved to be India’s best attacker in the summit clash, Australia unleashed south paw Paul Carroll who, along with Igor Yudin and libero Phillip DeSalvo, showcased the talent from down under.

The tournament also highlighted some of the weaknesses of the Indian team. The defence and reception were the two problematic areas. The poor reception against the hard-serving Australians meant that even the team’s experienced setter, K. J. Kapil Dev, struggled to galvanise the Indian attack.

Canada was the pre-tournament favourite, but finished fifth, playing with its second string. The young team failed to make any impression in its group, which was dominated by Pakistan and South Africa. However, what was heartening about the Canadians was that they played in the same mode as their senior side.

“We follow the same system of our National team so that these boys can graduate to the senior side soon,” said the Canadian coach Georges Laplante. “Our aim is not to win matches but to perfect the system. The system will take us to victory in course of time,” he explained.

South Africa, coached by Hamid Al Wassimy, who was in charge of the Indian team for eight months in his earlier stint including the 1998 Asian Games, was a team that revolved around a couple of senior players. It was creditable for the team to finish fourth.

Pakistan, after drawing 2-2 with India at home in the Test series, did well to finish third. With good inputs coming from its Bulgarian coach Stefan G. Dimitrov, the team played to a plan.

New Zealand disappointed as it failed to finish ahead of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, who finished sixth and seventh respectively.

Nigeria finished last. It was a big comedown for a team which was the runner-up in the first edition of the tournament in 1981 in London.

Nigeria reached the venue only two days before the start of the tournament. Coach Imodu Francis was candid in admitting that the team had only one player from the senior rank, Marcell, who was prominent in both attack and defence. Even before Nigeria could overcome its jetlag, it lost three matches and went out of the tournament.

THE RESULTS

Final: Australia bt India 3-2 (25-18, 25-16, 24-26, 20-25, 15-11).

Play-off (3 & 4): Pakistan bt South Africa 3-1 (25-10, 23-25, 25-21, 25-21).

Semifinals: India bt South Africa 3-0 (25-20, 29-27, 25-18); Australia bt Pakistan 3-0 (25-16, 25-20, 26-24).

Placing: 1. Australia, 2. India, 3. Pakistan, 4. South Africa, 5. Canada, 6. Sri Lanka, 7. Bangladesh, 8. New Zealand.