Treated like a country cousin

The winners, Mohammad Ashfiya and Rendy Licardo (men) with Jessyka Ngauamo and Mariafe Artacho (women).-PICS: S.R. RAGHUNATHAN The winners, Mohammad Ashfiya and Rendy Licardo (men) with Jessyka Ngauamo and Mariafe Artacho (women).

If the VFI and Beach Council, VFI work in tandem, leaving their egos aside, beach volleyball may thrive and may even give the country a medal at the Asian level, writes K. Keerthivasan.

“There was a huge turn-out for the women’s final, but not for the men’s summit clash. Why?” Sumanth C. Raman — the famous quiz master and Master of Ceremonies — asked this reporter soon after the Asia Pacific under-21 beach volleyball championship held at the Marina Beach in Chennai recently. This reporter replied that it was obvious. But to say that the women’s final attracted a big crowd only for reasons other than the skills on display would be wrong.

For, the finals, both men and women, turned out to be a great exhibition of excellent court-craft and superb athleticism be it in diving or spiking. More importantly, the championship was a good advertisement for a sport struggling to get a foothold in India.

The Australians, Mariafe Artacho and Jessyka Ngauamo, who clinched the women’s title in the Asia Pacific tournament, is the best pairing in their country in the under-21 age group.

With a physique tailor-made for the sport, the duo played aggressively throughout the tournament. The fact that the two have been playing beach volleyball for the last seven years shows the importance given to the sport in Australia.

the Indonesian pair of Mohammad Ashfiya and Rendy Licardo, who bagged the men’s crown, took everyone by surprise, given that the top Kazakh pair of Vladislav Pustynnikov and Sergey Bogatu was also in the fray. The Indonesians were lean and of moderate height, but were superior in spiking and defence. The victory of the Indonesian pair proved the myth that ‘height plays a big part in the sport’ wrong.

“It’s nice to be in a different country. Chennai, which has been hot and humid, has been very welcoming. I feel very happy after winning,” said Mariafe. “It was not easy, for we had some tough matches along the way.”

What was a bit mind-boggling was when Mariafe and Jessyka listed out the tournaments that they were going to take part in before the World u-21 championship to be held in Umag (Croatia). “We are flying to Argentina for a World Tour event, we then have the under-23 World championships in Poland following which we will be heading to Croatia,” said the Australian pair.

The situation stands in stark contrast to the Indian team, which is clueless about its calendar. When Mohammad Ghouse, the coach of the Indian men’s team, said that India hardly plays one or two tournaments abroad in a year, it exposed the Federation’s lack of planning and enterprise. “Other teams play eight to 20 tournaments a year,” said Ghouse.

Ask A. J. Martin Sudhakar, Chairman, Volleyball Federation of India’s Beach Council, about the pathetic state of affairs and he says, “For the last few weeks, I have been trying my best to get a sponsor for the Indian teams (three teams from India qualified for the World u-21 championship). Finance has been the biggest problem.” Martin says, though the VFI and the State Associations are doing their best, there has been no support from the Government. “We have got zero support from the State Governments. I am fighting to get their support,” says Martin.

Another big problem facing the sport is that youngsters fade away after competing in one or two tournaments. Which means though International tournaments have been conducted by the Federation quite regularly from 1992, not many have stayed on. The last International (Challenger) was held at the Elliots Beach (Chennai) in the year 2010.

Martin reasons that it is because job opportunities have been hard to come by. “Only if institutions recruit, will there be an attraction for the youngsters. I have written to the All-India Association of Universities, SAI Sports Hostel and School Games Federation of India to include beach volleyball, but nothing has moved. This I have been doing for the last 10 years. We can’t do much more about it,” he says.

The Volleyball Federation of India’s Beach Council has been in existence for the last 20 years and the lack of a proper calendar is simply no excuse for it.

“What can we do?” asks Martin. “Because entries come mostly from Tamil Nadu and Andhra.” Martin agrees that there has not been much of a follow-up, and he has asked the State Associations concerned to take note of the youngsters who are performing well.

Many players, mostly seniors, are very critical of VFI’s step-motherly treatment of beach volleyball. And the most trenchant critic among them has been Kiran Kumar Reddy, a former National champion. “The Federation has done nothing,” he fumes.

“Nothing has changed in the last so many years. We have only one or two tournaments. There are no proper coaching camps. When we ask the Federation they say ‘we don’t have any money.’”

Jessyka retrieves The ball during the final match against a Japanese pair as Mariafe watches.-PICS: S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

Kiran says there is no accountability at the top. “In India, the major problem is the Federation. When we ask the Chairman, Beach Council, about any issue, he blames the Secretary of the VFI, and when we ask the VFI Secretary, he says, ‘Ask Chairman, Beach Council.’ The blame game goes on and the sport suffers.”

Kiran recalls the happenings before the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou (China) when every sport which represented India in the Games was supported by the Indian Government except beach volleyball. “I and Kasi and the pairing of Jamaluddin and Ravindra Reddy had to spend our own money to go to the Asian Games. It later turned out that the Federation hadn’t sent a proper letter to the Government of India,” claims Kiran.

Kiran is of the view that the Federation must take care of beach volleyball like it does for volleyball. “It is not that the Indian beach volleyball players have not done well. We have reached the quarterfinals of many Asian Tour events. Even the Pradeep-Mohan duo has reached the last eight in Asian tours. In athletics, nobody discriminates between long jump and shot put, or high jump and pole vault. However, here the preference is only for volleyball,” feels the former National champion. The only positive sign, says Kiran, is the fact that the Railways took part in the senior national championship a few years back.

Kasi Viswanadha Raju, an International, concurs with Kiran on the need to have proper coaching camps and a proper calendar. “We have abundant talent. We have the height, too. Due to lack of practice and proper coaching, we are suffering,” he says.

Kasi says that the lack of vision on the part of the authorities is the main reason why beach volleyball hasn’t been able to progress. “If you look at the AVC (Asian Volleyball Confederation) website, you can see for yourself, how many International tournaments are there, and in how many India regularly takes part. Then, you will find out the answers,” he adds.

He also rues the lack of qualified coaches for the sport, and the need to conduct tournaments in a regular and phased manner. “Only if you conduct tournaments, there will be interest. Nobody seems to be taking the sport seriously,” he says.

Kasi feels that India can learn from China in the way it treats a sport which is not popular in the country. He recalls an incident when he went to China to play in an Asian Tour event, and was astonished with the way China treated its sportspersons. “In 2002, I went to China to play in an Asian Tour event. We were staying in a football Academy. We all know where China stands in football. But the facilities for the football players were excellent.”

Former National champion Pradeep agrees with Kiran, but says the talent he saw in the Asia Pacific tournament wasn’t up to the mark. “That’s my judgement. May be with different partners, India can do well, but not with the current team. If you say these are the India hopefuls, I will certainly disagree,” he feels.

Taking a dig at the Beach Council authorities he says, “Even after 20 years, we (the authorities) keep saying it is a new beginning. Even in the next 20 years, we will, perhaps, keep saying it’s a new beginning!”

Proper planning and monitoring talent is the need of the hour. “If we have a proper plan, I am sure we can do well. Barring China, Kazakhstan and Australia, we can challenge the rest. We have the potential. It is just that it has not been tapped so far,” says Pradeep.

He also reels out the names of talented players like the Naresh-Raju pair and Dhamodharan as the ones for the future. “They are all young. They should be given training and exposure,” he says. “All we can do is win a medal and then ask for recruitments.”

Pradeep feels more clubs from different parts of India should come forward to organise tournaments. “Keep track of the youngsters. It’s a team effort. Areas like Goa, Kerala, West Bengal, Orissa, Maharashtra, and Punjab must be developed.”

If the VFI and Beach Council, VFI work in tandem, leaving their egos aside, beach volleyball may thrive and may even give the country a medal at the Asian level. And then Sumanth’s question would lose its relevance.