National volleyball championship: Kerala and Railways the teams to beat

The senior National volleyball championship returns to Kozhikode after a gap of 17 years.

Coach Viashali Phadkare with the Railway women's team, the reigning champion, on the eve of the National volleyball championship at Kozhikode.   -  K. RAGESH

Kozhikode is well known for its love of football. But, if you travel to the interior, especially towards Vatakara or Kuttyadi, you would find more volleyball courts than football grounds.

And on those outdoor courts, built on paddy fields mostly, one could see young men playing volleyball. Many of the small towns and villages regularly organise tournaments, often involving top teams from within and outside Kerala. And large crowds would ensure that organisers invariably made money.

For those die-hard fans, there is plenty to look forward to over the next one week as the senior National volleyball championship returns to the city after a gap of 17 years.

The tournament opens at two venues, the V.K. Krishna Menon Indoor Stadium and the newly-built Calicut Trade Centre, on Wednesday.

With most of the country’s top players expected for the event, there should be some quality action on offer. Among the teams to watch out for would once again be Kerala and Railways, in both the sections.

In the last edition in Chennai in 2016, Kerala men had defeated Railways in the final, while it was the other way around in the women’s section. It would not be a big surprise if these sides contested the finals again.

The Kerala men’s team coach K. Abdul Nazer said he was confident of retaining the title. “Most of the players from the champion team are here,” he said. “Our preparations have gone well and thankfully there are no injury concerns.”

He, however, admitted that it would not be easy. “There are quite a few strong sides. Railways, of course, would be our toughest rival, but teams like Punjab, Services, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka too could pose serious challenges. And yes, there is the added pressure of playing at home,” said Nazer.

He, however, could take heart from the fact that Kerala had won the title here, 17 years ago. The host’s women’s team would be hoping the home advantage works in its favour in its attempt to dethrone Railways.

Vaishali Phadkare, the Railways’ women’s team’s coach, said Kerala would be a dangerous side.

“Kerala could give us the toughest fight,” she said. “Though I could evaluate the other teams only after I watch them play, as I don’t know who will play for whom, I expect Maharashtra and Bengal to be strong.”