At 6 ft 8 inches, volleyball player Ashwal Rai knows a thing or two about towering over the rest. Under his leadership, his team Kolkata Thunderbolts experienced the sweet taste of success by winning the inaugural Prime Volleyball League last year.
With the second season around the corner, Ashwal hopes to channel some of the spunk from 2022, where the Thunderbolts went against table-toppers Ahmedabad Defenders in the summit clash. The then 29-year-old helped his side to a 15-13, 15-10, 15-12 win to give the Kolkata franchise the crown.
Ashwal and his teammates are in no mood to let the trophy go elsewhere and hopes the defending champion tag endures until the end of the season.
“Our franchise has told us not to take the load. We will play in the present, reach the final and win the trophy again- that’s our intention,” Ashwal tells Sportstar.
“We need to remain defending champions. This is a new tournament; we have to think this way. If we play with the pressure of being defending champions, then we will not be able to focus. This is our strategy, and made sure that the players understand this,” he says.
The blocker from Karnataka recorded a total of 57 attack points at a success rate of 64 per cent. His 12 blocks made him the top blocker for his team last season. Naturally, the franchise retained him for the league’s second chapter.
The Thunderbolts begin their PVL 2023 journey on February 4 against Bengaluru Torpedos. A nearly month-long pre-season training camp in Mangaluru has preceded that for this team.
The head coach of Kolkata Thunderbolts, Narayan Alwa, is from Karnataka and having worked together before, is a plus point for Ashwal, who feels that the training camp is too short despite being hard.
Knowing the importance of preparation and the recovery period after training, the blocker says, “For the first two weeks, we had extremely rigorous training in the morning from 9:30 am till noon and evening from 5-8:30/9 pm. However, the load was reduced in the third week as we had to recover to perform well with the league starting soon.”
Ashwal likes to think of himself as an all-rounder in sport and draws from his affinity to new challenges and roles when things get tough. He likes to relax with a game of a cricket.
“I like Virat Kohli and Ravindra Jadeja,” he says when quizzed on his favourites.
Ashwal will have some help in chalking out plans for the team this season from USA’s Cody Caldwell and Venezuela’s Jose Verdi. Language barriers no bar, Ashwal says the duo has settled into life in the Thunderbolts setup quite well, particularly underlining the vitality of Caldwell, who comes in from the Kochi Blue Spikers.
“Cody, who is an attacker, teaches us to their methods of trapping the ball, how to defend against the libero, dieting, ways to strengthen our mentality and how to face pressure,” Ashwal says.
He reveals that Cody has also been teaching the team the strategies and systems of defence used in the USA.
Ashwal has played with most of his Thunderbolts teammates and remembers to express gratitude for all the learnings his peers have given him.
“I want to learn a skill from each player like Rahul’s serve and Vinit’s attack is something I would like to learn and apply. Rahul’s powerful service was one of the main reasons we won the semifinals last year.,” he says.
With teams hoping to get off to a good start, Ashwal hopes the season will be a closely fought one.
“We want to beat all the teams. If they want to beat us, it is nice as it’s a competition. The more the competition is, the better we can perform, and if we can perform, the better we get,” he adds.
Watch the LIVE coverage of the Prime Volleyball League 2023 on Sony Sports Network and Sony LIV.