Season two of the Prime Volleyball League has been one of incredible twists and turns. Teams in the top half of the points table have gone neck and neck with each other while teams that haven’t found their rhythm have been shoved to the bottom.
For two of India’s most talented volleyball players – Mohammad Riyazudeen and Jerome Vinith – their teams’ report cards this year couldn’t be more different than each other. Riyaz, a title winner with Kolkata Thunderbolts last season, is with a struggling Chennai Blitz, which is languishing at the bottom of the points table. Vinith, on the other hand, is in his second season with Calicut Heroes, and hopes to carry his team into the final.
But volleyball apart, there is one thing they share in common. It is the fact that they have both struggled hard in their lives to reach here.
Growing up in the Karaikal district, Riyaz was introduced to volleyball by his friends during his school days. His mother, the sole breadwinner in his family, wanted Riyaz to touch the stars and nursed dreams of flying him abroad after schooling. But life had other plans for him as he changed three schools, just to pursue volleyball, during the crucial years of his 10th-12th standard education. It is during this time that Riyaz met a man who would change his life.
“Kannan sir, who had seen me play, invited me to study at a school in Nagapattinam, promising to help with my college admission. So, I did my 12th standard from there. As I moved districts, I started playing matches outside. Kannan sir enrolled me in the U-19 School Games Federation of India trials. I started playing volleyball professionally from there,” the 28-year-old remembers.
Vinith comes from a family of farmers who had to switch to daily-wage labour when they lost their land. The Pudukottai native calls the struggle his ‘investment.’
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“We are three children. Two sisters and a brother. Our sustenance was also an issue. I started going to college to study mechanical engineering. One year was fine, then we started to worry about how to pay the fees. My siblings also had to study. I had the opportunity to get a free college seat playing volleyball, and that’s where the love for that game began. I was a fast learner, and once I began playing, I started loving the game,” Vinith says.
“No one in my family approved of me taking up volleyball seriously. My uncle and cousins all set up a meeting to talk me out of it, and said that if it doesn’t work out well, it will all be on me. Maybe that pressure spurred me on,” the 30-year-old remembers.
Of fights, internal and external
A peculiar occurrence marked the volleyball competition at the National Games in 2022. The Kerala team finished with a victory, and the players, with their medals, posed for photographs with fingers on their lips. None of the players who stood on that podium were initially selected by the Kerala State Volleyball Association.
“Before the National Games, we registered a case against the federation. In the middle of 25-day camps, we had to run every 10 days to the court to complete our formalities there. We gained entry and the right to participate in the National Games. That photograph wasn’t supposed to tell our detractors that we beat them. It wasn’t even against them. That moment was about us soaking in the fact that we could even enjoy it to begin with. It was not to teach anyone else. For us personally, it was the realisation that we had won and that our hard work had borne some fruit,” Vinith says.
In Riyaz’s career, the tussle, after a point, became internal. Ruben Wolochin, his coach at Chennai Blitz, once perceived him as an out-of-shape player. That Riyaz managed to find a place in his squad in Season Two for ₹6.6 lakh (more than twice his base price) despite that is a win close to the outside hitter’s heart.
“After the Season One final, the coach (who was then with Hyderabad Black Hawks) shook hands and said, ‘I gauged you incorrectly. You have a critical mind. I was in a hurry and did not pick you [in the Season One auction]’. After Season Two auction, I got a message from the coach welcoming me to the team.”
However, Riyaz’s journey to transform his physique for PVL was no bed of roses. He had to cut down on sweets, his favourite food. His hard work paid off as he lost close to nine kilograms in 40 days.
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‘Fixing’ the system
Professional volleyball contracts and the chance to rub shoulders with players around the world have allowed Riyaz and Vinith the opportunity to gauge how the sport lives and breathes around the world. While opportunities are more frequent and associations seem to be more professionally run elsewhere, the duo don’t see many differences between other countries and India.
“There are problems in volleyball systems all around the world, but because their systems are ahead of us, their infrastructure is more advanced, their sport is still healthy,” Vinith says.
“Don’t say. Do. We see people constantly talking about change, but what matters is actually trying to make the change. Either we need to do it ourselves or allow someone to do it. We are a huge country with so many resources and so much talent, we can do so much better. It feels like the sport is not moving in the country,” he adds.
Riyaz thinks India’s position in world volleyball is somewhere in the middle – between the dominant nations and the ones just learning the ropes. “We travel to many countries to play, and while frameworks are not too different across countries, nations like Maldives can learn how to better run their teams from our own ways of doing things,” he says.
Both their priorities, however, are to make opportunities that weren’t accessible to them accessible to children in their hometowns.
“Yes, this is something I want to do,” Riyaz says on coaching. “I want to be able to bring out more children from my village to join the sport.”
Vinith has already given this ambition some form.
“There was a boy from my village who was quite all right in academics. He was insistent on pursuing volleyball, and his family came to me, so I helped him enrol in SRM University. Santosh now plays in the PVL, for Ahmedabad Defenders,” he says.
The focus for now, though, will remain on the volleyball court. With the league in its last leg, Chennai’s fate is sealed – it needs to reinvent its approach to brush off the blues of two poor seasons. Calicut and Vinith, meanwhile, will hope to finish the league with a trophy win on home soil.