Junior Volleyball: What’s behind the stunning success of India’s U-18, U-20 teams?

In August, India won medals in the U-18 and U-20 Asian men’s volleyball championships within days of each other. Careful moulding of the players before the tournaments was key to their success.

Marked improvement: The team that won silver at the U-20 Asian Championships had players from the team that finished 10th in the U-19 World Championship last year. The players improved considerably under coach G. E. Sridharan’s supervision.

Marked improvement: The team that won silver at the U-20 Asian Championships had players from the team that finished 10th in the U-19 World Championship last year. The players improved considerably under coach G. E. Sridharan’s supervision. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In August, India won medals in the U-18 and U-20 Asian men’s volleyball championships within days of each other. Careful moulding of the players before the tournaments was key to their success.

It has been more than a decade since India last won medals in the U-18 and U-20 Asian men’s volleyball championships. August 2022 marked the first time that India won medals in both in the same year.

In Tehran on August 22, India defeated South Korea 3-2 to win bronze at the Asian men’s U-18 Volleyball Championships. Seven days later in Bahrain, India lost to Iran 1-3 and finished with silver at the Asian men’s U-20 Volleyball Championship. As a result of their performances, the teams qualified for the U-19 and U-21 World Championships next year.

The U-20 team which impressed had players from the team which finished 10th in the U-19 World Championship last year. Coach of the senior national team G. E. Sridharan feels many members of this team are skilled enough to be potential India players.

Speed and sync’

“After securing 10th in the worlds, I moulded them a bit and helped them improve. In the camp, I could see their jumping ability and speed improvements. This is what is needed — speed and sync. They improved so much that I could see some players playing at the senior level in future.”

The camp, as Sridharan recalls, was a selection trial for both the U-18 and U-20 teams and held at KIIT University, Bhubaneswar. Around 66 boys joined the U-18 trials, and around 80 joined the U-20 trials. Twenty and 18 boys, respectively, were selected, and then the field was further pruned to 12 each. While the U-20 team got an opportunity to play the 2022 AVC Cup for men in Thailand, the U-18 team did not have much international exposure before the Asian Championships.

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Dr Bir Singh Yadav, the U-18 team coach and an India coach with over 20 years of experience, says, “Even though the U-18 and U-20 teams were training at the same location, we trained separately. But we did play matches together during the camp. When we first played against the U-20 team, we lost 3-1. During the second match, we tied 2-2. The boys regained their confidence with that result. Almost none of them have international exposure; some did not even take part in the Nationals due to Covid-19. So, experience and their play in comparison with the number of games they played was also a key factor in their selection.”

Heyday

Winning medals in Asian tournaments is not new to India. Perhaps India’s biggest win in volleyball was in 1986, when India won the bronze medal in the Asian Games.

Sridharan was a part of that team with many others, including P. V. Ramana, the father of two-time Olympic medallist P. V. Sindhu. While Ramana is more focussed on badminton these days, he does reminisce the days when he played volleyball. He says the bronze medal-winning team he was a part of was “one of the best volleyball teams India had.”

“Those days, we had an excellent team with players such as Jimmy George, Cyril, Sandeep and Uday (K. Udayakumar), who was my favourite player; unfortunately, he passed away. The players were committed, wanted to prove themselves, give their best and with team effort, we could win the bronze,” says Ramana.

The Indian team in action during the Asian U-20 Championships in Bahrain. India defeated Japan but couldn’t overcome Iran in the final.

The Indian team in action during the Asian U-20 Championships in Bahrain. India defeated Japan but couldn’t overcome Iran in the final. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Ramana’s simple advice to those who want to take up volleyball as a career is: “Work hard and perform so well that selectors have a hard time during the trials.”

Morale booster

After India’s nervy 3-2 loss against Japan, Yadav was surprised to see the U-18 team take down South Korea — the runner-up in the last edition of the tournament.

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“I was surprised when our team defeated Korea in straight sets (3-0). It was a one-sided match. This raised the team morale and instilled confidence in the team.”

To Sridharan’s surprise, the U-20 team defeated Japan 3-1 in its first match. Sridharan was, however, disappointed with India’s loss in the final. He believes India could have won gold if the fourth set had gone its way.

The Indians received individual awards in the competitions: Kush Singh and Aryan Baliyan were adjudged the best middle blocker and opposite, respectively, in the U-18 competition. In the U-20 tournament, Dushyant Singh, the captain, and K. Karthikeyan won the best blocker and libero awards, respectively. The coaches lauded them and considered them key to the team’s podium finish.

“Before this tournament, Kush had not even played the Nationals. However, he was one of the main reasons we won the matches, as he gained several crucial points. Aryan, who was an opposite, also impressed me. At first, he was an attacker, but we moulded him to become an opposite for the tournament, which proved to be a good move,” says Yadav.

Coach Bir Singh Yadav is lifted by members of India’s U-18 team during the Asian U-18 Championship. The team had gained considerably by playing practice matches against the U-20 team in Bhubaneswar.

Coach Bir Singh Yadav is lifted by members of India’s U-18 team during the Asian U-18 Championship. The team had gained considerably by playing practice matches against the U-20 team in Bhubaneswar. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Apart from Dushyant’s captaincy and Karthikeyan’s performance as a libero, it was the performance of Sameer Chaudhary that caught Sridharan’s eye. “Sameer, who as a setter is playing very well in this age group, has a bright future and can play for the senior level in the future.”

Overseas trips needed

Both coaches hoped the Indian government would facilitate overseas trips for the players to gain international exposure. This, they say, would help them win the upcoming Asian Games and qualify for the 2024 Olympics.

“We are running on a tight schedule till December, starting with the National Games, the U-21 nationals and Senior Nationals, after which trials and camp for the World Championships will take place,” points out Sridharan.

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