Volleyball Nationals: Kerala to take on Railways in final

Kerala looked an entirely different team after the first three sets. Even as its blockers found a way to deal with Gurinder’s smashes, the likes of K.G. Ragesh, an attacker, played their part. That the Punjab setters’ level too dipped didn’t help at all.

Kerala's Jerome Vinith smashes the ball into Punjab's court.   -  K. Murali Kumar

Kerala will meet defending champion Railways in the final of the 64th Senior National Volleyball Championship. In the semifinal matches held at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Saturday, Kerala came through yet another five-setter and beat Punjab 19-25, 23-25, 28-26, 25-18, 15-13, while Railways thwarted Tamil Nadu’s challenge 25-23, 25-23, 25-18.

Kerala and Punjab had competed in a similarly gruelling match in the league stages too. But unlike then, it was Kerala who emerged victorious.

In the first set though, the big-stage seemed to affect Kerala. They floundered in every essential facet of the game and ended up losing rather timidly.

When Punjab led 14-9 in the second, there appeared to be no way out. However, on G. S. Akhin’s serve – who returned to the line-up after nursing a bruised ankle – it restored parity at 14-14. And then when it led 20-18 the tide had certainly turned. But it slipped yet again and Punjab, with a two-set lead, had established the tightest of strangleholds.

In the third, when Kerala let Punjab back after having led 8-3 and then 16-10, it seemed destined to go down. Though it gave itself a chance at 23-21, Punjab, through Gurinder Singh, smashed its way out of trouble. On two further occasions when Kerala had set points, it was India international again who bailed his side out. However Akhin and Jerome Vinith fetched a point each as Kerala edged the set 28-26.

From then on, Kerala looked an entirely different team. Even as its blockers found a way to deal with Gurinder’s smashes, the likes of K.G. Ragesh, an attacker, played their part. That the Punjab setters’ level too dipped didn’t help at all.

After winning the fourth set 25-18, Kerala survived a few nervous moments at the fag end of the fifth. It fluffed match points; two of those when the reliable Vinith missed his customary spikes. But a bad first pass by Rajveer Singh saw him execute a deft drop and close out the match.

The other semifinal, a repeat of last year’s final, saw yet another clinical performance by Railways. There wasn’t much separating the two sides for a majority of the first two sets. But at crucial moments Railways always held the aces. It was as much a match lost in the mind as on the court.

With Railways leading 21-20 in the first set, a drop by Naveen Raja Jacob, looked to have touched the ground. But the referee ruled otherwise and Tamil Nadu lost the point. The talisman in S. Prabhagaran planted two smashes on the last two points to finish off the set.

Similarly in the second with Tamil Nadu leading 19-16 and then 20-18, two more close calls went against it. Coach Sundaram was even warned with a yellow card for protesting. At 23-23, Prabhagaran spiked two more successfully and Railways had one foot in the final. The second was dragged along easily after it won the third set 25-18.

Like the men’s final, the women’s final too will be between Railways and Kerala. Both semifinals were straight-set affairs, with Railways beating West Bengal and Kerala defeating Tamil Nadu.

Results:-

Semifinals: Men: Kerala bt Punjab 19-25, 23-25, 28-26, 25-18, 15-13; Railways bt Tamil Nadu 25-23, 25-23, 25-18.

Women: Railways bt West Bengal 25-9, 25-20, 25-13; Kerala bt Tamil Nadu 25-9, 25-17, 25-22.