Spike up India

The only time volleyball ever has an army of scribes and countless cameras focused on it is when the nation's cricket stars play their version of the highly athletic sport to unwind after a hard day on the field. Otherwise, the world's "second-most popular mass sport" leads a reclusive existence in the country.

Volleyball in India is confined to a few loyal pockets and languishes on the margins of popular sport, making an appearance every once in a while on Doordarshan's sports channel. The week ahead will see the best young talent from around the world converge in Pune for the Under-21 World Youth Championships, and players and officials are keeping their fingers crossed, hoping that post-August 9 the final day of the event the game will get a major boost. But it seems like a wishful thinking since Indian volleyball, despite an illustrious past and several recent highs, has somehow always failed to grab eyeballs.

India won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Asian Games in 1958, when volleyball was first introduced in the competition, and a silver at Jakarta in 1962. This was followed by a long lull, until they won another Asiad bronze in Seoul in 1986. Two decades later, India is nowhere near the podium, and with a world ranking of 44, their volleyball highs these days are confined to wins over immediate neighbours Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

There was a ray of hope in 2003, when the India Under-19 team won a silver medal at the World Championship, but the hosts aren't among the favourites in the upcoming Under-21 event in Pune. Team coach MH Kumaran is quick to point out that a ninth-place finish is the best they have managed in this age-category, and a quarter-final spot is all that he hopes for. "In Poland last year, we were up against the home team and Brazil, both of whom are tough opponents. We've learnt from our mistakes and hope to do

better," he says.

A few good men

Though the history of Indian volleyball lacks significant silverware, it is full of individuals with amazing skill and potential from the legendary Jimmy George in the 80s to a number of present-day stars who pocket up to Rs 50 lakh a year playing on the club circuit in Gulf countries. But the problem is that while there have been some champion players, there haven't been enough at any given time to make up a champion team.

"We've always had a few players with the experience of playing the competitive pro-leagues, but never quite enough. If there were about eight or 10 such players at the same time, things would've been different," says national coach GE Sridharan, who played in the high-profile Italian league along with Jimmy in the 80s. "Since only the really gifted get picked for foreign leagues, the good get better while those who stay at home remain average."

According to Sridharan, the key to improving the general standard of the game is exposure trips abroad. "The physique, height and jump of the average Indian volleyball player match those of his European counterpart. That gives us a chance to be a good team, but we play only six matches a year when we should be playing at least 30," he says.

But Ramana Rao, the associate secretary of the Volleyball Federation of India (VFI), says Indian spikers can't be frequent fliers because of budget constraints, which makes it difficult for players to be noticed by European clubs. "India play most of their tournaments in Asia, against teams such as Pakistan or Burma. We need to qualify for a tournament like the World Championships so that scouts can pick up Indian players.

A stint with a top club team in Europe can increase the skills of a player tenfold," he says. It's a Catch-22 situation: the lack of results means the government isn't too keen to loosen the purse strings, and without funds there is little chance to making an impact at the global level.

Junior-senior gap

But why is it that our world-beating junior team from 2003 weren't been able to turn into a top-level senior side? Former national coach Om Prakash gives a simple explanation, highlighting Indian sport's age-old problem: "They aren't exactly juniors when they're playing for the junior team. Ages are fudged, and that's bound to lead to a disparity in the performance at junior and senior levels," he says.

The more national team players you talk to, the more you keep coming back to the need of travelling abroad more frequently. Former international Jeetendra Singh illustrates the importance of exposure trips with an example. "In 2004, we outclassed a higher-ranked Chinese team 3-0 at the Rashid Memorial Cup in Dubai and went on to win the silver medal. A year later a virtually unchanged Indian side played against the same Chinese opponents in the World Championship qualifier in Chennai and were beaten 3-1. While China had gone on exposure trips to South America and Europe after the Dubai loss, we had stagnated because all we had done was train at a camp."

Former India captain Amir Singh, an Arjuna Award winner, raises another point when he says the style of coaching needs to change. "India should get a foreign coach who knows how to develop a player's physique and co-ordination within the team. The Europeans are always ready to change the position of a player as per the demand, unlike Indian coaches who believe in fixed positions," he says.

Big city, bright light

India has hosted an under-21 World Championship before in 2007 at Visakhapatnam but that didn't trigger any revolution. With the action confined to a traditional hub, the uninitiated remained untouched by the magic of tall men towering over the net to smash the ball. Ramana is hoping that this time things will be different.

"In recent months, Pune has become a major centre of national sports and has received a lot of media attention thanks to the world-class facilities at Sports City, Balewadi. The last time we hosted this championship in Vizag, which isn't a major sporting centre like Pune," he says. "This time, things should take off."

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