KOZHIKODE: An ‘electric atmosphere’ is perhaps the most abused cliche in sporting jargon, but no other phrase would have described the feeling inside the VKK Menon Indoor Stadium. The volleyball venue of the National Games was packed to the brim with more than 6000 spectators while a few hundred more gathered outside the complex to watch the action on a screen fixed outside.
The home team, Kerala, was not even in action, but the cheers that went up whenever a Rajasthan or a Punjab player pulled off an impressive smash was music to the ears of national coach G E Sridharan who was watching from the sidelines. But amidst all the euphoria, even he would have encountered a question that fans in the country have been asking for all long time — why are we not doing any better in volleyball?
The Volleyball Federation of India (VFI) authorities may quickly bring up the fact that India is not too far behind, and in a way, they are right. The men’s team is ranked 30th in the world, while India is regularly mentioned as one of the better teams at the Asian level. But a medal at the Asian Games or qualification for the World Cup still remains a distant dream.
The VFI’s inability to organise a proper domestic league has been well documented, but a glance at the players participating in the Games reveals another major flaw in the way volleyball is run in India. Most of the players on display have developed at their local Sports Authority of India (SAI) centres, as has been the case for a number of decades now.
“The SAI centres have been delivering good results for a lot of years now, but it is wrong to depend just on them. If you look at the Kozhikode SAI centre through which I came through, only 2-3 volleyball players, at age 14 or 15, are selected every year. More than 300 youngsters turn up for the trials. This means that most of the players who don’t perform on the day of trials end up missing the chance to have a professional career. What if one of them was the next big star,” asks former India captain Tom Joseph. He feels establishing academies that can give the best of training to youngsters can solve this problem.
Another former India international K J Kapil Dev believes the potential that India has in volleyball is being underutilised. “We have some of the most talented youngsters, but they are not getting the proper guidance at the right age. SAI brings in these youngsters at age 14 or 15, but by then they have developed flaws in their technique that cannot be corrected. The training programme should target kids who are 7-8 years old. If cricketers and footballers can start getting training at the age, why not spikers,” he asks.