What strong, burly and tall athletes are to basketball; nifty, agile and yes, even glamorous sportswomen are to netball. Though there are other similarities between netball and its more popular cousin in the sporting fraternity, physical attributes should not be mistaken for softness when the sport unleashes before the locals at the Thyagaraj stadium come October. The sheer pace with which the game is played can be as much of a visual treat as the players themselves.
Played predominantly by women, netball finds its origins in USA and England at the turn of the 19th century. In India, the sport has been played for the last 30 years but has been unable to catch even the slightest of attention until as recently as five years ago. That is when the Netball Federation of India started a conscious effort to propogate the sport. “For any sport which is relatively unknown, proper introductory camps and training sessions at the grassroots level should be conducted. We did exactly that at the university level at first and then at the school level and that is where our current players have emerged from. We have come some way but need to keep going,” says Gurbir Singh, president of NFI.
Hard work not just in introductory camps but during conditioning camps and exposure trips as well has helped the Indian squad immensely. Chief coach of the team, Panchali Tatke feels it’s easy to fall in love with the game, but love alone does not ensure success. “We have had a tough training regime. The girls have stayed away from their families for close to two years and yet not lost the dedication to constantly evolve as players,” says Tatke who stresses on the fact that the average age of players in the side is just 20. She does admit though that initially there was a sense of self-doubt, but all of that has gradually disappeared. “We played against some Australian clubs earlier this year. We got a complete sense of what works for us and where we need to improve. In a game that is fast and needs players to think constantly, these were critical.”
With 20 days to go for the games, the group of young women who will represent the country are raring to put up a good fight. Gruelling sessions in the gym have been replaced by tactical game play meetings and hours of actual on-court practice matches and drills.
“It is important for every member in the team to maintain their composure. Our youngest player is 15 and to represent your country at such an early age requires focus,” says Tatke, who believes her side is capable of staging upsets against traditional powerhouses like Australia, England and New Zealand. “They have players who started training as early as six. But we are not lacking in talent either. It will be a good contest and I am glad CWG has given us the platform for it.
And a scintillating contest it will be. International teams like Australia, where there is a healthy club culture in the sport, have mastered the skills needed to be great at netball.
“Much like any other sport, our national team is chosen on the basis of exceptional performance in the grade A levels. The competition is stiff and the need to excel drives each player, ” says an official from Netball Australia.