Asian Games: India’s Hangzhou volleyball run evokes a 1986 nostalgia trip - Hindustan Times
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Asian Games: India’s Hangzhou volleyball run evokes a 1986 nostalgia trip

ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai
Sep 24, 2023 11:30 AM IST

As giantkillers India face formidable Japan in Sunday's quarterfinals, a look back at a team of stalwarts which won the game's last medal at Seoul

“That was 36 years back, a long, long time ago,” says Cyril C Valloor.

Some members of the 1986 Asiad medal-winning Indian team.(HT Archive) PREMIUM
Some members of the 1986 Asiad medal-winning Indian team.(HT Archive)

Sure, it is. In India, though, almost every sport’s moment in the spotlight invariably tends to cast our minds back to its brightest days. Till today, cricket conversations are incomplete without the mention of Kapil’s Devils; tennis tales without the Krishnans; football folklore without the Goswami-Banerjee-Balaram trio.

And as the Indian men’s volleyball team is in the middle of a giant-killing spree at the Hangzhou Asian Games, having knocked off South Korea and Chinese Taipei and fronting up against Japan on Sunday for a shot at a medal, we go back to 1986. To when a volleyball team from the country last medalled at the continental showpiece before the sport’s stocks, headlined by its administrative issues, plunged.

It was no ordinary team. Led by Valloor, a squad featuring Jimmy George — widely considered the greatest in the game in India — and the likes of Abdul Basith, GE Sridharan, Dalel Singh, Sukhpal Singh, Sandeep Sharma, PV Ramana — all tall figures in Indian volleyball — can be anything but. The sum of every talent’s individual brilliance made a bronze-winning bunch in Seoul.

“It was a team of stars, but we all played for each other,” Dalel says. “From the early 80s, we were almost the same team. It was a mix of youth and experience. At that time, we played a lot with the Chinese, Japanese and the Koreans. So, we were used to them. And we trained accordingly before the Asian Games.”

The format was then divided into preliminary league and Super League stages. India qualified for the latter beating Hong Kong (3-0), Bahrain (3-0), Saudi Arabia (3-1) and Indonesia (3-0) and only losing to South Korea (0-3). In the four-team Super League to determine the medallists, India’s 3-0 victory over a winless Japan proved enough for bronze despite running into Korea again and China (both 0-3 defeats).

Almost three decades on, a win against Japan could put an Indian men’s volleyball team on the cusp of another medal. So long has the wait been that the game is no longer what it was back then.

“Modern volleyball is entirely down to teamwork. An individual can’t do anything except serve,” Sridharan, who was India’s chief coach, says. “In the 1980s, volleyball was an individual game. It was about Jimmy, Valloor, Dalel Singh, myself…all were top players individually who made that team.”

Leading that pack of some of India’s finest was George. “Against Japan, 75% of the attack was done by Jimmy,” Sridharan recalls.

The Kerala man’s towering presence on court was heightened by the then unmatched skill of an “absolute jump”. “It means an explosive jump being one metre above ground level. You needed a strong thigh, a powerful abdomen, incredible strength overall to do that,” Sridharan says.

“His jumping ability stood out,” Dalel says of George. “At that time, jump smash was a rare skill. And he was a good server too. I had seen only a few players employ a jump service in the 80s.”

The rare Indian talent earned rare professional gigs abroad with clubs. George took his craft to Abu Dhabi and then Italy, where he played in the top-tier A1 league and died in a road accident in 1987 aged 32. “It was a great loss to Indian volleyball,” Sridharan says.

Sridharan also spent two years in Italy with George, turning up for a club in the A2 league. “Jimmy and I being there helped the Indian team too,” he says.

Yet, the team’s success at the Asian Games wasn’t only going to be about George or any other player. Captain Cyril passed the message unequivocally. “I told them, ‘No one can win a medal on their own. All of us have to stand up and deliver,” Valloor recalls. “And if we don’t, we’ll have to wait for another four years’.”

They didn’t have to. Although Indian volleyball has. The men’s team hasn’t managed even a top-four finish since. The current group has a chance to correct that, beginning by beating Japan that — according to both Sridharan and Dalel — have reserved their full-strength team for the FIVA Olympic qualification tournament starting from September 30. Should that happen, Indian volleyball will be knocking on medal doors again.

“We're happy, because this has come after a long time,” Dalel says. “We hope they beat Japan and play for a medal. It will be a proud moment for us again and for Indian volleyball.”

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