Asian Games: Blocked out but hoping for a spike
Despite playing only five matches in the two years preceding the Asian Games, the Indian men's volleyball notched another big win to enter the quarters.
Tom Joseph is ecstatic at his team's hat-trick of wins at the ongoing Asian Games, but the very mention of 1986 - the year India last won an Asian Games medal in volleyball- pushes him into a painful reverie. For the assistant coach of India's men's volleyball team, what should be a happy memory that he grew up with has become a painful reminder of the depths his beloved sport has slipped in popular consciousness. But first, the good news.
India, world no.73, continued their giant-killing spree on Friday, beating world no. 43 Chinese Taipei 3-0 (25-22, 25-22, 25-21) in an hour and 25 minutes. The team, expectedly, can't stop dreaming. "If we win the next match (against Japan) and qualify for the semi-finals, we will be confident of a medal. It would be great to go to the final. We were always confident coming into this match. Our service and our block worked, so we are glad," Muthusamy Appavu, who plays as a setter, said.
Now, a reality check. The success over Cambodia, 2018 silver and bronze medallists South Korea and Chinese Taipei have come on the back of the team playing just five matches in the two years preceding the Hangzhou Asiad.
"You can imagine what being out of competition does to an athlete's body. The reflexes begin to slow, the muscle memory wanes and the mental strength needed to compete at elite level goes down. We must be proud of this performance. Since that 1986 bronze, the standards of volleyball in the country just nosedived and nobody can really tell why. It calls for a dispassionate introspection," Joseph said.
Men's volleyball, once a prominent pastime with the likes of Jimmy George setting the trend, has fallen down in the pecking order over the years. "So much so that the national players have to rely on YouTube videos to assess their opponents," the 43-year-old coach rued.
"I was conferred with an Arjuna Award in 2014. I remain the last volleyball player to get that honour. The standard of volleyball can be gauged from the fact that in close to a decade, we could not produce a single player worth getting an Arjuna award," he added.
On Thursday evening, the Indian team was huddled in the physio's room watching YouTube clips of Chinese Taipei, their next opponent who they face on Friday. A day later, they went ahead and executed their plans.
"We believe we can beat anyone. Rankings are not always the definitive indicator of a team's potential," said Ashwal Rai, who starred against South Korea with 16 points. Among the major reasons for India's poor ranking is lack of matches, and the 6'5" blocker is resigned to his fate.
"What can we do? The fact that we didn't compete much hampers our preparation a lot. With regular camps, practice and exposure trips, we can elevate our level by several notches," the 29-year-old said.
For skipper Vinit Kumar, the lack of game time is "frustrating and demoralising." "It is not easy to keep yourself motivated all along without any competition. We play domestic competitions and inter-departmental meets, but those are not quite international quality," he said.
"A team is not formed with such ad-hoc arrangements. We barely get any time to bond. Those boys who work in the same department know each other, but for the rest, getting to know each other's playing styles takes time. Analysing the opposition comes much later," he said.
Despite the hurdles, the early success at the Asian Games has not surprised the team. They got a decent workout at the Asian Championships in Iran last month where they stretched higher-ranked China to five sets. "That loss gave us a lot of confidence. We knew that will little effort, we could cause some stir," said Rai.
At the preparatory camp that preceded the Asian Championships, the team pored over videos of all major opponents, including South Korea.
"We figured they have a lot of pace, so it was important to match fire with fire. We knew our attack needed to be strong and our defence needed to hold. Still, preparing through YouTube versus preparing by competing is the same as watching a match on TV and believing you have experienced the match on the ground. There is a lot of difference," the skipper said.
"What works in our favour is that all of us have a natural physique for this sport. The tallest player in the team is 6'8". We have 6'7" and 6'6" players and the average height is 6'5". Our techniques have got a lot better thanks to Prime Volleyball League in which all members of the team participate. We are a naturally attacking side that doesn't give up easily. Things are looking up but the lack of international matches sets us back big time," he added.
India's record at the Asian Games reads a silver (1962) and two bronze (1958 and 1986) and the team is confident of breaking the 37-year medal drought. "Each of us believes we can do something special here. And that belief doesn't come from the win over South Korea alone, it comes with the singular drive to help volleyball reclaim its pride of place in Indian consciousness," said Rai.
And a win against Japan should be a step in exactly that direction.