Finally, India awoke to the fifth most popular sport in the world “Volleyball”. Launching of the Pro Volleyball League by Base Line Ventures and Volleyball Federation will go in a long way in changing the landscape of Indian Volleyball and adding another pulsating and competitive extravaganza to the sports crazy audience.
Yes, Indians may not be best sportsmen but they love their sports like no other nation. Success of Kabaddi League, ISL, which is the third most followed league, prompted Indian companies to launch Wrestling league, Table Tennis and Badminton League. These leagues not only got the TRPs but they also elevated the standards of Indian sports. The success of Indian table tennis team in Commonwealth and Asiad can only be attributed to these leagues. Similarly the success rate of wrestlers increased in 2018 Asiad and in 2019 league unknown wrestlers were competing with Olympic medalists.
Why Volley ball is the fifth most popular game
Overall, it is a pretty cost-effective sport. The major expenditure is in setting up a court and providing balls. It also requires lesser space and lesser number of players than football. Hence it is a neighborhood sport, picnic sport and family gathering sport.
Rules are most easy to comprehend. You can head, kick, palm or use proper technique to cross the net. This enables any novice also to play in case players are missing.
When no one was playing Volleyball, India was a force to reckon with. The nation won bronze medal in 1958 and 1986 Asiad. It also won Silver in 1962 Asiad. After 1986 India has been sliding down the rankings and today, they stand at lowly 131. This illustrates that volleyball was dying in India
Why India can do well
The basic requirement is height of 200 cm, lean frame and quick silver reflexes. Having a population of 130 crores it is not difficult to find a pool of 30 players. Further Indians have lean body structure and have done well in sports which require quick reflexes like Badminton, Cricket, Hockey etc. Indians lack in pace and body strength and this is not the essential requirement.
Why Volleyball is not Popular in India
Firstly, it is not a spectator sport so federations do not have money. Once they do not have money so youngsters do not see future in it. Schools and colleges are budding grounds to develop sports and tall players are very rarely found in schools. So, schools do not build a team resulting in a lack of tournaments. As there are no tournaments, players do not get exposure and competition to raise their level.
Format of 2019 League
Six teams are playing on round robin format so 15 matches are played. These are played at two venues: Kochi and Chennai. 117 Indian players were available for auction. The maximum purse was 75 lacs to purchase players. Each team could purchase 12 players, so 72 players were picked. Highest bidding was for Ranjit Singh, for whom Punjab bid 13 lacs.
Besides these, two iconic foreign players were drafted into each team. These iconic players are catalyst players, who will galvanize Indian Volleyball by their experience and techniques. The biggest name is David Lee, an American Volleyball player and recipient of Olympic Gold medal. The other players are Carson Clark, Novica Bjelica,Paul Lotman, Rudy Verhoeff and Tomislav Coskovic. All of them are Olympians and medal winners of prestigious tournaments.
The Tournament so far
12 league matches are over and Calicut has won all five matches and are at the top of the table. Kochi has won four matches and they too have qualified for the semifinals. For the other two slots, there is close fight between Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai. Two teams are yet to open their account with one team at four points and the other, at two points. So matches on 16th, 17th and 18th will be very crucial in deciding the destiny
The teams have evolved on three counts mainly. I have seen the evolution on service by Indian players. In the earlier matches Indian players were inferior to foreign players in terms of speed and accuracy. After 15 matches the service of Indian players like Karthik is unimaginable. They have matched is an understatement. Their improvement is exemplary.
Smashes hold the key to winning matches and average speed of smashes has increased by wide proportion. Smashes from the back court have also become very penetrating. When Indian players are spiking in tandem and jumping 4 feet above the net to execute, the image is vivid and unbelievable.
Retrieval and service pick up is also on the way up but it still lacks world standards. However athleticism in retrieving is something which was not witnessed before. It is heartening to see ball crossing net three or four times during a rally. This has added enthusiasm and come backs in a match. Normally one who serves loses the point and very rarely one wins point on their own serve. So, if the team has a lead of three or more points, then the game becomes pointless. However, we have seen many deficits of 5+ points being erased and this added the excitement.
Blocking is one grey area. We are witnessing single blocks or double blocks and not triple blocks. This is aiding smashers to find angles. In the world, triple blocks are so common that smashers have to hit side of the blocks so that ball goes out after the block. So spikers are finding it easy to win points.
Smashers who are of lesser height like 190 cm are very effective, whereas in the world they will be blunted. Ajith Lal of Calicut is the top smasher and he is only 190 cm tall. In world scenario, he will be blocked over and over again.
As blocks are not cutting the angles, defense has to spread on all corners and it is providing many blank spaces to smashers. The same smashers will not be able to dig so many attacks if defense is in one corner as other corner is covered by blockers.
One aspect to lament is that due to lack of funds all team coaches are Indians, so improvement will be limited. Foreign coaches of world class leagues as in Italy, Brazi or the US, can bring tremendous change due to their experience. Maybe, next season will bring this change?
There are 12 iconic players, who have played Olympics and top leagues. We have Olympic gold medallists in the fold. Still, Indians are not overawed but have raised their bar.
Among the Smashers, top three ranks are held by Indians who are Ajith Lal, Ashwal Rai and Jerome Vinith. In the blocking department Ashwal Rai tops the list followed by David Lee and Karthik. Even in the service department top three places are held by Karthik, Jerome and Vinit. This accounts for the talent and future of Indian Volleyball. If they are able to outdo iconic players, then with proper training they can be Asia’s powerhouse.
Calicut and Kochi have already qualified for the semifinals. It will be apt if Ashwal Rai takes Hyderabad to finals. As final league matches are taking place in Chennai, the balance tilts in favor of Chennai team to make it to semi finals. So my pick is Hyderabad and Chennai in semi finals at the expense of Mumbai and Ahmadabad.
Semi finals are on 19th and 20th February. I expect Calicut to sail through against Chennai with ease. Their squad consisting of Ajith Lal, Jerome, Karthik and Lottman will make their spikes count against hapless Chennai.
In the other semifinal, it will be see-saw battle between David Lee and Prabahgaran of Kochi against Ashwal Rai and Carson of Hyderabad. It will be the guile of David Lee which can take Kochi to finals.
Hyderabad boy Ajith Lal is too hot to handle and with adequate support from all corners my vote goes to Calicut for becoming the Champion of Pro Volleyball League 2019.