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Volleyball eyes new tournament for route to the big league

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/GettyImages

There are just a few months to go for the Asian Games -- one of the biggest tournaments on his sport's calendar -- but Gurinder Singh, like the rest of his teammates in the Indian volleyball team, admits to being a bit distracted. At the back of his mind is another tournament: the Professional Volleyball League. Details about the league are hazy for the moment -- though there has been a lot of publicity around it, there has been no word on the dates, franchises or structure -- but that isn't Gurinder's concern right now. "Bas league shuru honi chahiye [The league just needs to start]," he says.

The 27-year-old universal's desperation to get the league going is palpable -- and he isn't alone in this among his teammates. Over the past decade, Gurinder and others associated with the sport in India have felt their chance had slipped them by. "Every year we keep wondering when we will get a professional league and each year we were told it wasn't happening," says Jerome Vineeth, one of Gurinder's teammates. National coach and former Asian medallist GE Sridharan says, "Mere dukan me sab kuch hai par kharidne ke liye koi nahi tha (There was everything in my shop but there's no one to buy anything)."

The feeling of having missed out intensifies especially as they compare themselves to kabaddi -- another largely rural sport that has got an image makeover courtesy a glitzy league. But they aren't sure how a league of their very own -- that must-have of any self-respecting sport in India -- will change things around.

Quite simply, volleyball has fallen off the radar. "I'd says this was one of the most popular sports in India," says Sridharan. "Back in the 1980s, players were heroes. We would have test match tours to Pakistan that were watched by thousands. Players like Jimmy George [who even played for Italian Serie A Club Gabeca Pallavolo] were internationally famous. Right now there's no exposure or recognition."

"I'd says this was one of the most popular sports in India. Back in the 1980s, players were heroes. We would have test match tours to Pakistan that were watched by thousands." GE Sridharan, India coach and former Asian medallist

The sport itself is partly to blame for the state of affairs. Infighting between two factions of the national federation saw the Volleyball Federation of India (VFI) banned by the international body in 2016 following a controversial election. The national team was unable to even enter the 2017 Asian Cup held in Thailand, an event where India had been runners-up in the previous edition.

According to VFI secretary general Ramavtar Singh Jakhar, that state of limbo prevented the start of a league too. "We had a league in 2011 but unless the confusion was cleared we couldn't hold another league. But that is all resolved now," he says confidently.

The Jakhar faction claims to have won the right to be the sole claimant of the federation. In their defence they cite the fact that the disputed elections of 2016 have been recognized by the Delhi high court. And while the international body has lifted a provisional suspension on the federation, it has made it clear that this is just a temporary measure and that they expect a new president to be elected in six months. With the rival claimants adamant in their claim that election norms were not followed and also firmly sticking to their claims of financial impropriety, it seems unlikely the logjam will be cleared anytime soon.

In the midst of this unseemly chaos, it's a near miracle that the Indian team has managed to stay anywhere as competitive as they have. Ranked 38th in the world, the squad remains a challenger at the Asian level, having won a silver at the 2015 Asian Cup and finishing fifth at the 2014 Asian Games after losing 3-2 to eventual champions Japan. This year they hope to push a little further to step onto the podium for the first time in 22 years.

Indeed the sport still retains plenty of loyal followers in several pockets across the country. "This is still one of the most popular sports, especially in villages in India. Across south India, thousands of people will pay money to come and watch games also," says Shridharan. At the recent Federation Cup in Bhimavaram, Andhra Pradesh, crowds of 15,000 routinely showed up for the evening matches.

And while it no longer makes it to television screens, fans have made the most of social media to get their fix of the sport. "The last National Championships [in Kozhikode in February] wasn't being telecast anywhere but I found out that the matches were being live-streamed on Facebook. At one point we had two lakh people watching matches live," says India international Vineeth.

That popularity is what attracts marketers. "Right now the kabaddi league [Pro Kabaddi League] is the model that's the most successful for a sport league in India," says Tuhin Mitra, CEO of Baseline Sports that plans to run the league. "I really see volleyball matching up to that. It's similar to kabaddi in that there's definitely a heritage to it. It's a sport that is widespread. But unlike kabaddi it's also not just a spectator sport. All you need is a net and a ball, and you can be playing it."

The sport could, however, pick up a few pointers from kabaddi in how to create a successful league. "There have been many leagues in India but kabaddi has been a case study in how to run one successfully," says Mitra. "A lot of these leagues make the mistake of hosting matches across the country without getting the product right. They put a lot of money into the league too quickly."

The new league hopes to avoid such pitfalls. "We don't want to go into huge losses by paying exorbitant salaries or try and conduct matches in too many cities," he says. "We will likely only hold matches in Jaipur and Kochi, because these are the two hubs of the sport."

Mitra vouches for the product too. "A league like [football's] Indian Super League struggles because the standard of play does not compare well to the international leagues," he says. "Indian volleyball is very strong in comparison. Our national team is currently ranked 38th in the world and we were fifth at the last Asian Games. Our players compete at a very high standard."

"I'm the captain of the national team and I am currently just a head constable. The other young players look at me and the wonder if that's all they can become if they play volleyball. They need to believe they have opportunities." Gurinder Singh, Captain, Indian men's volleyball team

Coach Sridharan says the standard would only improve once the league gets under way. "Our players are strong technically but they struggle at the international level because they don't have enough exposure and game time," he says. "We need to play a minimum of 50 international matches every year to get better but we only play about 10. If we can't go abroad to play, we can get a similar level of competition in an international league in India."

Gurinder concurs with that principle. "We don't get a chance to show our level," he says. "The Asian Games come once every four years. If you are a young player, you have just the National Championships and the Federation Cup to train for in the year. If you are a young player you might never even get a chance to be seen, especially if you aren't from a strong team." That's a gap Gurinder hopes the league will fill. "It will be a great opportunity especially if you are a young player. You will have some tournament to prepare towards every year."

Gurinder admits any additional money from the league will be a huge incentive. "I'm the captain of the national team and I am currently just a head constable," he says. "The other young players look at me and the wonder if that's all they can become if they play volleyball. They need to believe they have opportunities."

It's uncertain even now how exactly the league will come together. But Gurinder at least is sold on the idea. "Indian volleyball needs to be seen once again," he says. "We could have been far ahead of kabaddi if we had started five years back like they did. Ek baar bus India me start ho jaye [Let it just start in India once]..."