A game played widely across the country, volleyball has been a part of the Indian sporting conscience for more than seven decades.
Whilst an Indian team has never participated at an Olympic Games, the country has enjoyed some success at regional level.
History of volleyball in India
Though it was informally played for a long time, the first interstate volleyball championships were held by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) in 1936 in pre-independent India.
The sport gained proper structure with the formation of the Volleyball Federation of India (VFI) in 1951, and the erstwhile interstate tournament evolved into the Senior National Championships, with the first edition held in 1952.
It helped the nation discover several talents who went on to play with great distinction for the Indian volleyball team.
India at the Asian Games
The Indian volleyball team had an almost immediate impact on the global stage, winning the 1955 Asian Championships and another followed soon, at the 1958 Asian Games.
Volleyball was played for the first time at that edition, and the Indian men’ volleyball team, led by the veteran Gurudev Singh, clinched bronze.
They beat Hong Kong and the Philippines in three straight sets but could not get past volleyball powerhouses Iran and Japan, though they managed to win a set against each.
The Indian volleyball team managed to go one better four years later.
At the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta, legendary players Nripjit Singh Bedi and A Palaniswamy, both Arjuna Award winners, had graduated to the senior team, which was led by TP Padmanabhan Nair, who was also a part of the 1958 team.
This time around, the Indian volleyball team began with four consecutive wins against Burma (twice), Cambodia and Pakistan, three of which were straight-set victories.
Their old rivals Japan were again their undoing as they triumphed in a thrilling five-setter, winning the last set 15-12.
Though the Indian volleyball team finished strong, with consecutive wins over Indonesia and South Korea, Japan’s unbeaten run meant that they had to settle for silver.
The next few years had multiple crests and troughs as the Indian volleyball team finished fourth and fifth at the 1966 and 1974 Asian Games respectively, not making it to the 1970 edition in between.
They finished seventh in 1978 and at the 1982 Asian Games at home in New Delhi, the Indian volleyball team saw another upswing, though they fell just short of a medal, ending up fourth.
However, the wait for a medal would not last too long.
The finest Indian volleyball team
At the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, the Indian volleyball team sent arguably its best team ever.
Led by the enigmatic Cyril Valloor, the team boasted of current national coach GE Sridharan, K Udayakumar, who later went on to captain the Indian volleyball team, Abdul Basith, Dalel Singh and PV Ramana, father of Indian badminton star PV Sindhu.
All of them were Arjuna awardees but the most special of them all and the team’s lynchpin was the maverick talent Jimmy George, an Arjuna winner himself and a legend of Indian volleyball.
Widely considered to be the best Indian volleyball player, he had been tearing up the national circuit for a decade and also had stints at clubs in Italy, one of the best leagues in that era, along with GE Sridharan.
Towering above most at 6’2”, Jimmy George had one of the most graceful jumps, and his ability to hang in the air for a fraction of a second longer than most helped him place his smashes, which were by themselves powerful due to his large frame, better.
“He had what is called the absolute jump — more than a metre above the ground — which in the ‘70s and ‘80s was very rare in India. It still is," former teammate Ramana Rao, and ex vice-president of the Volleyball Federation of India reminisced in an interview with The Indian Express.
Jimmy George’s physical prowess notwithstanding, the mental fitness was what catapulted him into the league of the world’s top attackers, felt current national coach GE Sridharan.
“Besides his jump, what was also several notches above any other Indian was his tremendous mental power," GE Sridharan had once said.
"Jimmy was into meditation well before it came into Indian sport. When he came to the court after his quiet thought, we could just watch the stored energy explode. The whole mind and body came as one when he jumped into the typical body arc.”
All of these factors meshed well together and the Indian volleyball team started the Asian Games with four victories – against Hong Kong, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.
They were brought down to earth by home team South Korea, who went on to register another victory later, but in between the Indian volleyball team finally managed to beat powerhouses Japan, more impressively in straight sets, facilitated by Jimmy George’s tremendous drive.
"He must have told each of us some 20 times that we had to win. He started attacking from the first or second point and kept asking for the ball. That day he blasted the ball like anything and even scored off some wrong passes," Sridharan recounted.
However, they could not sustain the momentum, as they fell to eventual champions China, to end up with bronze.
The women’s Indian volleyball team
Though the Senior National Championships had been held for both men and women since its inception in 1952, the women’s game did not receive the same attention as their male counterparts for almost two decades.
The fact that not many took up the sport full-time contributed to the women’s Indian volleyball team not being exposed to international tournaments in the initial years, with their ranking not allowing them to participate in the World Championships or World Cups.
The women’s game slowly started taking shape in 1977-78 when veteran Dipti Malik, who had taken West Bengal to the title the previous year, led the Indian Railways team to the senior championships in its first year of formation.
The victory helped the team members earn jobs with the railways, and with the financial aspect secure, it allowed the players to focus on the game and it was no surprise that the Railways team has dominated the domestic circuit, winning 33 titles and ending runners-up eight times since then.
The inception of the Asian Women’s Volleyball Championship in 1975 also helped the women’s Indian volleyball team test themselves against tough opponents.
They made their Asian Women’s Volleyball Championship debut in the second edition in 1979, finishing seventh and it helped the women’s Indian volleyball team to qualify for their maiden Asian Games at home in New Delhi in 1982.
The game grew in Asia with the inaugural South Asian Federation (SAF) Games in 1984, and it was an event that the women’s Indian volleyball team went on to dominate in the nineties and noughties, winning four golds and a silver.
They also won golds at both the 2016 and 2019 editions of the South Asian Games.
In recent years
The general popularity of the sport declined in the years to follow as in-fighting within federations coincided with the death of Jimmy George in an accident in 1987 and adding to it was the rise of the Indian cricket team as a powerhouse.
The Indian volleyball men and women’s teams dominated the South Asian Federation Games in the nineties, winning three medals each, but it did not spark a revival, with underpar performances to follow at the 2002 and 2006 Asian Games by the men.
The women’s Indian volleyball team too could not create much impact at the Asian level, as they only qualified for the 2010 Asian Games after their first appearance in 1982 and though they have played at every edition since then, have not been able to mount a medal challenge.
The 2010 and 2014 editions provided some respite as the Indian volleyball men’s team finished a respectable fifth with modern-day stars and inspirational captains Sinnadu Prabhagaran and Mohan Ukkrapandian leading the way.
The Indian volleyball men’s team was ranked 34th in 2014, their best in the world, but just as it seemed that the sport was picking up again, an internal dispute in the VFI meant that it was banned from the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) for two years till 2018.
It meant that Indian volleyball players could not travel to other leagues to play, which affected the exposure to different styles, a factor which coach GE Sridharan felt led to a 12th place finish at the 2018 Asian Games.
However, things are looking up again. The Pro Volleyball League, a franchise-based tournament was started in 2019 and it was a resounding success, made more memorable by the appearance of stars like American David Lee, an Olympic gold medallist in 2008.
“It brought about a massive change, the way we played and prepared, also the massive exposure on TV. That would have been a big step towards the Olympics,” Ukkrapandian had told Sportstar last year.
Though the men's Indian volleyball team won’t be in Tokyo next year following their loss in the Olympic qualification tournament, the renewed interest in the sport could see the nation on the upswing in the next few years.