For a sport that has often found it difficult to cement its place in the sporting fabric of the nation, volleyball will once again attempt to garner some attention when the Indian team gets down to business at the Men's Continental Tokyo Volleyball Qualification event — the 2020 Olympic qualifier — in Jiangmen, China from Tuesday.
The team, led by Vinit Kumar, comes into the meet on the back of a gold-medal-winning run at the 2019 South Asian Games, which was followed by the Senior National Championships in Chennai that saw quality action unfold over the course of a week. In Jiangmen though, the Indian spikers will have to ensure that they stay on top of their game if they wish to have any chance of having a sniff of the only qualification slot available here.
The Olympic qualifiers
The Olympic qualifiers will see eight of the top teams in Asia vie for a place at Tokyo Olympics 2020. The teams are selected based on their final standing position at the 2019 Asian Senior Men’s Volleyball Championships held in Tehran, Iran.
Divided into two groups of four each, the teams will play each of their opponents once, with the top two making it to the semifinals and eventually the final on January 12.
Group A consists of the reigning Asian champions Iran, Chinese Taipei, China and Kazakhstan, the team that replaced Pakistan, while Group B features the losing finalists at the 2019 Asian meet: Australia, India, South Korea and Qatar.
Meanwhile, Japan, who won the bronze medal in Tehran last year, have already qualified for the Tokyo Games by virtue of being the hosts.
The Indians begin their campaign against Qatar on Tuesday, with the South Korea tie lined up for a day later. The GE Sridharan-coached side will have to ensure that they make the most of the two matches before facing off against Australia, one of the powerhouses of volleyball in Asia, on January 9.
The Indian volleyball team
Though the Indian roster that was announced a few days back seems to have caught a few by surprise, the team will hope to push aside any such doubts and go for a few valuable wins against the best in Asia.
Leading the line will be their most experienced player Mohan Ukkrapandian in the company of C Jerome Vinith and Ashok Karthik. Ukkrapandian, who made his national team debut in 2010, has been one of India’s finest setters and the team will hope that he continues his fine form at the Jiangmen event.
Vinith, a universal player, will carry the onus of leading the team in the attack while Karthik and Ashwal Rai — both blockers — will also have a key role to play in the team.
The Indian side, however, will miss the services of the experienced Sinnadhu Prabhagaran and Naveen Raja Jacob, who have been an integral part of the side for a while. The two carry the reputation of coming up with some powerful and vicious serves that have often had the opposition in trouble. But with the team missing their services, it remains to be seen how they make up for it.
Where to watch
You can follow live on the official match centre here.