The inaugural edition of the Pro-Volleyball league is around the corner and Indian players seem upbeat about the new franchise-based league.
The first edition will be held across two cities, Chennai and Kochi. Six franchises will participate in the first edition of the PVL and 15 matches are to played in the league stage in a round-robin format. The top four make it to the semi-finals with the final to be held in Chennai.
The teams will have a roster of 12 players each, with a quota of two foreigners and two under-21 players per squad. With teams possessing a budget of 75 lakh each, the foreigners will be involved in a draft while the Indian players will participate in an auction.
The PVL, a property of Baseline Ventures will feature ‘icon players’ with a base price of Rs 8 lakh. Mohan Ukkrapandian, the captain and number one setter for the Indian national team and Tamil Nadu will among those icon players.
Ukkrapandian, now 29, was also part of the Indian team at the Asian Games that finished 12th. According to him, the league could help usher in a ‘culture’ of volleyball nation-wide and hopefully capture the imagination of television viewers at home.
“Volleyball is a spectator sport. Till now, we have very few tournaments which have been broadcast but I am sure that viewers will enjoy watching it. This league could help ensure that the culture of volleyball that we see in a few states can spread across the country,” he says.
What exactly does he mean when he says ‘culture’?
“Now, the people of Tamil Nadu and Kerala play the sport extensively. For example, whenever the sport is played at a national or an international level in Kerala, we see people queuing up outside stadiums to buy tickets for Rs 50 or 100 and watch the game, akin to what they do for cricket. Certain pockets of Punjab and Odisha also see this culture,” Ukkrapandian adds.
He goes on to talk about his place of origin, the district of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, where he says that a lot of inter-village tournaments are held.
Some like Vinit Kumar, hailing from Dehradun speaks about culture as the number of young children taking up the sport. “When I started playing, no one back home used to play the sport. Now a few more have come up. I won’t say that we have a culture of volleyball, but it has picked up,” says Vinit, also a member of the national team.
A relatively young member of the squad, Vinit says this Asian Games experience will help a team, which has seen a dynamic shift since the last Asian Games. India, having finished fifth in 2014, retained only four senior players, says Vinit who believes that this team in transition, will be in better shape, after two years.
Speaking of his beginnings in the sport, Vinit says, “I picked up the sport when I was in college. The volleyball trials were on in my second year and they said, you are tall, you should play. I took the sport up at 19.”
This is a common theme across players. Ukkrapandian, national captain, started playing volleyball at 14. Prabhagaran, the highest point-scorer for India in Jakarta, didn’t play the sport competitively till he was 17.
Prabhagaran, employing with the Railways, is from Puducherry and plays for a club in Chennai. He speaks about the difference in India and the countries that fare better. “Here we start a bit late. We could benefit from having more children take up the sport at a younger age. Volleyball has two core components, strength and technique. Strength can develop over time but the younger one learns the technique, the better he or she is. It is better to start early at ages eight to ten,” he explains.
Ukkrapandian also points out a shortcoming of domestic tournaments. “When a good player is in a mediocre team that does not perform very well, he or she is ignored. Right now, there is a gulf between the top six to eight teams and the rest. What this league could ensure is that those players aren’t missed out when it comes to national selection.”
The captain is also pleased that foreign players, like US captain David Lee, are coming to participate. “Someone like David Lee, former Olympic gold medallist, coming to play here, is huge for us. We don’t know the identities of the other foreigners as yet but we bumped into Lee at the photo-shoot. This will inspire our younger players to put in more effort and learn from their foreign counterparts.”
As the first season of the Pro-Volleyball League approaches, it is clear that the Indians mean business. “We are looking forward to this league eagerly. We have never trained harder in our lives,” says Ukkrapandian.