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National Sports Day: The thriving volleyball culture in Kerala

National Sports Day: The thriving volleyball culture in Kerala

Md Imtiaz

Published: 29 Aug 2020 9:03 AM GMT

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. 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 tour

nament 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.

Though volleyball is played widely across the country, the southern state of Kerala has been the true powerhouse of the game producing generations of volleyball players for the Indian team. Infact, two years ago, almost the entire Indian women’s volleyball team for the Jakarta Asian Games hailed from Kerala. Even the men's team at Jakarta had four players from Kerala. Kerala has been at the forefront of many sporting revolutions in India, be it football, athletics, snake boat racing. Similarly, volleyball remains to be a popular activity in the state. In almost every city, villages or suburbs one would see young people engaged in playing volleyball as one of their favourite past-time activities.

The state-level tournaments have the privilege to be more popular with states of Kerala forming the epicentres of high-octane action. In 2020, Kerala women pulled off a brilliant performance to decimate arch-rivals Railways and retain the senior national volleyball title, while the men, who lost to Railways in the semifinal, finished third by defeating Karnataka in the losers’ final.

One of the world-class players from Kerala was Jimmy George is not a household name for most Indians. But tales of his exploits on the volleyball court stretch from Peravoor in Kerala, where he was born, all the way to Montichiari in Italy, where the city mayor opened an indoor stadium in his memory in 1994. At the age of 16, Jimmy represented his state team Kerala. He captained them at 19. By the time he turned 22, Jimmy was already a recipient of the Arjuna Award. After his time with the Abu Dhabi Sports Club, Jimmy moved to Italy in 1982, becoming the first Indian to play in a top European league. In 1986, he was part of a talented India team that clinched the bronze medal in the Seoul Asian Games. In 1987, at the age of 32, Jimmy tragically passed away in a car accident in Italy.

Jimmy was a rare world-class volleyball player to have come from India. He was blessed with natural talent, his jump was extraordinary but it was sheer determination and single-minded pursuit to enhance his skills that led to Jimmy rubbing shoulders with the best during his sojourn in Italy. Above all, Jimmy was a perfect role-model, a player who gave his 100 per cent on the field and carried an irresistible charm off the court. He was a man who tried to live his life to the fullest, made many friends all over the world and became an icon for his fans.

Aprt from Jimmy, K C Elamma is one of the best players the Kerala Women’s Volleyball team had ever seen. The first Malayali woman to secure an Arjuna award.

Elamma secured a place in the hearts of volleyball lovers with her thunder like smashes in the court. Though she is retired, the veteran is still active with her unending love for the game.

The Namakuzhy girls Elamma, Eliyamma, Saramma, Annakutty, Ammini, P K Leela and V K Leelamma created miracles in and outside Kerala. They were no blood relatives, but still had a bond that was deeper than kin. Their combination in and outside court proved it. The name ‘Namakuzhy Sisters’ was given to them by then journalists. It became their tag and made them popular. With their performance, they took the women volleyball in Kerala to surging heights. From them, Elamma secured a place in state senior team.

In the 1971 national championship that took place in Jamshedpur, Elamma and team created history winning the trophy. Kerala’s women’s team retained the trophy in the national championship that took place in Thiruvananthapuram in 1972. Elamma’s trademark style was to smash with both hands. That was what made her unique at the court. Her game was compared with that of then volleyball legend of Kerala FACT Pappan and eminent Indian player Balwant Singh Sagwal. Such comparison by fans gave her pet names like, ‘Lady Pappan’ and ‘Lady Ballu’.

Elamma was the first Malayali woman to receive the Arjuna Award, in 1975. It was awarded by then President of India Neelam Sanjiva Reddy.

Russian coach who came to train the Indian team opined that, the best players found in India were Elamma and Jimmy George. However, in her opinion FACT Pappan is the best player. Though the police team was dispersed, she continued in court as guest player till 1987. She retired from Kerala police as Superintendent of Police of women cell.

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