Indian athletes head to Gold Coast for the Commonwealth Games, but they won’t quite hit the gorgeous beaches. Not officially. India has contrived to get the most scenic of the Games’ venues knocked off its menu at the precise time that Beach Volleyball has been introduced in CWG. India’s volleyball federation is currently banned after two men stuffed the sport in a maze of court cases, which means India aren’t fielding a team either in indoor or beach volleyball.
At Gold Coast, apart from Australia, southern hemisphere’s sea-side postcard-perfect Rwanda, New Zealand, South Africa, Mozambique and land-locked Sierra Leone are sending teams, for all the fabulous serving, digging, setting, spiking and blocking action. Even England, harping on its Brighton sunsets, will be at the Southern Gold Coast. But India with its typically filthy feuds- right now the Volleyball Federation secretary is mucking over control of bank accounts and funds to the tune of crores with an equally uncaring president – has managed to get its governing body banned, and remains ineligible to send a team, like in indoor volleyball.
Raj Kumar, one of the sport’s earliest players in India and good enough to get a contract in the American league, and his wife Rama Devi, who had all the sass and insouciant air of the sport’s free-spirited practitioners while she represented India, are mildly disgusted. Considering they believed nothing could stop the Indians, when they played. “You see,” says Raj Kumar, “Indian women never wore bikinis when playing the sport. But that didn’t stop her from being very good at it!”
A sport that took off in Hyderabad 25 years ago, beach volleyball sold Rs 500 tickets to a packed stadium on Necklace Road on a day when the former Andhra capital was hosting a one-dayer with Kapil Dev in India ranks and Asian Badminton was happening at Gachibowli. “And Hyderabad didn’t even have a beach,” he says.
The city’s towering but anonymous stars of yesteryears are disappointed that the only smashing at CWG will come from the city’s fancied shuttlers—Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and K Srikanth. Another former international, Kasi Vishwanath, seethes. “Volleyball (which also governs beach volleball) officials are chasing power, money or both. I think they’re fools to not realise how big a miss this is for the country —not fielding a team at Gold Coast.”
“Big moneyed men are always fighting over small, petty change. I don’t involve myself much into these issues,” women’s beach volleyball trendsetter Rama Devi, also from Hyderabad, tells writer Koumudi M, while speaking only Telugu. “Beach volleyball was happy days, back then,” she adds, not willing to mope over India’s tragic no-show. Beach volleyball was where she met her husband Raj Kumar and married him in 2003; except the happily-ever-after script where the two walk into the sunset, sees a gaping hole where the sport once ruled.
Raj Kumar’s romance with the sport actually started as a bromance, at a playground called Manju Miya Tabela, MMT – an Old City institution, where he played with his four brothers. A makeshift sand court later came up at Victoria Municipal Ground, three kms away from his home, after Andhra decided to field teams at the country’s first-ever beach volleyball nationals.
He was among the renegades from indoor volleyball, who got fed up of the Reddy domination in the six-a-side sport. “We were young, and one community’s domination pushed us away. They didn’t like the rest of us even if we helped win matches at times,” he recalls. “Beach volleyball came as a God-send.” The man who put the set-up in place was ironically a Venkatraman Reddy – a municipal sports director, who arranged everything from sand to be lugged in to heavier balls (greater wind resistance outdoors). “He was saintly,” Raj Kumar recalls the older man’s devotion in growing the sport, as beach volleyball began consuming Raj Kumar from 6.45 am to 12 noon non-stop.
“It was like an individual sport, no coach’s politics, no one to drag us down. We played like we were free,” he recalls. The ‘We’ was a Beach Volleyball brotherhood he built, defying every constraint. “Samundar kinaara nai tha humaare paas, bas junoon tha,” recalls S Ghouse, one of Raj Kumar’s many partners to play internationally as the bunch dominated for the next 7-8 years, finishing 1-2 at nationals. They came from a 15-minute radius of the Old City, as soon as “Marhoom Venkat Reddy got the court going,” Ghouse adds. Abdul Khaliq aka Anwar aka Chicha (uncle) came from Malakpet, Umer Mohsin from Toli Chowki, Jamil from Dabeerpura, Raj Kumar and Ghouse from close to Manju Miya Tabela.
The year was 1992-3, and Raj Kumar drew himself up to looking and jumping a foot taller than his “only 6 feet” frame, on the strength of his thick friendships from a robust neighbourhood. “We were never awed coming up against tall players. At my first national against strong, tall teams from Chennai, we looked lean and small and no one was backing us,” he remembers. But Raj Kumar and Chicha had swag and never-ending sass.
“We came from the old city, which has 80-90 percent tough people. One year would see 4-5 Hindu-Muslim riots and we lived through constant curfews. This made us all tough,” he says. Raj Kumar’s father was the Circle Inspector in that area, and his was one amongst only 12 Hindu houses in the colony. “The rest were Muslims, but not one person ever harmed us. There was such strong love and affection, that in curfew-times, my Muslim friends’ families would shield me and ensure I reached home safe. When it came to selecting a partner, obviously, these were going to be my team,” he says, matter-of-factly. He started with the southpaw Chicha, but played with Umer and Ghouse in later years.
“Our attitude always was, what’s the problem if our opponents are big guys? We are tougher together,” he says. At Chennai, the Hyderabad pairings would go past India’s best attacker Muthurajan, and with either of Chicha, Umer, Ghouse, and later Ravi Reddy, Sridhar, Raj Kumar would dominate the national scene.
With an Asia rank of 7, Raj Kumar would also play five seasons for a Chicago Beach Volleyball club. “We played strategic, single-minded beach volleyball in Hyderabad. Even after practice, when we went to drink chai dipping biscuits, we would all be discussing how to construct one point,” he recalls.
When the Hyderabad pairings— Ghouse-Jamil, Raj Kumar-Anwar— started winning international games at Marina Beach and Besantnagar in Chennai, volleyball doyen Sevanthi Adithyan would chip in with funds. “We once beat Thailand who were a strong team, and he walked up to us, and said: ‘I’ve seen you eating verkadalai sundal (boiled peanut chaat). But now, you are India internationals and you cannot be eating street food between big games! I’m allotting budget to eat properly,” Raj Kumar, recalls with a laugh.
While the Australians and Kiwis (“always 6’8” – 9”) who played the Asian circuit were tough to beat most times, Raj Kumar would finish as Best Player at a tournament on the famous Borocay beach of Philippines – with the trans-Tasman giants picking Best Attacker and Blocker trophies. “Me and Anwar (a left hander) played the open block – that was just defense and placing the shots. Against 7 foot opponents, I would just scoop the ball. That control on the ball was god’s gift,” he says. The scoop, was actually right up the Hyderabadi alley of nimble wrist-work – where the ball would spin and hold in the air wrong-footing opponents.
Jamil-Ghouse would win a hat-trick of nationals, and Necklace Road became a buzzing venue with chirpy commentary at the artificial courts. “Much before IPL, beach volleyball managed to have a NBA-style show in Hyderabad, with pro cheer-leaders and music. We had to close the gates,” Ghouse recalls the heydays. “Politicians played their politics, but in the Old City we always knew what nuisance speech-givers were up to. None of it mattered, though – whether it was floodlit Necklace Road game nights or just Victoria or MMT maidan,” Ghouse says.
The city’s progressive bureaucrats and ministers and engineers would chip in with the facilities, whenever a big meet was planned, as India started rising up the ranks. Chennai’s Pradeep John (6’6”) and Mohan (6’5”) would raise the altitude, and join the ‘Block’ mainstream as techniques got their finesse. Kasi would travel to the Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010, even as indoor volleyball showed a spark and faded out, before the federation itself imploded. All spiking has gone silent for the last three years. “It’s tough to compete with Europeans, but in Asia, India could’ve done well. But here, first you get the medal, then they’ll think of funding you,” he says bitingly.
It is more strenuous than regular indoor volleyball, and defence and movements need precision with the pairings sharing block, receive, attacking responsibilities. Just moving around on the sand is tougher on the calves. “When I played the Asian Juniors, India beat China and narrowly lost to Iran as we won silver. Now, Iran’s B or C teams will also easily beat us. The country has taken strides in kabaddi and basketball. But volleyball is such a massive sport in rural India, there’s no dearth of sponsors. We’re sitting on a goldmine, but we’re not going to Gold Coast,” Kashi laughs bitterly.
The cackle that beach volleyball dreaded back in the 90s was Bal Thackeray’s when Mumbai started hosting tournaments. Ramadevi and her partner Evangelina Paul would land at the venue in regular shorts. Once the first day was done and anyone on the lookout for manufactured outrage found nothing to scream about, the women playing in regular shorts brought out the snipping gear. “After the first day, Rama would take scissors and cut off the shorts. The women would then play in comfortable short shorts,” Raj Kumar recalls.
“Never wore bikinis when playing beach volleyball in India. It was always sleeveless tee-shirt and a small pair of shorts,” Ramadevi says. “No one forced anyone, though it was tough in Indian culture to even think of a bikini. We just wanted to play, so we wore shorts and played,” she says.
It’s not like she wasn’t a rebel – just that the bikini didn’t occur to her as a cause to fight about. Ramadevi played lots of sports in school, was part of NCC, and got picked for volleyball by SAI in Class 7. “I was Andhra captain at senior Nationals at Calicut, and we won gold after 23 years, beating the mighty Indian Railways. We beat a tough Kerala team in semis,” she recalls.
The switch to sand happened in 1998 when she won third place in beach volleyball. “By the third year, I was a national champ with Evangelina who’d been my hostel mate and friend since we were six years old,” she says, of heading out for her first international to Bangkok. She would finish her international certification for coaching in the next 10 years.
Ramadevi never picked English, but the sport gave her plenty of confidence – like when she struck up a conversation with the senior-most men’s player while practising. “We had gone for a camp in Hyderabad and Raj Kumar was the most famous name. He did’nt talk to a lot of people but after introduction, I started speaking to him. Later I proposed him and he said yes. When he returned from USA where he was playing, we got married,” she says. They have an 11-year-old son, who plays badminton.
“First of all she beat the Railways team,” Raj Kumar recalls. “That made you a legend in any sport back in 90s when Railways had very strong teams.”
“On top of that, she came to our beach volleyball training ground, and just started talking to me. I never used to talk to girls and here she comes and says: ‘I’ve come to meet you.’ She proposed a few months later. Who says no to a champ like that?” he laughs.
Parents would object, and the couple would get a registered marriage done, and then go climbing the colourful Yadagirigutta hillock temple for a ceremony. “Afterwards when her parents met me properly, they were cool. But at the start, only she had the guts to make this marriage happen,” he says. The sport would continue, though Ramadevi realised it was tough to sustain in this strength-sport against women taller and stronger. “The way foreigners and we play is different. They are very tall and it’s tough to win against them. The food they eat is different. And they are constantly practising on the beach. We only play on the beach during camps,” she says. “The bikini is just one aspect of the sport. If we start doing well, one day our girls can just switch to the bikini. But we need to play the sport well first,” she adds.
Right now, even demanding that beach volleyball fields a team internationally, sounds like a subversive rebellion in India. As beach volleyball debuts at the CWG, Gold Coast will also be about the utterly absent Indians. This, when Hyderabad had shown 25 years ago that you don’t even need to have a beach to ace this sport.
The Visually beautiful sport mandates a few imperfections: In 2016, the dazzlingly fine and white sand of the Copacabana was considered unfit for the Rio Olympics. The softer sand needed a coarser addition to give the spikers a firmer ground and reliable grip. The squeaking fine sand of Coolangatta – venue for beach volleyball at Gold Coast – has brought the city’s mayor Tom Tate, placating the locals, after BV officials parachuted in earlier this year, and declared the velvety, golden fleece of surfer’s paradise under the Queensland sunshine, too fluffy for the toes and soles of feet to catch onto. Before SandpaperGate hit cricket at Cape Town, a mini sand-storm settled when Tate reassured the offended residents: “The Gold Coast sand is excellent. Unfortunately for athletes, they need something firmer beneath their feet, so they have to truck in a coarse sand from Brisbane.”
“After , I would say, Brisbane can have it back,” he scoffed, a proud coastal city contemptuously dismissing sand from another beach. Imperfect sand, thus, is a pre-requisite for beach volleyball.
Raj Kumar too realised this during a tournament in Philippines some 20 years ago. “The sand was very soft and white, like wheat aata. But I learnt how that’s the worst for the sport! When we played domestically, Chennai and (then) Bombay were perfect. But, Vizag was a nightmare.”