If an inquisitive member of the Kerala men's team takes a look at the record books to see the number of times it has failed to cross the last hurdle, he would certainly be surprised. Out of 11 finals, Kerala has been able to win only thrice — in 1997 (Visakhapatnam), 2000 (Calicut) and 2001 (Raipur).
The Velammal Silver Jubilee 59th senior National volleyball championship would provide an opportunity for Kerala to improve on that statistic. It looks like it is more than hungry to make it count this time.
The manner of its hard-fought victory in five sets —25-17, 17-25, 25-16, 13-25, 15-10 — over the last edition's finalist Uttarakhand in the semifinals at the Nehru Indoor Stadium here on Saturday, gave an impression that it is more than prepared for the final battle.
There wasn't a single aspect where one could have found fault with Kerala. Double and triple blocks and single block worked perfectly, stopping the best of Uttarakhand's attacks at the net.
Tom Joseph excels
Skipper Tom Joseph used the smashes, the dip, the drop and the off-speed hit and neat placements extremely well, making the blockers look helpless.
Azeez was a class apart. If his block was exemplary, his attack was outstanding. His smashes didn't even give a whiff of a second chance to the opponents.
The failure of attacker Gurchand Singh, blocker Ratish Kumar and captain Mithilesh Kumar affected Uttarakhand's chances; they played well below their standards.
Uttarakhand, however, picked itself up after losing the first set. Slowly and steadily, it got into the groove and managed to equalise at two-sets each.
The chief architects of Uttarakhand's fightback were Subba Rao and Lalit Kumar. Except for one service which he hit long, Rao's game was blemish-free as he excelled in both block as well as in attack. Lalit played his heart out in the fourth set belting out winners with his wonderful jump smashes at the wings.
Seizing the momentum
In the decider, Kerala seized the momentum, racing away to a 8-4 lead. Azeez, Vibin George, Tom and Rajeev ensured that it maintained the lead till the end.
“It was a high blood pressure match!” quipped K. Abdul Nazer, chief coach of Kerala. “I am sure we'll perform well in the final. We are all geared up,” he added.
The Kerala women's team too entered the final, after scripting a 25-22, 25-10, 25-20 win over Karnataka. They will clash with defending champion Railways, which crushed West Bengal 25-12, 25-10, 25-16.
Railways and Kerala have clashed with each other in the final since 2001 with the former winning six of the eight duels.
“Kerala is a strong opponent as it plays the same pattern as us,” said Meena Mahalingam, Railways chief coach.
The results (semifinals): Men: Kerala bt Uttarakhand 25-17, 17-25, 25-16, 13-25, 15-10.
Women: Railways bt West Bengal 25-12, 25-10, 25-16; Kerala bt Karnataka 25-22, 25-10, 25-20.