International volleyball player and former Indian captain Tom Joseph says that there is so much passion for the game in Kerala

Being six-and- a-half feet tall can be a disadvantage at times. Space seems a premium on trains and buses, and even the average doorway seems a challenge. But Tom Joseph is not one to complain, for it is this aspect of his physique that allows him to soar above the competition and dispatch a ball at his opponents with a force that one might liken to cannon fire. International volleyball player, former captain of the Indian volleyball team and one of the best strikers in the game today, Tom Joseph is one of the unsung heroes of a sport that is scarcely noticed by the stereotypical cricket crazy Indian.

His ready smile is ever present, and though a man of few words, the peaceful expression on his face occasionally shifts to a gentle laugh as he talks about taking pictures with his fans and interacting with them on Facebook. The volleyball star started out watching small clubs play in his hometown of Poothampara in Kozhikode, before watching his elder brother Roy Joseph rise up the ranks and even play in the junior Indian team. Not to be outdone, the younger Joseph took to the court and used the strength gained from climbing the harsh terrain of his hometown to make impossible leaps and smash the ball with ferocity; a ferocity that led many to call him the most destructive player from India since the legendary Jimmy George himself.

Resting languidly on a sofa in the cosy living room of his house at Puthiyakavu, near Kochi, his happy, almost eager expression as he makes conversation, makes him seem more like an old friend than a physically intimidating volleyball star. The glass showcase that wraps around the large television is bright with reflections from his many, many trophies, forming a gold curtain of sorts. At 33, he is still in fantastic physical shape, a fact that he does not take for granted. “When I started out, I was one of the tallest guys around and could use the offensive smash to great effect, but nowadays you have youngsters who are nearly seven feet tall,” he says, “so I have had to adapt a little and use tactical precision as well as strength.”

Tom seems unperturbed by the banter of his daughter and her friend as they indulge in games around the house, and mentions that his daughter often eagerly awaits his arrival from matches to find out whether a new trophy will be added to the substantial collection. While the trophies are testament to his prowess in volleyball, he does not come up empty when asked what other sports he plays. “Basketball,” he replies, “it is the obvious second choice!”

It may sound surprising for someone above six feet tall to relegate basketball to second place, but among the passionate volleyball followers of north and central Kerala, there can be no other first choice. The unique experience of playing in front of crowds in small venues in Kerala and then going on to play in international arenas is one Tom cherishes. “The passion for the game is the same everywhere, even in the smallest venues in Kerala we sometimes have thousands of people turning up, though I admit the sensation is more prominent when playing in indoor courts with the crowd much closer to the action,” he says.

He fondly recalls the last leg of the 1999 SAF Games, where he made his first appearance for India in the semifinals. “I remember that the Pakistan team had beaten us in straight sets in the league stage. But we reached the semis and I was given my first chance to play for India. We won the semis and went on to face Pakistan again in the finals, this time beating them in straight sets,” he says with pride.

The sentiments of his fans are taken very seriously by Tom. “I have recently become quite enamoured with Facebook. A lot of people have been sending me requests and it has reached a point where I am not able to add more friends,” he says dejectedly. The fans send him their wishes and feedback through the social medium, and even use his fan page to campaign for an Arjuna Award for the lanky attacker, an honour that has mysteriously eluded him despite his many athletic feats.

“The passion for the game is the same everywhere, even in the smallest venues in Kerala we sometimes have thousands of people turning up, though I admit the sensation is more prominent when playing in indoor courts with the crowd much closer to the action ,He prefers to see the oversight as a motivator, with the Arjuna spurring him on to work harder until he gets his due. “A lot of people who have been watching me for years tend to say, ‘Why is he still playing? Shouldn’t he hang up his boots?’ But I believe I can keep going. I am only 33, there is so much I can yet accomplish, why hurry?” says Tom, who cites Joby Joseph of Kerala and Surjit Singh and Amir Singh of Punjab as inspirations.

Ask him whether he has any superstitions or rituals concerning his game, and he laughs. “No, no, I do no such thing. I just go out there and play.” And play he has, having competed at the highest levels of the sport, representing India, helping Kerala win the Nationals on more than one occasion, and making his presence felt in Federation Cup and club matches within the state. He is optimistic about the future of volleyball in India, showering praise upon the youngsters entering the sport today and hailing the activities of the many clubs, such as BPCL Kochi Refinery and Cochin Customs, active in the state.

Tom Joseph is a simple man with a passion. With religious training and dedication, he has kept himself at peak fitness to give his best to the game he loves. His aggressive strikes on the court are in sharp contrast to his real demeanour, that of an easily approachable chettan one may encounter on any of the grounds scattered across Kerala that host evening sports. A parting glance into his living room reveals that the children are now tossing a volleyball around in small, graceful semicircles. The action is nothing like Tom’s own strikes, but if this were the conclusion of a movie that is the image to use before we fade to black.