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Guiding spirit

His stunning insight into the game makes M. Syam Sundar an all-time great of volleyball

AT THE junior National volleyball championships at Pedlavadlapudi, Guntur disrict, a distinguished-looking man was quietly taking in the action. A son of the soil, not many in that hamlet would have realised his stature, until they engaged him in conversation.

For when it comes to the finer points of volleyball, few can match the insight of M. Syam Sundar Rao, an Arjuna and Dronacharya awardee. Scan the sports horizon and you'll find few in the pantheon of greats, who hold such a twin distinction. Little wonder then that he has been the guiding spirit for teams that have excelled under his tutelage.

The first step on the quest for greatness was to quit his BA course from Andhra University and indulge himself in volleyball with the late Ch. Buchiramaiah as his mentor. Mention of the man makes him nostalgic and to date, he believes that coming under the state's first international volleyball player's benevolent gaze altered his destiny completely. For, his favourite sport until then had been ball badminton.

His rise was steady, donning Andhra University colours at first, then Andhra Pradesh, followed by Services, Railways and that of the country itself. First in the South Central Railway to be conferred the Arjuna Award in 1974, he proceeded to the National Institute of Sports (NIS) Patiala.

Brighter prospects beckoned him and his shift to Shriram Rayons in Kota, Rajasthan, surprised many. His entry into the northern side saw a dramatic change in its fortunes. Shriram Rayons emerged the champion club that won the Federation Cup at Tirupur. Presently its players comprised the rank and file of the state squad that figured as finalists in half a dozen nationals.

Sadly, the Shriram Rayons charge was cut short by labour unrest in the company, giving rise to a ban on new recruitments. Syam Sundar Rao had however left his stamp, players and officials alike addressing him as `Gurudev,' a title reserved for a revered one. As a player, the highpoint of his career was reached at Tehran, during the 1974 Asian Games.

The tournament saw the maiden appearance of the late legend Jimmy George, but lack of exposure saw the Indians surrender to the top teams of the tournament, Japan and China. Not that these teams were impossible to beat, but the Indians lacked the tactical wherewithal to counter their opponents. Playing the Nationals until 1980 and the Federation Cup until 1984, the latter when he was 43 years old, only spoke of his endurance in a sport where lesser mortals would have hung up their boots much earlier.

His elevation as the country's chief coach on joining the Sports Authority of India was acknowledgement of his acumen. Talking of volleyball's increasing popularity, he says, it has wider membership than even FIFA, the world football governing body. The soccer organisation has however been more successful with pumping in more sponsorship into the sport.

The fall of the USSR was a blow for volleyball, he feels. Government patronage of the past has made way for excessive professionalism. So much so, that only second string or lower class sides visit other nations on tours, while the cream is always in search of greener pastures.

Testimony to the sports emergence in India can be seen by the entry of 28 men's teams for the recent junior Nationals where there were 27 boys teams and 28 girls'. Not reluctant to list his regrets, he says loss of a set caused India's elimination in Doha, Qatar when it came to the averages.

The narrow defeat by Iran at the Busan Asian Games had its reasons too. Government clearance came only in the eleventh hour as players lost concentration. The team went finally on federation expenditure. Owing to their late arrival in Korea, the opportunity to practise at the main venue and get familiar with the surroundings was lost.

The grouping was tough too, in that India was pitted against the reigning champion and runner up. The cup of woe brimmed over when Indian skipper Ravikanth Reddy got hurt in the fourth and penultimate set of the last match his side played. The announcement of the Arjuna Awards shortly before the squad left for Busan demoralised those who had been in the reckoning and were unjustly left out. "The citations should have come after the team returned," he says.

Having seen it all, he hopes to coach children at the Saroornagar Stadium. A hypertension problem finds him unwilling to make any commitment though. His love for the sport will never die and breaking links with it would be impossible.


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