Stan Rayan

KOCHI: As he lunged to receive the ball, Joby Joseph just hit air. Not once but quite a few times. That painful picture is still fresh in our minds. Joby had been one of the best attackers in Asia around a decade ago but when he donned the role of a libero at the World volleyball championship qualifiers in Chennai last year, he was a big flop.

The service reception has been a major weakness in the Indian team for some time now. Which means that the country needs a smart libero as he plays a crucial role in reception and backcourt defence. Just last week, four-time champion India failed to enter the semifinals of the Shaikh Rashid international tournament in Dubai after losing to France and Pakistan.

And the problem? "We suffered because we did not have our regular libero Arun Jakhmola," said Indian blocker R. Rajeev.

Despite the Dubai disappointment, the team management has not invited Jakhmola, possibly India's best libero, for the national camp for the SAF Games in Colombo. And there's a story behind it. "A couple of months ago, Jakhmola wanted a month's leave from the national camp to play the World Military championship in the U.S. for the Services.

Coach not happy

The new national coach, Brazilian Augusto Jose Sabbatini, was not happy for he felt the country should come first," said former national coach Ramana Rao who is coordinating the selection of teams.

According to Ramana Rao, Sabbatini gave Jakhmola an option: "You can go if you want. But don't come back." That is why Jakhmola did not figure in the Rashid tournament though it was held nearly a month after the Military World (June 8 to 19) where India finished fifth.

"I went to Bangalore after the military event but they did not allow me to join the national camp," said a disappointed Jakhmola from Delhi on Monday.

A trial was conducted to pick a new man for the job. "And we have picked Sivarajan and Ashok Kumar. We will be grooming them for the libero's role," said Dronacharya Awardee Ramana Rao. But with the SAF Games in mid-August and the Asian Games in Qatar in December, the move does not inspire much confidence.

India's last medal at the Asian Games, a bronze, came in 1986 in Seoul. The country is also the defending champion of the SAF Games, having won the title in Islamabad in 2004, but the road to Colombo appears difficult.

Gains negated

The two recent losses to Pakistan in the Asia Central Zone event in Colombo in March and last week's Rashid tournament appear to have negated all the gains of last September's Asian championship.

"Apart from service reception, our serves continue to be a problem. We lack variety," said Rajeev, the former Indian captain. "We're watching videos but we have not yet sorted things out."

After years of living in the shadows, Indian volleyball has proved during the last three or four years that it has the potential to stand tall among the Asian giants.

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