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How a volleyball league is attracting young players from rural Assam

The participation in the ongoing Brahmaputra Volleyball League has risen to 2,200 players, and could prove to be a launchpad for village children

The inaugural match between Dharamtala and Xarihachakala under-16 girls village teams. (BVL)

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On a football ground in Assam’s Jorhat district, nine girls, aged 10-16, are practising for a volleyball match. The girls from the Monomoy tea estate village turn up daily for the two-hour practice, twice a day. Their excitement increased once they made it to the under-16 district qualifier match in the ongoing Brahmaputra Volleyball League (BVL).

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The girls, who were introduced to the sport only in 2020, were set to represent Jorhat district. “We will be competing with three other districts. If we beat them all, we will reach the super league,” says coach Probin Munda, 28, who himself trained in the sport only when the pandemic first hit.

The Monomoy tea estate village team is one of 209 teams taking part in the BVL, which began in November and will end on 25 January. In its second year, the grass-root level sports initiative is gaining steam, with participation having increased from 50 teams from 35 villages in season 1 (2020-21) to 209 teams from 93 villages in the ongoing season 2. There are, in all, 2,200 players.

Four under-16 and under-21 categories each for boys and girls are divided into the district, zonal (32 teams in eight zones) and super league (eight teams) level. There will be a total of 489 matches—over 350 have been played so far. Due to the current covid-19 restrictions, the super league matches will be held in four villages rather than at one location. Four teams will compete in each village.

The seeds of BVL, the brainchild of Abhijit Bhattacharya, a former captain of the national volleyball team, were sown during the lockdown in 2020. As everything went online, Bhattacharya initially started teaching—virtually—the basics of volleyball to three college youths from three gardens, Monomoy, Diha and Ghoghramukh, where his cousin, a retired college teacher, was conducting classes for younger children on mobile phones.

“My cousin recommended these three youngsters, who sort of went on to become the coaches in their villages. None of them knew about volleyball before. I would record and send them videos on posture, basic techniques with cloth balls, including the underhand routine, which they would then teach the children. I would then check each child’s progress via a video call and make corrections where needed,” recalls Bhattacharya, mentor to the Kolkata franchise team in the Pro Volleyball League (PVL). 

After three months, he organised an underhand competition between youngsters from the three tea estates, through a Zoom call. This proved to be a launch point, giving him the confidence to take the initiative further.

In the BVL, each team plays two matches to qualify for the next round—one on home turf and the other in the opposing team’s village. The under-16 category that is seeing the highest level of participation, especially from girls, has teams of four players each, with five substitutes. The under-21 teams have six players, with six substitutes. 

“The quality of players is better in under-21 since the players have some experience with the sport. However, the league is a good exposure for the under-16 category and helps us nurture a talent pipeline,” says Bhattacharya.

An employee of the oil and gas firm ONGC, Bhattacharya says: “Volleyball is a low-cost game; you just have to invest 2,500 (for two volleyballs and a net) to start playing. It’s also a sport where injuries are less. So, it’s a great way to introduce village kids to the sport. My goal is to popularise the sport in Assam and create a talent pool that can be part of the Indian team, who can play in the Olympics one day,” says Bhattacharya.

Though it’s still too early to gauge the impact, the BVL not only offers exposure to children who have never stepped out of their village but is nurturing a sense of community ownership and engagement. 

Match dates, for instance, are fixed in consultation with villagers to ensure they don’t clash with functions or festivities. The host village takes care of the hospitality of the visiting team, arranging the ground, resting area, contributing ration and cooking the lunch on match day. 

“It encourages players and villagers to interact and get to know each other better,” Bhattacharya says. For instance, a teacher from Duliajan in Dibrugarh district has started hosting weekend matches at his school’s ground, and fellow teachers are contributing to lunch and refreshments.

Debajit Deka, coach of Barbari village team giving a pep talk during the match.
Debajit Deka, coach of Barbari village team giving a pep talk during the match. (BVL)

Sponsorships, especially from individuals, are beginning to trickle in. It helps that the amounts needed are not too large. Team sponsorship, for instance, costs 12,000. This includes the transport cost and personalised player kits comprising a team jersey, a small backpack and sanitary pads for the girls’ teams.

This year, Bhattacharya, with the help of a school friend, Amitabh Atriya, has partnered with the sports platform Sportvot to broadcast the matches live through its app. Team organisers have come up with their own way of doing this, with cellphones perched on bamboo tripods to telecast. One person oversees the video recording, another handles the live score update. 

ONGC is now going to pitch in with 930 balls and 93 nets for the informal coaching centres, along with tracksuits and kit bags for all the players. “It will help with the practice sessions,” says Bhattacharya.

Bhattacharya says team owners from states like Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have approached him to implement similar initiatives in their states. “Over a period of time, I am hoping we will have a talent pool that can supply players to the (PVL) league,” he says.

Meanwhile, Munda’s team lost their second match at the zonal level, dashing their hopes of reaching the super league. “It’s a big achievement for the team to reach the zonal level itself. Just seeing their progress makes this whole initiative worthwhile for me,” says Bhattacharya. “The children are sincere and regularly come for practice. It has given them lot of confidence,” adds Munda.

The best part of it all for Bhattacharya, though, is the interest parents are showing in the initiative. That gives him hope.

Read: How covid-19 killed grass-roots sports in India

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