The Sri Lanka Men’s U23 Volleyball team took wing to Ardabil, Iran, to take part in the 2nd Asian Men’s U23 Volleyball Championship in early May.

The tournament, which commenced on the 2nd of May was preceded by a training camp of about 3 months, however still resulted in disappointment for the Lankans as they could only bag 10th place.

In the group stage, the Sri Lanka team had to compete in group D, facing up to the likes of Japan & Thailand. This was disadvantageous to the Lankans as the allocation disregarded the fact that the islanders were competing for the first time. The likes of Australia and Kazakhastan, who were ranked similarly to Sri Lanka did benefit from the draw however, as their groups were far more balanced.

“We got the toughest out of all the groups. The fact that Japan came second and Thailand came fourth makes this very clear. Even though we lost, we offered very good competition in both games”, said Sri Lanka coach Channa Jayasekara.

Even though Sri Lanka failed to progress beyond the group phase, Pakistan, a country that regularly suffers defeats at the hands of Sri Lanka, achieved a respectable sixth place finish as the luck of the draw meant they had only two teams in their group, meaning they qualified regardless of a loss.

The Team

The U23 team is considered as the feeder side to the national team as the natural progression is to the fully fledged national side following their ascension from the U18 & U20 age groups.

The team who played in this Championship has a good track record coming into the Asian Championships and even had a few Silver medallists from South Asian level and also included a number of junior nationals and also a few youth Olympians.

The leadership of the team was entrusted to Ayesh Perera while vice-captaincy was held by Danushka Dilshan. They were joined by a talented group in the form of Mahesh Wannigama, Nadeepa Lakshan, Isuru Madushan, Shehan Lakshitha, Haritha Hashan, Shashika Lakshan, Nishan Madushanka, Harshaka Silva, Rohan Madushanka, all of whom have represented the country at some level.

The team, which was selected by a five member panel, may have lacked complete consent from the coaches as there is a shortage of more experienced players.

Coach Channa futher stated that, “The panel didn’t come and watch a single practice session before selecting the 30 member team.” further learns that the captain and coaches were absent in the team selecting process, thus violating protocol. The team did however receive the tutelage of coaches Channa Jayasekara, Chaminda Jayarathne and Jagath Sanjaya prior to their departure.

Once in Iran, the Libero player Harshaka Silva refused to eat the local food as he is a vegetarian. As a result, Nadeepa Lakshan, who is an offensive player, had to take his place, robbing the side of a potent asset.

“We requested four additional players to join the training group but the request was not granted. That was absolutely necessary as our setter fell ill during our training period. We weren’t prepared and so lacked an alternative”, said coach Channa.  

May 2nd – Japan v Sri Lanka

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Japan, who were 4th in Asia, was a team that displayed top draw play from the get-go. Given that Iran offered a favourable climate to the Japanese with the nature of the venue, this as a result put the Lankans at a disadvantage.

Japan made no mistake dispatching the Sri Lankans in straight sets, going on to win 25-11, 25-17 & 25-13. It was clear throughout the game that Sri Lanka lacked tall imposing players in the team and that is exactly what went on to be the deciding factor at the end of the game.

Confirming this, coach Jayasekara said, “We lacked tall players in the shape of Sameera Nishanga today. He’s a player we’d have liked to have but the panel didn’t select him. Even though we wanted the final team by April 12th, we only got the list on the 20th.”

Tall players are few in Sri Lanka’s ranks, so the decision not to take any of those players cost Sri Lanka dearly over the course of the tournament.

May 3rd – Thailand v Sri Lanka

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This was a must-win game for the Sri Lankans if they were to qualify for the next round of games. Thailand, a rising power in the Asian Volleyball circuit had previously presented stern opposition to Japan, taking them to a five-setter prior to losing out.

Sri Lanka managed to surprise the Thai side by nabbing the first set 25-23. After storming to an 18-21 lead in the second half, Sri Lanka threw away the lead as Thailand came storming back to grab the set 25-21. Thailand then went on to win the next two sets 25-19 & 25-18 to take the match 3-1.

Coach Jayasekara said, “The lack of a libero player really affected us. They analysed us well. We threw the game away in the second set after leading 13-12.”

May 4th – Uzbekistan v Sri Lanka

Sri v Usb 1Sri Lanka faced the Uzbeks in a ranking match, having failed to qualify for the second round of matches. Heading into the game as underdogs, the battling Sri Lankan outfit missed out on the first set, losing 20-25.

Uzbekistan ensured that they further stamped their authority in the next set, winning comfortably, 25-16.

Sri Lanka came back into the game strongly at this point, winning two hard fought sets with slender margins of 26-24 & 28-26. They then went on to nick the final set 16-14, giving the team the whole match as a result.

May 7th – Uzbekistan v Sri Lanka

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Three days later, the two teams faced off once again, this time to determine who will occupy the 9th and 10th spots in the final standings.

Having lost out earlier, the Uzbeks had done their homework and ended up winning comfortably in a 3-0 whitewash with score-lines of 25-23, 25-21 & 25-21.

As a result, Sri Lanka had to settle for a meagre 10th place in the standings.

Uzbekistan is a good side. They defeated Kazakhstan and even took Chinese Taipei to five sets. Australia was placed last and that shows just how high the standard of the tournament was, so we can’t really blame the players,” said coach Channa Jayasekara.

Sri Lanka fail to compete internationally in terms of physical prowess, but can match any team when it comes to skill. Unfortunately, this performance adds more dark memories of failed quests for glory by the national team at yet another foreign tournament.

These experiences however, are bound to hold these lads in good stead, & there is no reason to blame these boys given they are playing the sport they love even without receiving any payment.

“We can definitely bring in results. If Pakistan can come 6th and if we can take Thailand, a team that beat Taipei, to five sets, we can definitely get to around 4th or 5th in Asia. Our team represents a nation, so in any case, we can only be successful if the federation and the selection panel, all come together to work for the greater good,” said coach Jayasekara.

U23 Captain Ayesh Perera said, “We need to train a little more. We also need to develop the analytical side of our preparation. If we do so, we can go far.”

Volleyball today is completely different to what it was. With the establishment of new techniques and analytics teams, and also the co-operation of all stakeholders, the game can be improved immensely. If we do so, showing the strength of the national team to the world will be more than just a dream.