Cometh the hour, cometh the man! In what turned out to be the most nail-biting game of the RuPay Prime Volleyball League (PVL) season so far, Ashwal Rai, captain of the Kolkata Thunderbolts, came up trumps to steer his side over the line against the Calicut Heroes in Hyderabad on Monday evening.
In the first match to enter a fifth set tiebreaker in the PVL, the Thunderbolts, partnered by The Telegraph My Kolkata, were practically out of the game in the last set before last-minute heroics from Captain Fantastic gave them an unlikely win, capping off a PVL debut that nobody is likely to forget anytime soon.
If this is what the PVL can deliver day in and day out, the City of Joy can only have one response: “Bring it on!”
Rai rises to the occasion
Ashwal Rai stamped his authority on the evening by emerging as the match winnerCourtesy: Kolkata Thunderbolts
Prior to the action, Rai had been billed as a player to watch. At 6’6”, the Indian international combines power, speed and panache in a way few others in the tournament can. Alongside his physical attributes, his knack of picking the right moments to step up in big games has served him well throughout his career.
One such big moment presented itself with Calicut establishing a 7-4 lead in the decisive fifth set. Ajith Lal’s super block seemed symbolic, the kind of move that knocks the stuffing out of opponents. But the Thunderbolts, and especially Rai, are made of sterner stuff.
For large parts of the fifth set though, Ashwal’s army could not get going. An open court hit went amiss before what looked like a winner from Rai turned into a point for the Heroes as he happened to touch the net.
With hope and points running out, a mini-miracle was required. And a mini-miracle is what transpired. After blocking off a super point from Calicut, Rai hit a thumping winner into the centre of the court to bring the Thunderbolts within a point of the Heroes. Seconds later, Rai did it again to draw the teams level. When Lal, also delivering a stupendous performance, missed his winner, the golden opportunity was Rai’s. Hit a winner and the match is sealed. And hit a winner he did, smashing another shot right into the centre court to wrap up a spirited victory for the Thunderbolts as they clinched the fifth set at 15-13. No prizes for guessing who was named man of the match.
Ashwal Rai collects a much-deserved man of the match awardCourtesy: Kolkata Thunderbolts
A topsy-turvy encounter
Even before the match had got underway, Calicut received a jolt, with star player David Lee ruled out due to a side strain. Kolkata won the toss and chose to receive first.
Led by an inspired Rai, the Thunderbolts dominated the opening exchanges, even though the scoreline did not reflect the gulf between the two sides in the first set. Service errors gradually crept in for the Thunderbolts, but their towering skipper did enough to ensure that they took the first set 15-13.
Calicut dominated spells of the game but lacked the killer instinct to put the Thunderbolts out of the contestCourtesy: Kolkata Thunderbolts
Calicut responded with gusto in the second set, before a net touch swung the momentum back in favour of Kolkata. Rai, clever enough to draw the blockers towards him, allowed teammates to come up with winners for a change.
A potential turning point arrived when the Thunderbolts called for a super point, only for Vinith Kumar to fire wide. With service errors flowing like water from the Thunderbolts, Jerome Vinith nailed his serve, kissed the ball and handed control back to the Heroes, who closed out the second set at 15-12, with a bludgeoning winner from Lal.
Lal took matters into his own hands, quite literally, in the third, firing one winner after another. But the Thunderbolts managed to weather the Lal storm before pulling away with their own clinical attackers. The crucial third set went the Thunderbolts's way at 15-10.
The Thunderbolts and the Heroes put up the best match of the PVL so farCourtesy: Kolkata Thunderbolts
Needing to take the fourth set to stay in the match, the Heroes went up a gear, with Jerome Vinith leading from the front. At the halfway point in the fourth, Calicut led 8-5, before Lal unleashed beast mode to stave off a Thunderbolts comeback and hand the fourth set to the Heroes at 15-12.
Ultimately, however, it was to be Rai’s evening. Nothing could hold back the 29-year-old from scripting the first great chapter of what the Thunderbolts wish will be a fairytale debut season in the PVL.