Harish, a lanky boy with an air of complete concentration, suddenly turns a somersault. His foot connects with the ball, which sails over the net as he lands in a crouch. Moments later, he jumps up and passes the ball to one of his teammates with his head.
The game is sepak takraw, a Malaysian sport often described as a cross between volleyball and soccer. This is not Malaysia but a park near a sunblasted stretch of road in Majnun ka Tilla, in north Delhi. The six boys playing, and the dozens of others watching and waiting their turn, have come here because of an NGO called Stairs. Seven days a week, it organizes after-school sports in underprivileged pockets across India's capital. Some of the children will have the opportunity to play in regional tournaments and a talented few may become national-level players.
Stairs runs 28 sites throughout the city as part of the Uflex Khelo Dilli campaign. ("Khelo Dilli" is Hindi for "Let's play, Delhi!" and Uflex, the sponsor, is a packaging company.) It is now into its second year, and reaches more than 5,000 children, according to Stairs founder Siddharth Upadhyay.
Upadhyay was playing cricket on his rooftop a decade ago when he had an idea. He had just settled into his chosen career, public relations, and reflected on his own experience as a promising amateur cricketer later sidelined with a back injury. He credits team sports with his success and sees them as a vehicle for reaching troubled youngsters who might otherwise cause a nuisance in their communities.
"You don't have to motivate children to play sports," he said. "Without the need for lectures, individualism starts moving away, they respect others and have a sense of belonging."
As a test run, he would go to a field with some equipment and soon found 40 or 50 children who regularly played with him. His company, Mavcomm, is now profitable but at the time he struggled to find the money to register Stairs as a non-profit. Since then Stairs has had success organizing cricket camps and tournaments in partnership with Reebok, as well as in running a youth sports tournament in the state of Himachal Pradesh.
The Olympic season is a reminder that India lags in developing athletes. Individual Olympians, like the American swimmer Michael Phelps, have won more gold medals than India has in its entire Olympic history. (All but one of India's nine gold medals have been in men's field hockey.) India won just six medals in this month's Olympics, none of them gold, prompting British commentator Theodore Dalrymple to praise India in the Wall Street Journal for being "indifferent" to the games. But of course Indians are not indifferent to international sporting events — look at the roughly $2 billion spent on the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
Though Malaysia is just across the Bay of Bengal, promoting sepak takraw in cricket- and field hockey-mad India is a challenge. Even well-known Olympic sports like volleyball and soccer have a profound skills deficit because of inadequate funding and training opportunities.
Tarun Roy, a soccer coach and former international player, said that "If football [soccer] received one tenth of the funding of cricket, we could do anything."
But perhaps it takes much less than that. Upadhyay's goal for Uflex Khelo Dilli was a "self-sustaining" model that privileges dialogue between community volunteers and management to avoid the failure of similar efforts to promote sports. Because of low equipment costs, volleyball, basketball, and sepak takraw are the chosen games. Each site is supported by a mix of volunteer coaches, community members, and paid staff who bring equipment and advice. Upadhyay argues that the key is that volunteers and the community see progress being made.
The youth players, who might otherwise never have had the opportunity to play a sport regularly, have the benefit of working with experienced coaches who monitor their development and help them get recognition for their talents.
Watch: Sepak takraw match organized by Stairs in New Delhi on April 29, 2012 (1 min., 27 sec.)
Like volleyball, sepak takraw requires little equipment: a net, a ball, and boundary lines. The three players on each side of the court, roughly the size of a badminton doubles court, can only use their legs, chest, and head to put the ball over the low-hanging net. The ball is now synthetic but stills looks like the hollow rattan it replaced.
Sepak takraw is currently only played at Majnun ka Tilla, while the other sites focus on volleyball. The challenge is finding qualified sepak takraw coaches, says S.N. Goswami, the Chief Volunteer at Stairs.
It isn't an Olympic sport, but has been played in the Asian Games since 1990. The sport's two powerhouses, Malaysia and Thailand, have won gold and silver medals respectively in the team competition the last four Games. This makes it unlikely that sepak takraw will ever figure into the Olympics (a tongue-in-cheek proposal recently made here on Asia Blog).
At Chandrawal, also in north Delhi, two volunteer coaches, both former national-level volleyball players, hose down the dusty court. One of them is Pawan Choudhury, a hulking man with a crew cut and booming voice. His imposing appearance is softened by his pink track bottoms and unfailingly kind words.
"You have to pay attention to the younger children," Choudhury said to no one in particular as the senior boys played. "You can really support them to get better."
Most Uflex Khelo Dilli sites have electric lights to allow play at night when the heat is less oppressive. Other arrangements are more ad hoc. At Majnun ka Tilla, in a glorious display of jugar (a Hindi term meaning "making do with what's available") a bench was held against the post and someone climbed it to reposition the net. Within five minutes, the sepak takraw court had become a volleyball court. At Choudhury's site, goats that wander onto the court must be chased off. Sometimes the ball rolls down a lane and play stops until it can be retrieved.
"But the lights stay on, and there’s never a problem with electricity or water here," Choudhury said proudly.
The same model is being used in villages across the state of Himachal Pradesh and in neighboring Haryana where, in the last three months, Stairs has opened 111 centers out of a projected 250.
"The target is to make them play: that's it. If we provide the platform, then talent will come out very strongly on its own," Upadhyay said.