Keith Elliott At Large: Volleyball captures an indoor beachhead: Wintry Wolverhampton's answer to Bondi Beach is playing host to two women seeking gold for Britain at the 1996 Olympics

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The Independent Online
THE LIGHT is so bright it hurts your eyes to glance skywards. Volleyballers, clad in shorts and brightly coloured shirts, do battle on the powder-fine sand. Palm trees, their fronds drooping in the windless air, watch like disinterested spectators. Surfboards and beach balls rest against the trees as 'Ride the Wild Surf' blasts out over the scene. Welcome to Bondi Beach, Wolverhampton.

Wolverhampton? Come on, there can't be many places in Britain further from the sea. Trees (let alone palms) are as rare as parking spaces in Dudley Street on a Saturday morning. The only local sand is in builders' merchants. And anyone riding through town with a surfboard on top of a car would immediately be branded as a southerner.

But it's true. In darkest Dunstall, the staff of an indoor cricket centre have transformed a grim industrial unit into the United Kingdom's first beach volleyball court. It started only a couple of months ago, but there are already leagues running every night. And this unlikely setting could even bring an unexpected bonus for Britain in the 1996 Olympics, when beach volleyball becomes a medal sport.

The man behind it all is Steve Grainger, who wanted to add another dimension to the cricket and football that are the centre's staple fare. 'We were looking for a popular sport that could be played indoors all year. Beach volleyball was perfect because it is a fun sport that anyone can play. Teams don't have to be of two players: they can be anything up to 10, which makes it fun for the less fit.

'It offers scope for other uses too: we have a large ethnic population, so kabbadi is a definite possibility, and we are even renting the beach out for discos and parties. You can put on a pair of Bermudas and believe you are at the seaside.'

But Bondi Beach (yes, it really is called that) is not just for the bucket-and-spade brigade. Britain's top women beach volleyball players, Audrey Cooper and Amanda Glover, have been travelling from London to Wolverhampton every week to practise for next week's grand prix event in Miami, and for Commonwealth Games qualification in Malta early next year.

'This is really a godsend,' Cooper, 29, said. 'It's ideal for our winter preparation. Without it, we would not have been able to train on sand because the weather is too cold. But it's just like on the beach. It really has a very good atmosphere.'

The idea of participating in any sport reliant upon our beaches and British weather (whatever happened to those doom-laden predictions about global warming giving us the climate of the south of France?) seems faintly ridiculous. But beach volleyball, lousy summers notwithstanding, is thriving.

The Weymouth Grand Prix, for example, now draws more than 100 teams of two. Tournaments all over England during the summer attract crowds of up to 1,500. But until now, the sport here has shut down until it's warm enough to venture outside - unlike the United States, where there are even beach volleyball courts in a Dallas car park and a Chicago bar.

Cooper is probably Britain's best woman player, although she is fairly short at 5ft 6in. A Scot from Washburn who moved south a few years ago, she has been playing indoors since she was 12 and was picked for the Scottish senior team at 16. Player of the year in 1992 and winner of the British Grand Prix, she finished 13th out of 16 at the grand prix tournament in Brazil with Glover earlier this year.

That may not sound very impressive. But it is the first time a British team have beaten anyone at beach volleyball, never mind some of the best teams in the world. Their successes included victory against the Cubans, who are world indoor champions. It earned them dollars 800 (pounds 540), quite a prize in a sport where they usually have to pay their own way. But there's big money for volleyball superstars. The US has a pro circuit, regularly screened by Sky Sports, and top players like Karch Kiraly have become millionaires through beach volleyball.

Although still a member of the six-a-side British indoor team, Cooper finds the beach game, for pairs, more appealing. The women's team manager, Marzena Bogdanowicz, said: 'She is by far our best 'setter'.' Indoors, players will be 'diggers', who pass the ball to the 'setter' or playmaker, to position it for the 'hitter'. On the beach, players need to be experts at all three.

Although the beach ball is softer, the court is the same size. Trying to jump, twist or run quickly in sand is like playing in treacle. 'You have to work much harder for each other,' Cooper said. 'It is more demanding - but more skilled and more satisfying too.' Beach volleyball is also less likely to cause injuries. Cooper said: 'I don't get many bruises now because you learn how to roll and dive - but I still wear a back support indoors.'

Bogdanowicz believes that Wolverhampton will benefit the sport massively in this country, and there are plans to open a similar facility in London. Grainger is delighted that his artificial palm trees and 100 tons of sand have drawn such a good response. 'Perhaps we'll even get an EC Blue Flag for our clean beach,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)