Indian men strike it rich

Three of the four-member men's team — Shubham Chowdhury (left), Soumyadeep Roy and Subhajit Saha — with the Commonwealth trophy. Sharath Kamal (not in pic.) was the other member of the side. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-Three of the four-member men's team — Shubham Chowdhury (left), Soumyadeep Roy and Subhajit Saha — with the Commonwealth trophy. Sharath Kamal (not in pic.) was the other member of the side. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM

Recently, the Malaysian capital proved more than just a shopping stop for the table tennis players. Sharath Kamal, Soumyadeep Roy and Subhajit Saha joined hands to give India its maiden men's team title in the Commonwealth table tennis championship.

IN the past, Kuala Lumpur has given Indian sportspersons many great reasons to remember. The 1975 World Cup triumph in hockey or Prakash Padukone's 1980 World Cup final triumph over Chinese numero uno Han Jian with an astounding score line of 15-0, 18-16 come to mind. These apart, many Indians have done well at the Asian and Commonwealth level.

Recently, the Malaysian capital proved more than just a shopping stop for the table tennis players. Sharath Kamal, Soumyadeep Roy and Subhajit Saha joined hands to give India its maiden men's team title in the Commonwealth table tennis championship. The icing on the cake came when Sharath and Roy made it to the men's singles final. Sharath proved superior against the man who was instrumental in bringing India the team honours.

The women's team finished a not-so-impressive fourth in the seven-team field before Poulomi Ghatak and Mouma Das claimed the doubles bronze.

Indeed, the most significant was the triumph in the men's final against England. India's 3-1 victory came after Soumyadeep had pulled off his two matches. After Sharath's poor form continued against British veteran Alan Cooke, Soumyadeep did the job expected of him by stopping Bradley Billington. Subhajit Saha, the quiet operator, put India ahead without dropping a set before Soumyadeep returned to stop Cooke in five sets.

Soumyadeep's roaring form and Sharath's bad patch did not leave French coach Hubert Hustache with much choice regarding the playing order. Soumyadeep played `strong' while Sharath struggled to get back his touch and self-belief that saw him win the National title in December. With Saha doing a perfect job of the middle singles, the Indian juggernaut rolled past Wales in the semifinal, notwithstanding Sharath's defeat in the opening singles.

But once the individual events commenced, Sharath looked better while Soumyadeep continued his fine run. The turning point, according to Sharath, was his second-round 4-1 victory over Cooke. Sharath, the top seed, was quick to thank Hustache for all the help. "Ever since Hubert has taken our camps, I can see that my percentage of unforced errors have dropped. He also works a great deal on the mental and psychological aspects of the game. This was what precisely I needed when I was losing those matches in the team events. He prompted me to think positively and that worked for me," was how Sharath acknowledged the contribution made by the French coach.

On the other hand, third seed Soumyadeep was keen to sign off in style. But the law of averages seems to be slowly catching up with him. In the semifinals against Australia's William Henzell, Soumyadeep faced a match-point at 9-10 after trailing 0-3, 1-5 and 6-9. But to the credit of Soumyadeep, he remained collected on the big point and wrested the set. In the remaining three sets, it was Soumyadeep who allowed Henzell 10 points.

Best match

Poulomi Ghatak (left) and Mouma Das claimed the bronze in women's doubles. -- Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

However, in the final, Soumyadeep ran into a far-improved Sharath who played his best match of the competition. Sharath needed less than half an hour to stop Soumyadeep for his fourth victory in six meetings this season. Though disappointed, Soumyadeep was pleased with the role he had played in the team's historic triumph. "I obviously wanted to win the singles title but I think, Sharath played flawlessly that day. For me, the biggest gain is that I know, my game is improving."

Coach Hustache, the 46-year-old who started training youngsters since 18, was all praise for the way the boys lifted themselves up. "I don't look for medals. I look for improvement. Winning medals also depends on the kind of draw you get. Improvement is what I would like to guarantee, not medals. I understand that winning titles and medals are important as they raise the confidence of the players. What I like about Sharath, Soumyadeep and Saha is that they realise that they have a way to go. They are willing to learn and work even harder. But let us not be in a hurry for results. I see they have a capacity to improve, become more flexible and work towards increase of their speed," states the amiable French coach.

Continuing with his assessment of the team, Hustache said, "it is important to observe, modify and check whatever one is taught. With the right approach, in two to three years, they can come closer to some of the big names in the sport. Let's face it, Asian countries like China, Korea, Japan and Taipei are way ahead at the moment. Sharath and Soumyadeep can surely bridge the gap if they continue to learn."

Focussing on the mental aspect of the sport, Hustache stressed on concentration, thinking positively and the capacity to stay focussed on the big points as the key. "Equally important is how to prepare for a match. With a precise routine before a match, one can do better and bring about a big improvement in the results."

All finals:

Men's team: India beat England 3-1 (Sharath Kamal lost to Alan Cooke 6-11, 8-11, 9-11; Soumyadeep Roy bt Bradley Billington 9-11, 11-9, 12-10, 11-8; Subhajit Saha bt Andrew Rushton 11-8, 11-7, 11-6; Roy bt Cooke 4-11, 11-9, 11-8, 7-11, 11-8).

Men's standing: 1. India, 2. England, 3. Wales, 4. Australia, 5. Scotland, 6. New Zealand, 7. Malaysia, 8. Singapore.

Women's standing: 1. Singapore, 2. Malaysia, 3. Australia, 4. India, 5. England, 6. Sri Lanka, 7. Brunei.

Individual men's final: Sharath Kamal bt Soumyadeep Roy 11-8, 11-5, 11-6, 11-8.