Indians looking up

Sharath Kamal... clear-cut views.-ROHIT JAIN PARAS

With fresh, keen paddlers in the fray, much is expected of India. What are the realistic goals? By K. Keerthivasan.

India’s top paddler, Sharath Kamal, is walking with the help of crutches now. Unable to play in the finals of the European men’s table tennis championships due to the injury he suffered during the World championships, Sharath, in all probability, will hit top gear by August.

Recovering in Germany, Sharath had some comments on his career representing India for the last 12 years, what ails Indian TT and the team’s (men and women) modest show in the Worlds among other things.

The 32-year-old, ranked 32 in the world, said the Indian men’s team is in a good position to play in the first division (top 24 teams). “At the World championships since I have been in the National team (for 12 years), we have been quite stagnant. My first World team championships in 2004, we finished 27th and in the recent years we are around the same position. Probably now, in the next few years, there can be an improvement of positions due to a stronger team we have with (Soumyajit) Ghosh, (G.) Sathiyan and Harmeet (Desai). Hopefully, we would be able to play the best 24 teams in the coming world championships, which is a long awaited wish personally,” he said.

Sharath was scathing at the lack of basic infrastructure in the country. “We lack basic infrastructure facilities throughout the country except for a handful of (good) training centres,” he said. “The halls are too small with too many pillars mostly, bad flooring and many other problems. And the second reason is that the growth of knowledge for table tennis is very minimal even when everything has become so global. Since I have been playing with the National team, we have had seven foreign coaches, which personally for me is far too many in such a short period. We have not got much information as far as playing techniques or developing a system for professional players are concerned from these coaches who have come from countries with a very good table tennis system.”

Sharath was not hopeful of any development in the awareness of the game among coaches and players. “Coaches and player awareness on how the game is played professionally is one aspect we have been lagging behind for a long time now and I don’t see any possibility of development,” he said.

Soumyajit Ghosh, G. Sathiyan (below) and Harmeet Desai (down) ... engendering hope.-S. S. KUMAR

Though it was a modest performance by the Indian men and women teams in the Worlds — Sharath entered the third round and in the process climbed to World No. 32, his career-best ranking — Ghosh upset the higher-ranked Aruna Quadri (World No. 38) of Nigeria in the first round, a performance that saw the Indian improve his ranking from 104 to 95 in the world. Sathiyan reached the second round shocking the World No. 63, Par Gerell, of Sweden.

This is the first time that two Indians are in the top 100 in the world rankings. Three Indian women — K. Shamini, Mouma Das and Manika Batra — also entered the main draw of the World Championships, a first in many, many years.

“It is really heartening,” said Kamlesh Mehta, a former international player and now an Indian selector. “This shows the self-belief and confidence the players have in their abilities,” he added. According to Kamlesh, who is now 55 years old and had reached the third round of the World championships in 1983, India has picked itself up very well after the poor showing in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. “It was due to the hard work and determination of our players,” he said while reiterating that it was “no flash in the pan.”

“For the first time ever,” Kamlesh said, “three players each in the men’s and women’s sections had entered the main draw. We have the potential and are capable of much more.”

Sharath, who has been in good form this year, beating three top 20 players in the Asia Cup in Jaipur and following it up with an equally gritty performance in the World championships, attributes India’s good showing to professional training. “Ghosh has been training in Europe for the last four to six years in a very good environment and that’s quite the same reason for my performance too. As for Sathiyan, he has turned pro since last year and with the funding from the State (Tamil Nadu) Government, he has been able to build a good environment around him. It’s just constant quality training that has helped us improve,” he explained.

The Indians, according to Sharath, have been steadily improving and the rankings are a proof of that. While Sharath and Soumyajit are among the top 100 in the world, two Indian women, Manika Batra (142) and Ankita Das (186), are in the top 200. This has never been achieved before. He said that even in the absence of top players such as Harmeet Desai and A. Amalraj, Indian men performed beyond expectations in the Worlds and this reflected the depth of the team.

Sathiyan is of the view that if the players improve their rankings, there is a good chance of India competing in the first division of the 2016 World team championship.

Arup Basak, one of India’s coaches in the World championships, said, “In my experience as a coach, I have not seen Sharath play so well at this level. He was at his best.” According to the former National champion, Indian men do have the potential to reach No. 15 or 16 in the world team rankings, but the presence of Chinese in many teams makes the task difficult. “Austria has two Chinese, Italy has two, England has one... Otherwise we can come within the 15-16 positions in the team event,” he said.

S. S. KUMAR

Bhawani Mukherjee, a senior Indian coach, said that he was happy that the players’ objective of improving their world rankings had been achieved.

Former players and coaches say things are bound to improve, but it would be foolhardy to expect miracles from the team.

They believe that the current Indian men’s team has the ability to push for a place in the first division in the Worlds in the near future, while the women’s team has the ability to pull off an upset or two.