It is an expensive sport

A world-class paddler uses a pair of rubbers for only one match during competitions and a pair each week for practice. A pair costs between Rs. 3000 and 7000, equal to a 100 gram bar of pure silver! By Uppuluri Krishna Murty.

Table tennis needs quick reflexes and more brain than brawn perhaps. A ball is hit with a racquet across a 6 inch high net that divides a 9 X 5 feet rectangular table into two equal halves. The maximum recorded speed of a racing ball is about 120 kmph, while the spin can reach levels of about 9000 RPM (rotations per minute)!

The weight, size or other dimensions of a TT racket are not directly specified. For the one blade and two rubbers that make a racquet, there are 1000 models of the former and about 8000 authorized versions of the latter to choose from! A low-end bat costs about Rs. 400, while a top-of-the-line customised piece can set you back by Rs. 25000 !

Players mainly use five types of racquet surfaces. Originally, orthodox rubbers had pimples facing outwards. Now, more than 90 percent of players prefer the inverted rubber, wherein the pimples turn inwards. The maximum permitted thickness of an inverted rubber is only 4 mm, including the adhesive and sandwich sponge, as against 12 mm popular in the past.

Then come the so-called ‘funny rubbers' — short/long/medium pimples and the anti-spin kind. Based on aspect ratio — length/diameter — pimples are categorised as long, medium or short. During the last decade friction-less pimples, made of slippery rubber and offering no grip, became a rage. Delhi/Petroleum Sports Control Board (PSCB) paddler Neha Aggarwal's climb to the top was swift, but following a world-wide ban on the type, there was a sizeable slide in her rankings.

The two-colour rule stipulates black and red shades only for the racquet's faces, other hues once permitted, but now banned. Hungarian Tibor Klamper's speed glue revolutionised the sport but was prohibited after the substance was found to be carcinogenic. Then came the Speed Glue Effect (SGE) rubbers! Spring Sponge, Bios Tensor and their advanced variants are some of the innovations in rubber making.

A top 10 Indian player who used the speed-glued Yasaka Mark V rubbers priced at Rs. 1300 a pair before the 2008 speed glue ban, now employs Butterfly Tenergy with a price tag of Rs. 7000 per pair, indicating a whopping, over 500 % escalation of costs! At the global level the Chinese are far superior and mainly use made in China products.

Rubbers are stuck to blades with glue sheets or adhesives free of volatile organic compounds (VOC), found to be poisonous, if not cancerous. Racquet surfaces are tested either before or after a match for thickness, glossiness, flatness, VOC content, ITTF authorization and post manufacturing tampering such as priming, tuning or boosting, which are means to modify/soften sponge/rubber, thereby illegally increasing spin.

A world-class paddler uses a pair of rubbers for only one match during competitions and a pair each week for practice. A pair costs between Rs. 3000 and 7000, equal to a 100 gram bar of pure silver! In stark contrast, an automobile tyre made with 20 kgs of quality rubber and required to endure hugely harsher conditions, costs about Rs. 2500 ! Of course, a national level player extracts much more mileage!

TT rubber manufacturers are mainly from China, Japan, Germany and other European countries. DHS, Friendship, Donic, Stiga, Joola, Andro and Tibhar are some of the leading labels, Indian brands being just marginal players in the world market.

Many players are throwing a lot of money in search of that elusive ‘right equipment'! For bare necessities — rubbers, blades, shoes, glue and accessories — a player needs at least Rs. 5000 per month. If we add diet supplements, club fees, commuting to the club, coach / trainer fee, travel, accommodation and other incidental expenses, the total costs can be staggering.

Costly equipment is one of the entry barriers. What drives costs of TT rubbers? Is it the supply-demand gap? What value addition converts a lump of raw rubber worth Rs. 10 into a sheet of TT rubber costing Rs. 3500? Can we not make cheap but top quality TT equipment in India to support the player community and promote the game?

The ITTF has done its bit to broad-base the sport, the ban on foot stomping and hidden serves being just two of them. Frequent changes in equipment and strict adherence to specifications thereafter, gives the impression that manufacturers are indulging in back-seat driving!

The world body must do some soul searching on why the game's popularity isn't picking up or is unable to match that of other indoor sports. What steps need to be taken to make table tennis a) affordable, b) popular, c) sponsor-friendly d), above all, spectator-friendly, are some problems it must address on a war-footing.

The author is Assistant, South Western Railway TT Team