Kids need access to affordable infrastructure

In a southern state's recent ranking table tennis tournament, where facilities were excellent thanks to the sponsor, there were only 16 entries for the women's singles event and 32 for the men's. In one semifinal, I was the only spectator apart from a couple of players cheering their team-mate.

With so many diversions today, TT is certainly not first priority for kids. To find a foot-hold it has to fiercely compete with other easily available forms of entertainment. Only those who think they have some chance of winning play, while others do so under parental pressure. Many are not playing long enough, while the highly practical and pragmatic, quit early.

The biggest problem in India is there are very few serious players in the game. Population-wise, we are only second to China, but we are dwarfed by our neighbour's player pool. Only through a bigger player base and thereby stiffer competition can we produce world beaters.

Game earnings

Earnings of professional paddlers have certainly gone up over the years in India, thanks to the Table Tennis Federation of India's (TTFI) good work in promoting the game and finding sponsors. Despite this, in absolute terms, the prize money is not much, which one can make a living out of. Today while a top 100 India player earns Rs 2000 from a play-day, a Ranji cricketer makes 20 times as much.

Bengal Premier League (2008 & 2009)

The ONGC-sponsored Bengal Premier Table Tennis League was held in 2008 & 2009, with seven teams in the fray. Each team had four men and three women players. This was on an all-teams-play-all-teams format. Almost all the leading Bengal paddlers, many of them nationally ranked, played for different clubs.

Clubs active at the national level in football such as Mohun Bagan and East Bengal fielded their own teams. Top players were paid about Rs. 24,000 for a season and junior players, Rs. 12,000.

Each team was required to play six matches in a season, with no prize money in the inaugural year. Rs 5000 for each winning team player in the following year would have met recurring costs and was no princely sum for sure.

Though these matches were organized by Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, both well established clubs with a lot of resources and experience, there were hardly any spectators. Players, their guardians and a couple of their friends only would come. After two years, the sponsor backed out for lack of mileage! The league was wound up after 2009, a disappointing development.

Badminton Leagues

Badminton leagues have come up in Karnataka and Maharashtra, wherein players make about Rs. 75,000 per season. These leagues, successful and well organised, can offer some light at the end of the unending dark tunnel for table tennis.

Coaching standards in India

The standard of coaching at the basic level is abysmal, experienced champions not even willing to venture into the business, for it does not pay and not only in monetary terms. Hardly fulfilling, coaches need to deal with politicians, bureaucrats besides other frustrating factors, which the mentors would like to avoid, the effort simply not worth it.

In Indian academics, college/university toppers do not become teachers, going for jobs instead in business, marketing or banking. In table tennis, former champs lend their names to coaching centres simply to stay in the loop. They do not actually teach or coach, delegating these roles to others.

Learning from someone, who was not top notch, means no sound basics or right match temperament and tactics. A few former champions who do teach, quite disappointingly hark back to the “When I was playing” days, straightaway rendering themselves obsolete! Few trainees like such coaches, who lack attitude and the right approach.

Quick results syndrome

Another problem is that young players want results too soon. The players themselves, often innocent children, their parents and their coaches seek their wards' success as cadets or sub-juniors.

When they become juniors, they stop playing and retire, as they need to prepare for competitive exams and professional courses. TT certificates get players seats in coveted colleges, ironically ‘liberating' them from the game!

More younger players train hard for eight to 10 years (between ages 10 to 20) and suddenly give up as they take up more rewarding pursuits. At competition venues, it's mostly veterans or kids, not many in their twenties or thirties! There is focus on winning at a young level but little to match that for the senior stages. We want results early.

Table Tennis has been made a priority game by the Government of India. Not much has been actually achieved from that initiative. Tournaments in India

The existing format of district /state/national championships is a little outdated. We need clubs and inter club competitions. The big difficulty is that we have almost no really strong, well organized clubs to conduct adequate daily training. The club format should spread to all metros and other big cities.

Not many of us believe there is hope for change. Some Indian universities, particularly those in the south, are well known abroad for their courses. They should offer sports quota seats to paddlers. We can perhaps attract good TT player students from China and other Asian countries. That would help improve standards in India.

Infrastructure at affordable cost is the most essential thing. They are accessible to the rich and elderly recreational players. These segments hold little promise for the future.

Kids need access to affordable infrastructure. To encourage top juniors to dedicate their life to a sport we need to offer them something in return. Should it be a rewarding and long term job? Big prize money at tournaments? What are the motivators?

Striking contrast

Professional table tennis leagues, active in Asia and Europe, are basically inter-club competitions, played on a league cum knockout format. Such clubs recruit players from all over the world. Typically, in these leagues teams of comparable strength are placed in distinct categories.

Obviously the Chinese league is the world's strongest followed by the Bundesliga, the German League. It's no exaggeration if we say that the Chinese league is tougher than the Olympics or the World Team championships. China can easily form half a dozen teams of equal strength with any of them capable of beating national teams of many countries.

Leagues also flourish in North Korea, Spain, Japan, France, the Gulf nations and Russia, among others. In Germany, table tennis is listed at No. 10 in popularity behind disciplines such as football, handball, and gymnastics.

It is not necessary that giant sized stadia are required to promote TT. Bundesliga matches are held even in medium sized indoor venues with a capacity for about 500 spectators. Tickets are priced in the range of Rs. 1000 to Rs. 1500 per day. World Team Championships and other events are conducted in bigger facilities with space to house up to 50,000.

Often many TT lovers do not get tickets. The most recent World Team Championships in Dortmund, Germany were watched by packed stadia spectators. The venue had a capacity of 11,000. Every inch of advertisement space in these stadia was booked by a variety of businesses, thus making it a viable proposition.

Chetan Baboor played successfully in the Swedish League and benefitted immensely. Now India's top ranked paddler Sharath Kamal and National champion Amal Raj are playing in the German League.

The latter played in the Slovakia League previously. Other Indian players who were active abroad at one time or other were Zubin Kumar and Pathik Mehta in the Spanish League and Soumyajit Ghosh, Harmeet Desai and Sathiyan in the Swedish League.

Uppuluri Krishna Murty, Assistant, South Western Railway TT team