Punching above its weight

Tamil Nadu sprang a surprise in the Inter-State Championship by entering the final. The men behind TN's surge were Sivananda Seshadri (left), G. Vinod (centre) and R. S. Raja.-Tamil Nadu sprang a surprise in the Inter-State Championship by entering the final. The men behind TN's surge were Sivananda Seshadri (left), G. Vinod (centre) and R. S. Raja.

The TN men's team at the Inter-State Championship didn't have any player ranked in the top 20 in the country, yet it reached the final vanquishing superior teams such as Assam and Gujarat. And according to the TN chief coach, V. Ravi Venkatesh, it was a “wonderful team effort”. By K. Keerthivasan.

Though not among the top-ranked players in the country, the three paddlers of the Tamil Nadu men's team — Sivananda Seshadri (National ranking: No. 32), G. Vinod (No. 61) and R. S. Raja (not ranked) — helped their side achieve what the State couldn't do in the last 21 years: reach the final of the National Inter-State Table Tennis Championship in Lucknow recently.

The last time TN reached the final of the championship was in Kozhikode in 1990. The team, comprising Subramanian Raman, Chetan Baboor, J. Premkumar and N. Ravichandran, lost to Petroleum Sports Control Board 3-2.

In Lucknow, nobody gave TN any chance of making it past the qualifiers, let alone entering the finals. “It was a wonderful team effort,” said V. Ravi Venkatesh, the chief coach of Tamil Nadu. “As a team, the players jelled well and supported each other,” he added.

Shedding further light on TN's improved performance, the coach said that the draw was favourable to his side as it didn't have to face tough teams such as West Bengal, North Bengal or any of the Institutional sides. “We were in the bottom half of the draw, so we avoided PSPB (Petroleum Sports Promotion Board) and RSPB (Railways Sports Promotion Board). We had an even chance with the teams we faced,” Ravi said.

TN topped its group, defeating Maharashtra ‘B', Chandigarh and Himachal Pradesh as even the other members of the team, L. Sachin and S. Prasanna, got to play a few matches in the league stage. In the first match of the knock-out phase (pre-quarterfinals), TN edged past Assam 3-2, then defeated Haryana 3-1 in the quarterfinals before conquering Gujarat 3-2 in the semifinals.

TN, however, lost to PSPB 3-0 in the summit clash.

Seshadri turned out to be the star of the TN team. The 22-year-old employee of the Food Corporation of India didn't lose a match till the final. He defeated higher ranked players and in the process proved why team events continue to intriguing affairs.

Another important factor that contributed to TN's good performance at the Inter-State Championship was the flexible approach of its paddlers. Though Seshadri was the team's No. 1 player, he played as No. 2 or No. 3 in a few matches. It was an approach that confused the opponents, who were left guessing as to what sort of combination TN will come up with.

Fabulous streak... Petroleum Sports Promotion Board players with the trophy after beating Tamil Nadu in the final of the Inter-State championship .-SUBIR ROY

“In the pre-quarterfinals and semifinals, we played Seshadri as the No. 3 player taking into account the strengths of our opponents and the head-to-head record between our players and theirs,” said Raja. “We were firm in our decisions and our ploy worked.”

At one stage in the semifinals, TN was staring at defeat as Gujarat led 2-0 with Devesh Karia beating Raja and Harmeet Desai overcoming G. Vinod. In the third match, Seshadri was down by two games and three match points in the third against Jignesh Jaiswal. However, the Chennai lad fought back remarkably to defeat Jaiswal in five thrilling games. Thereafter, Raja beat Harmeet Desai making it 2-all. Vinod then closed out the match with a hard-fought 3-2 victory over Devesh.

“The win over Assam in the pre-quarterfinals gave us the much-needed confidence,” said Seshadri.

In 2010, TN had lost to Assam, which had the same set of players as in this edition.

“In the absence of Sathiyan (TN No. 3) and Nitin Thiruvengadam (TN No. 2), we took on the responsibility. The coaches, too, encouraged us in our decisions,” Seshadri said.

Elaborating on the role of the three players, Ravi singled out Seshadri for his fine showing. “I always believed Seshadri had the potential. He started to believe that he had the capacity to beat the top players only after the National Games in Ranchi last year.”

Talking of Raja, Ravi said the youngster was at his attacking best against Gujarat's Harmeet Desai in the fourth tie. “To beat Harmeet Desai, who has made phenomenal strides in the last few years, is really great. Hats off to Raja,” said Ravi.

The chief coach described Vinod as a mercurial player. “I believe he is one of the best stroke-players in the State. He has great speed. He literally flies on the table,” said Ravi.

The key to TN's good performance was the inter-dependence of the three players. “If one failed, the others rose to the occasion,” he said.

Will Tamil Nadu have a similar run in the future, or is this just a one-off occurrence? The State association, if it chooses to be a bit flexible and open to reason, can ensure that the team does well consistently at the Nationals.

In the current TN team, nobody is ranked in the top 20 in the country, but still it managed to reach the final. But that doesn't mean TN can do well with the same team next year too.

The omission of G. Sathiyan and Nitin Thiruvengadam doesn't send the right signals. The two players, ranked No. 7 and No. 13 respectively in the country, represented PSPB in the Youth Nationals. TN's contention was that since they represented PSPB in the Youth Nationals, they can't represent the State.

When Soumyajit Ghosh (who represented PSPB in the Youth Nationals) played for North Bengal in the men's team event and Harmeet Desai (who too represented PSPB in the Youth Nationals) played for Gujarat in the team event, why couldn't Sathiyan and Nitin play for TN?

* * * PSPB'S run continues

It recruits the best of paddlers, takes care of the players' needs and their welfare. No wonder, the Petroleum Sports Promotion Board (PSPB) is considered one of the best employers in India.

The 73rd edition of the National and Inter-State Table Tennis Championships in Lucknow saw the PSPB win the men's team title for the 10th time in a row and 18th overall. Winning has become a matter of routine for PSPB. With players of the calibre of A. Sharath Kamal, A. Amalraj, Soumyadeep Roy and Subhajit Saha, there is hardly any team capable of halting PSPB's run.

PSPB blanked surprise finalist Tamil Nadu 3-0 to claim the Barna Bellack Trophy. The three singles matches were all lop-sided affairs and were completed in an hour. Sharath Kamal, Amalraj and Soumyadeep Roy overcame R. S. Raja, G. Vinod and Sivananda Seshadri respectively.

While Maharashtra ‘A' upset PSPB in the women's semifinals, the men's unit had a smooth ride, brushing aside its opponents with ease.

The results:

Men's Team Championship final: PSPB beat Tamil Nadu 3-0 (Sharath Kamal bt R. S. Raja 11-6, 11-7, 11-8; Amalraj bt G. Vinod 11-5, 4-11, 11-8, 11-9; Soumyadeep Roy bt Sivananda Seshadri 11-9, 11-8, 12-10).