Sharath Kamal is the pick

PIC: SUBIR ROY

India’s performance in the 19th Asian table tennis championship was more or less on expected lines. Both men and women improved their 2007 standings by one rung. The Indian men’s team finished seventh, while the women’s team was placed ninth.

For the first time since the inception of the team events in 1972, a two-tier format was adopted with the top six nations from the previous edition seeded directly into the Champions Division. This meant they were assured of a quarterfinal berth. For the remaining two spots in both categories, 15 countries in the men’s section and 14 in women’s battled it out in a league-cum-knockout format in the First Division.

The new format came in for severe criticism since it pitted the two eventual qualifiers against the finalists of the previous edition. For instance, in the men’s section, India qualified from the First Division only to run into champion China for a place in the semifinal.

The Asian Table Tennis Union (ATTU) said the purpose of the new format was to eliminate one-sided matches in the preliminary league. However, there was no dearth of one-sided games with countries like Laos, Jordan, Nepal, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh proving easy pickings for some of the stronger nations in the First Division.

Secondly, the format allowed China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong to join the action only on the third day and an opportunity to take the title with three straight victories. During the team events, there were ample indications from the ATTU that it had realised its folly and was contemplating necessary changes in the next edition.

While the Indian women fell by the wayside in the First Division, the men expectedly made it past the league phase. In the knockout stage, India defeated Pakistan (3-0) and Iran (3-2) before losing to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea without a fight. In the playoffs, Korea crushed India 3-0 before the host managed to beat Singapore, playing without its spearhead Gao Ning, 3-2 for the seventh place.

Among the Indians, Sharath Kamal (in pic) was easily the pick. He won his two singles matches against Iran to leave Soumyadeep Roy with the task of pulling off the decider. After running out of ideas and ammunition against DPR Korea, Sharath was in his elements against China. He levelled the match by winning the second singles in straight games against unranked Wu Hao. He again raised visions of making it 2-2 by coming within two points of beating the three-time world champion, Wang Liqin. However, the world No. 5 eventually won 13-15, 8-11, 11-9, 12-10, 11-6.

Soumyadeep Roy, back with renewed vigour after missing out the last season following a knee-surgery, showed signs of improvement. With Subhajit Saha unavailable due to injury, the Indian team looked a shade weaker.

The less said the better about the women’s team. The leading trio of K. Shamini, Mouma Das and Poulomi Ghatak appeared strong against lesser teams before Thailand delivered a crushing 3-0 blow.

In the open event, only Sharath and Sourav Chakraborty reached the third round. Sharath ran into the rising Japanese star and world No. 11, Jun Mizutani, and surrendered rather tamely in four games. Hong Kong’s Ko Lai Chak blanked Sourav.

In the mixed doubles, the Indian combinations made up the numbers. If Poulomi Ghatak and Mouma Das entered the third round of the women’s doubles, Sharath Kamal and Sourav Chakraborty reached the same stage in the men’s doubles.

Overall, the event was a good opportunity for the Indian players to test their preparations — that are in full swing — for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Under Italian coach Massimo Costantini and National coach Bhawani Mukherjee the short-listed Indian probables had been training in Pune and in China in short stints besides taking part in pro-Tour events like the English Open before taking part in the continental championships.

“Our first aim is to help the top three men’s players to raise their world rankings so that India’s ranking goes up ahead of the Commonwealth Games,” said Costantini. He went on to explain: “At present, India is ranked fourth behind Singapore, Canada and Nigeria among the Commonwealth nations. If India succeeds in reaching the second spot by August 2010, then we safely avoid meeting Singapore in the semifinals.”

This is a realistic assessment and Singapore appears to be the clear favourite for the team gold at the Commonwealth Games.

Overall, only Sharath gained from the quality of opposition he faced while most Indians did little to rise above the ordinary.

Rakesh Rao