There’s no sign of India’s love affair with Sharath Kamal ending any time soon.
The 40-year-old has had a remarkable run in the Commonwealth Games, having won eight medals for the country: four gold, one silver and three bronze medals. For his fifth Commonwealth Games, Sharath has left no stone unturned to try and ensure India puts up its best-ever performance, but recent controversies over the selection process in the lead-up to the event have taken a toll on the players which, he feels, did affect the team’s preparations.
Sharath hopes that the team “can win medals if it puts in an average performance and some gold medals if it puts in a good performance.”
Sharath, conservatively, puts the number of medals to three in events he will participate in.
“Now, I would expect three medals for me. In the men’s team, a bronze medal, and in men’s doubles, a silver, at least for me and G. Sathiyan. In men’s singles, I will be seeded fourth. I will give myself a fair chance of winning a medal. As far as my pairing with Sreeja Akula for mixed doubles is concerned, there is an outside chance of a medal as we haven’t played much together in tournaments,” he assessed.
When asked about the women’s team’s chances, Sharath said: “Manika (Batra) has a good chance to win a singles medal. The women’s team is stable and players have good international experience. Let’s hope for the best,” he said.
Little time to prepare
Sharath said the team hasn’t gelled to his expectations, as there was no time for preparations with all the controversies surrounding the sport. “When it comes to team bonding, it’s been a bit difficult with all the chaos around (suspension of the Table Tennis Federation of India and court cases pertaining to selection issues). The final announcement of the team to the Commonwealth Games came only in June. It’s true that we should have had more camps. The Committee of Administrators has done what could be done best.”
Having seen lots of ups and downs in his career, Sharath said if he does his part of the job professionally, the rest will fall in place. “I have come to realise that if I do my job correctly then everything will be all right. I don’t have to get involved in the chaos,” he said.
Over the years, Sharath has learnt to maximise his potential by focussing on his off-the-table fitness routines. There are only a handful of players roughly of Sharath’s age at the global level who possess the ability that he does, and Sharath knows the importance of the Commonwealth Games to India. “It gets more challenging every time. Commonwealth Games is important in the sense that we will get more funding based on the number of medals we win. For me, it’s an added responsibility [to lead the team and do well myself]. We are focussed. I know that expectations are very high and that brings pressure. I am keen to deliver, the pressure notwithstanding,” he said.
Sharath’s own success at the Commonwealth Games continues to amaze him. He reminisces: “I never thought that in 2006 [Melbourne Games] I would be able to do so well (he won singles gold for the first time and the Indian men’s team won gold). When I look back at the 2010 Delhi Games, I would say I was at my peak. From there to now, it has been a long time. The only constant is that I am still playing well,” he said.
Sharath recalls the day of the men’s singles final between him and Australian William Henzell in 2006. “Winning the singles gold was a defining moment for me and Indian table tennis. The team was pretty young. The entire Indian sports contingent and the Indian Olympic Association officials were there to see my match. In the end, when I won the gold it was a great feeling. In 2006, I believe table tennis got the recognition that it rightly deserved,” he said.
Sharath remembers the 2006 men’s team final against Singapore. “We were not the fancied team. They had Yang Zi, who was ranked in the top 40 then, while Indian players were ranked in the 120-130 range. The gold medal in the men’s team event gave us a lot of confidence,” he said.
In the Delhi Games in 2010, Sharath felt India did well, winning five medals despite the pressure of playing at home. “I believe table tennis got into prominence in Delhi Commonwealth Games and made everyone believe that India can bank on table tennis for medals.”
The 2014 Glasgow Games, where India won just one silver medal in men’s doubles, was “the low point,” according to Sharath. “In the men’s singles, I finished fourth and in the men’s team [event], we finished fifth. It was a big disappointment,” he said.
Explaining the poor show in Glasgow, Sharath said: “After the 2010 Games, there was a slump due to scams and scandals. Moreover, funding became an issue. There was no coach for nearly two years. We were trying to cope. We got a coach close to the Commonwealth Games and it didn’t help our cause,” he reasoned.
‘ Watershed moment’
Sharath felt that the team was at its best at the 2018 Games in Gold Coast, winning a record eight medals. “I would say that the 2018 Commonwealth Games was a watershed moment for Indian table tennis. The team(s) composition was good as it had the right mix of young and old. I was able to lead the team well. Our foreign coach Max (Massimo Costantini) had come back. He helped us get the right exposure and funding. That helped us a lot,” he said.
Backed by Sharath’s experience, Sathiyan’s vigour, and the women’s team led by Manika Batra, the Indian squad would be eager to do well. But it may be reasonable to expect the tally of medals to be less than the Gold Coast haul four years ago.