WORTH THEIR WEIGHT IN GOLD

The gold-winning performance, the first ever, only goes to prove that with more support from the States and the Public Sector, Indian paddlers are capable of achieving more laurels in the International arena, says K. KEERTHIVASAN.

Immediately after the prize-giving ceremony of the Senior National and Inter-State table tennis championship at Jaipur in February, M.C. Chowhan, Secretary General, Table Tennis Federation of India, walked up to the stage to announce the names of the paddlers who would take part in the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

The mood was sombre then, the top-seed and the favourite Sharath Kamal had lost to Subhajit Saha in the final and India No. 2 Soumyadeep Roy had bowed out to S. Raman in the quarterfinals. Add to that, the TTFI, without any reason, decided to field only four (instead of the customary five) players in the men's section for the Melbourne Games prompting a lot of speculation. Frankly, there was little to suggest that the Indian men's team would win the gold. But the boys were determined to make it memorable as Sharath Kamal would reveal later.

With a no-loss record in the preliminary stage, thereby finishing first in its group and then going on to overcome the likes of Canada, Nigeria and the much-fancied Singapore in the final, India showed that among the Commonwealth countries, it's a power centre in its own right. And the gold-winning performance, the first ever, only goes to prove that with more support from the States and the Public Sector, Indian paddlers are capable of achieving more laurels in the International arena.

In the preliminary phase, India defeated Kirbati 3-0, overcame Saint Vincent and Grenadines 3-0, Northern Ireland 3-0, Australia 3-0, Ghana 3-0 to finish first in its group. In the quarterfinals, India shut out Canada 3-1, Nigeria 3-2 (semi-finals) and Singapore 3-2 (final).

Sharath says: "As a team we have been working for the gold for the last two years ever since we won the Commonwealth Championships in Malaysia. But also we knew that we were not going to be the favourites to win the title. It was obviously Singapore or Nigeria as they have better players. But the Indian team is more balanced. If you take Singapore, it had only one very strong player Yang Zi (ranked 56 in the world) but the others are not that strong. If you take Nigeria, the second and third players are of equal standard, and we are much better."

Soumyadeep Roy turned out to be the match-winner for India. Twice, against Nigeria in the semifinals and Singapore in the final, Roy delivered under pressure to win the do-or-die fifth and deciding game. Roy's National championship performance prior to the Melbourne Games did not in any way show that he could perform exceptionally at the International level. Explains Roy, "Both (National and International) are different cups of tea. I have always done well at the higher level. We, as a team, always knew we could do it. The National camps in Patiala and China were helpful as we planned and trained systematically. Ours is a balanced team. When we beat Nigeria, one of the contenders for the title, we started to think we were in with a chance."

Roy, as his team-mates will attest, is a fighter to the core. His bulky frame may give you other ideas, but at the table he never gives up till the last point. After Roy pulled off a sensational win in the fifth and deciding tie against Kazeem Nasiru, the Indian team's morale got a renewed vigour. Says Sharath: "Our plan was taking the tie to the fifth match because we know that the second player from Nigeria (Nasiru) gets too nervous in the fifth match and Roy is a safe player in the decider."

The widely held belief was that India would lose to Singapore as it had two good players, imported ones from China, in Yang Zi and Cai Xio Li. As if to confirm the belief, India in quick time was trailing 0-2. The third match between the newly-crowned National champion Subhajit Saha (ranking 357) and Jason Ho (ranked 655) was crucial for India. Playing an all-out attacking game, Subhajit drubbed Ho in four games, to give India the lifeline. Sharath then played with passion to script a dramatic win over Yang Zi.

In the decider, Roy overcame Cai Xio Li to send the supporters into a frenzy. The celebrations were contagious. Explains Sharath, "After I lost the second match, I went into the dressing room. I was sure that Saha would win his match. But then I got the news that Saha had lost the first game, but most of them were telling that Saha would win. I was still confident. Saha eventually won the match 3-1. I guess nobody was expecting me to win the fourth tie as he (Yang Zi) is the strongest player in the tournament. He is the highest ranked player I have beaten in my career."

Says Roy on the decider, "I have been the No. 2 for quite a long time since the Chetan (Baboor) days, which means I play the decider. I just told myself not to try too hard, and it worked. The crowd support was amazing and a big surprise. I think since we were the underdogs, we received a lot of support from the crowd."

Team spirit was another key point in the win, and the victory celebrations after the final gave ample indications of the teams' psyche. "The win will help get more exposure and improve our world ranking," says Roy. "Now there will be more expectations and pressure. We will be watched keenly in the future championships."

The Indian women's team, thanks to a great fightback by Mouma Das against Chris Xu in the decider, clinched the bronze, defeating Canada 3-2.