The overall standard, exposure and performance of Indian paddlers has improved considerably over the last decade. It reflects in India having earned two medals at the Asian Games, both in 2018.
Still, the Commonwealth Games largely remains the be-all and end-all for the Indian table tennis fraternity when it comes to excelling at multi-disciplinary games. And the manner in which India’s table tennis contingent continued its supremacy in Birmingham from Gold Coast four years earlier proved that Indian table tennis is on the right track.
India — which had toppled Singapore from top of the table tennis medal chart for the first time in 2018 since the sport was included in the quadrennial extravaganza in 2002 — won two medals less in the TT competitions (excluding para table tennis). But the fact that India matched Singapore in terms of the number of gold medals definitely augurs well for the sport.
Despite A. Sharath Kamal stealing the show, the women’s contingent, barring the exception of Sreeja Akula, turned out to be a disappointment.
Here’s the tale of Indian paddlers’ hits and misses at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham.
Sharath Kamal, at 40, stole the show not just at the table tennis indoor hall but also in India’s CWG campaign. To end up being on the podium in each of the four events he participated in — and ensuring the national anthem was played in three of them — was phenomenal, to say the least.
The grand effort by the grand old man also speaks of his longevity. After all, he regained the men’s singles gold medal after 16 years, having won it in 2006 during his maiden CWG appearance.
Besides the golden treble, including an unexpected gold in mixed doubles with Sreeja, the highlight of Sharath’s fortnight was him beating both the higher-ranked players he came across in Birmingham. During the team championship semifinal, he stunned Nigeria’s Aruna Quadri, the World No. 15 who had breached the top-10 mark two months earlier.
Then, in the singles final, Sharath showed his class against home boy Liam Pitchford, ranked 20th in the world, with a convincing win. If only Sharath and G. Sathiyan could have avenged the 2018 loss to Pitchford and Paul Drinkhall in the men’s doubles final, it would have been fantastic four gold medals for Sharath. Still, he ensured that Birmingham 2022 will be synonymous with the bandana king.
Sathiyan’s support role
What he and Sharath could not do in the doubles, Sathiyan did it in singles. Sathiyan earned sweet revenge against England’s Sam Walker against whom he lost in the quarterfinal in 2018. Despite going down to Pitchford at the next hurdle, Sathiyan made a sensational comeback against Drinkhall in the bronze medal playoff to earn a maiden singles CWG medal.
It meant that he ended his campaign with a gold, a silver and a bronze, no mean feat. The only event he returned medal-less was in mixed doubles where he and Manika Batra — primary contenders for gold — made a shock exit in the quarterfinal.
Sathiyan, India’s highest-ranked paddler going into the event, also played a crucial role in the team championship, raising the bar when Sharath suffered from fatigue in the final against Singapore. Harmeet Desai emerged as the unsung hero of India’s campaign, displaying his utility in the team championship. While Harmeet and Sanil Shetty couldn’t repeat their bronze medal heroics in men’s doubles in Gold Coast, Shetty stormed into the singles quarterfinal, stretching Pitchford before losing in five games.
She may have returned with a solitary gold but Sreeja, the diminutive dynamo from Hyderabad, emerged as the surprise package of India’s campaign. Representing India at a major tournament for the first time, Sreeja emerged as the pick of India’s women’s contingent.
Teaming up with Sharath, the 24-year-old, who plays with long-pimpled rubber for backhand, raced to the mixed doubles gold. But despite losing out on a singles medal, it was Sreeja’s glorious run to the semifinal and a thrilling bronze-medal playoff that was one of the brightest spots for Indian paddlers at the Games.
Having made a comeback twice, Sreeja was on the verge of knocking out legendary Feng Tianwei in the semifinal. And the so-near-yet-so-far tale was repeated in the bronze playoff. If she can add the skill of flipping the backhand rubber and confusing opponents even more, Sreeja can definitely emerge as the flag-bearer of Indian women’s table tennis.
Manika magic missing
From being the golden girl who returned with four medals, including two gold, from Gold Coast to returning without a medal, the world came crashing down on Manika Batra in Birmingham.
The lanky girl has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons ever since she became the first Indian woman to make it to the round of 32 at the Tokyo Olympics last year. Her allegations of match-fixing led to the change in the national team’s coaching set-up. Challenging her exclusion from last year’s Asian Championship eventually led to the court-appointed Committee of Administrators displacing the national federation office-bearers. Add to that her decision to partner G. Sathiyan in mixed doubles instead of Sharath just after Tokyo and her frequent change of personal coaches over the last two years.
All of it culminated in Manika putting up a sorry show in defence of her twin titles. With all the other members of the women’s squad being first-timers, Manika was expected to carry the burden of the women’s team title. But her lacklustre performance meant India bowed out of the quarterfinal against Malaysia.
The quarterfinal block persisted in all her individual events. While the second seed lost in straight games to Singapore’s Zeng Jian in the women’s singles quarterfinal, she and Diya Chitale couldn’t make it to the doubles semifinal.
But it was her shock exit in the mixed doubles quarterfinal along with Sathiyan that underlined Manika’s mediocre outing. The top seed pair lost to Malaysia’s Karen Lyne and Javen Choong — again in the quarterfinal — and Manika ended up experiencing the hero-to-zero tale in successive CWG editions.
Patel rap continues in para table tennis
With wheelchair class being included, the Ahmedabad duo of Bhavina Patel and Sonal Patel were expected to continue their heroics from Tokyo. And neither woman disappointed. While Bhavina repeated her gold medal from Tokyo in the C3-5 category, Sonal joined her on the podium with a bronze medal.
With Sharath having deservedly been named the flagbearer for the closing ceremony, India’s supremacy in the table tennis arena was definitely underlined. It is unlikely he would be around till Victoria 2026, and it’s high time Gen Next takes over the mantle from him and the women learn to be consistent to maintain Indian table tennis’ CWG legacy.