Table tennis has always played second fiddle to sports like cricket, football and tennis in India, but somehow it has managed to keep its existence amongst the din of its much-fancied competitors. The game has always enjoyed popularity in pockets like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Delhi, but it never managed to reach the farthest corners of the Indian landscape. However, lately, the sport has been some emphasis in the country with the recent streak of commendable performance as we progress in the year 2019.
It is to be noted that Kamlesh Mehta was one of Asia’s top-ranked players during the 1980s. But we remember him mainly for the eight national titles he claimed during his prime.
Chetan Baboor was the poster boy of Indian Table Tennis for quite some time, especially in the 1990s. Apart from his national titles, he won a couple of medals at the Commonwealth Games. Chetan was the only entrant from India in Men’s at the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games but never managed to get past the first hurdle at the mega event. He reached a career-high rank of world number 68 before he called it a day in 2004.
Indian Table Tennis was stagnant was for a few years with no one to carry forward the baton. It got a real push once the phenomenon named ‘Achanta Sharath Kamal’ came into the reckoning.
The paddler from Chennai took India to the international stage at a greater magnitude than any player ever. The gold medal win in the Men’s category of the 2006 Commonwealth Games was a landmark in Indian table tennis.
There was no looking back for the dashing player as he reached a world ranking of 30, the highest by an Indian back then. Sharath, along with players from West Bengal like Subhajit Saha, Soumyadip Roy, Mouma Das and Poulomi Ghatak formed the cream of Indian table tennis in the first decade of the 21st century. Players like Anthony Amalraj, Sanil Shetty and Harmeet Desai also played their significant roles. But it would be unfair not to mention that Sharath Kamal was in a different league, he was way above his other country mates!
Just when Sharath and Co. had played out their best years, a new bunch of talented players took centre stage. Among the new faces, Delhi girl Manika Batra and Chennai boy Gnansekaran Sathiyan emerged a class apart from the others; the duo was all set to re-write the history of Indian Table Tennis. It was not only a tale of the two players, but also a revolution of the sport in India. It was a time that we shifted our focus to the sport, which has a widespread appeal around the world. Table tennis is one such discipline which always gets neglected, but it seems sunny days have finally arrived.
Even though Manika Batra had won many international titles since 2014, her claim to fame moment was the remarkable Women’s singles gold medal win at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. It was the first time that an Indian woman won an individual medal at the global meet. She also inspired the women’s team to a historic gold medal finish at the CWG.
The 2018 Asian Games was a tougher ask for the Indian. Even though she was eliminated in the round of 16, the bronze medal in the mixed doubles event along with legendary Sharath Kamal was a commendable achievement for India.
On the other hand, Gnanasekaran Sathiyan was equally gaining prominence in the world arena even though he did not taste success in the individual categories at neither the Commonwealth Games or the Asiad. His ventures in the Asian Cup speaks more of his ascent in recent times. Sathiyan finished at the sixth position, while he was also the only player to reach the round of 32 at the World Championships in Hungary. He had his biggest career win at the Asian Cup by edging past world no. 14 Chun Ting Wong of Hong Kong with scores of 12-10, 10-12, 11-5,11-6, 11-8 in the 5-8 positions match.
The improvement in the quality of the players was not an overnight effect of a magic wand but was a process which took a few years to reap the results. Lack of proper exposure was one of the root causes of India’s poor show at big-ticket events. It was a massive leap once Indian players started to feature in the European Leagues, especially in the German Bundesliga. The franchise-based Ultimate Table Tennis has been a stepping stone for budding paddlers who got an opportunity to brush shoulders with the best in the business. The experience was invaluable. The players made sure that there won’t be a ‘David and Goliath’ affair if an Indian is on the other side of the table.
India is no longer a minnow when it comes to Table Tennis; the present batch has got what it takes to compete at the top level. They are capable of giving a run for the money to any player today. Although we might not get a world champion soon, we should remain optimistic about climbing up the ranks steadily. Manika Batra is currently ranked 68th in the world, while Sathiyan is at the 24th spot, the highest ever ranking by an Indian. Not being too positive, but we can at least expect a rise in the number of kids taking up Table Tennis in the upcoming days.
We are just more than a year away from the biggest sporting spectacle in the world, the Olympics. All the eyes will be glued to the television sets once it kick-starts in Tokyo. Although wrestling, shooting, badminton, archery and boxing remains India’s medal prospects, we are expecting to see improved performance by the paddlers, even though a medal is unlikely, let’s keep our fingers crossed!