Behind the pitiful scenes of Meghalaya's table tennis
From having to practise next to a puja mandap to being rewarded Rs. 800 if you become a State Champion, hosts of the Table Tennis Nationals - Meghalaya, aren't doing enough to promote the sport, players and coaches feel.
"What we are asking for right now is simply the basics, anything after this will be like an icing on the cake," Tanushree Das Gupta, who captained the Meghalaya women's team for the 83rd Senior Table Tennis Nationals is quick to confess.
Meghalaya's capital, Shillong played host to the 83rd Senior Table Tennis National Championships at the SAI Indoor Training Centre recently that saw veteran paddler Sharath Kamal lift his record-making 10th title. But starkly enough, one can easily hand-count the number of players the host state has - a meagre 20, who don't have a proper place to practice even.
For one, do they have a proper place to practise? Well, not really, unless you consider a puja mandap with a lone table with a mat floor. Or a 64-year-old Tirot Singh Stadium that is on the verge of being axed down soon, to fit your bill.
Where do they go after this? They don't know - and this is just the trailer of what the situation really has brewed into.
Sans proper courts, trainers, coaches, physios and mock-prize money on offer given the low level of participation from the rare State Championships and Ranking tournaments, Meghalaya's table tennis is also sans any organized structure with no serious attempt being made to groom from the grassroots levels.
Toil and trouble
With well-trained, Olympian players from all across the country flocking to the Nationals and given the mayhem of Meghalaya's table tennis, it was hardly a surprise to see no players from the host state make it to the knockout stages, gaining nothing favourable from playing at 'home'.
"We didn't know we'll be hosting the tournament till 40 days before the event. Our players hardly have any facilities here. Despite the budget being a whopping Rs 1.5 crores for organising the National Games, barely 1% of it was spent on prepping our players for the tournament," Kamesh Gareri revealed exclusively to The Bridge.
"At the National level, the competition is very stark. We have players coming from all across the country, with Olympians like Sharath Kamal, Manika Bartra, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran - of course, we are not even close to their level," Kamesh mentions, highlighting the jarring disparity.
"It's pretty ironical. We were the hosts but we got no such home advantage. In fact, the allocated place for our practice was the Tirot Singh Stadium which doesn't have a mat and the tables are old and damp. So our players trained for 15 days in totally different conditions and played in a completely separate one," Kamesh explained with a wry chuckle.
"The balls played differently on that surface (at Tirot Singh) and at the Nationals, we were playing on brand new tables and whatever was happening with the ball was magical for us - we didn't know what to expect with the new conditions," Tanushree mentioned.
"We thought we would go and practise in the venue for a week or so. But then we felt like we came from some other state and we are playing in the hall for the first time but I don't know who to point a finger at here, it's pretty sad," she continued.
The strife doesn't really halt there.
"We just have one place where there is a mat and a proper table set-up but it is actually a puja mandap area," Suranjit mentioned.
"We didn't even have a washroom to use when we would practice there earlier, imagine how difficult it was, especially for female players," Tanushree continued, recalling her struggles.
Lack of a table tennis culture
So, if you are from Meghalaya and on the off chance that you want to pursue table tennis in a serious fashion, it's inevitable that you will have to literally move from the mountains and go elsewhere to train - because the state has no such facilities to hone the talent.
For Tanushree, summer vacations since 2010 meant going to Siliguri, West Bengal to train while Suranjit also took admission to a Kolkata college to pursue table tennis in a proper academy there.
Meanwhile, Tanushree, who is in the final year of her undergraduate Sociology degree, New Delhi became the hub of her practice in 2019.
"There are several issues in Meghalaya, for one we don't have a regular set of coaches. Most are part-time coaches, no one is willing to spend a lot of time," Tanushree mentions.
"The oldest coach, Mr Bania, played a key role in shaping table tennis here. But after his death some five-six years ago, things have only deteriorated here. There isn't anyone to train the kids from the basic stages."
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Assam, the table tennis set-up is much more organized and Tanushree elaborated, "In Assam and elsewhere wherever I have trained (New Delhi and Kolkata), the coaches are more involved. They know how to promote the sport and even the seniors come and practice with them, the culture and interest are there," she explained.
"Actually what happens, most people stop playing table tennis after Class 8 here and shift their focus to academics. But unlike other states, like Assam, where the seniors keep coming back and train sometimes with the juniors, over here if they have left the sport then that's it, there is no looking back," Tanushree said sadly, indicating the high dropout rate.
Towards a player-driven approach
Kamesh, whose work involves this handful of 20 is obviously perturbed with the state of affairs given how he was also a player from Meghalaya.
"It's not like they can't promote the sport or they don't have funds at all. The approach has to change to a more player-driven and be one that stands to benefit the players first."
"For events like the Nationals, these players don't need only 15-days of training but rather 15-months of solid training given how much they are lagging behind."
"To expect results, you should separate the Organisation and Preparation Committee, first off. The Preparation Committee will concern themselves with the players and the coaches only and work towards a common goal," Kamesh suggested.
"You can't directly expect someone to become Manika Batra, you can't bring changes from the top. You have to start at the grassroots level, the schools - start with 10, if you will, but start at least," Kamesh, earnest, makes his point.
"To reach that level, we need a proper place to play, sparring partners to play with, a qualified coach, a physiotherapist, a trainer and a nutritionist. These are things which most academies in the bigger cities now have," Tanushree illustrated.
"Some people criticise us when we don't win even after training outside but they need to understand the difference in levels we have to tackle," she continued.
"It's like taking your Class 10 exams directly after studying for just one year while all others have been preparing it for more years, the ground is not level," she candidly confessed.
Negligence — wasted potential?
While cricket and football are steadily gaining popularity and even badminton academies are coming up, table tennis gathers dust despite acting as hosts to National level tournaments.
This is not to say that this North-Eastern state has no potential for the sport.
"Only a few years back we had a youngster called Adarsh Om Chhetri who gained all his basic knowledge from Meghalaya but was lucky enough to be spotted by PSPB (then in Ajmer) and taken up by them. Soon he went on to become the India No. 1 in U-16, isn't that something," Kamesh revealed.
"But he trains in New Delhi now and has had to shift there since Meghalaya didn't have those similar opportunities at home," he continued.
Moreover, the low number of table tennis players also makes for a weak competition field with no motivation also present in the team, especially with no such lucrative rewards on offer.
"We would have 2 State-rankings and 1 State Championship. We would get money for the Ranking tournaments but only a medal and certificate for State Championships."
By money, the figures are jarring, to say the least.
"A State Champion gets Rs. 800 if they win," Kamesh mentions. "And in the U-12, if you win, you get Rs. 150."
On the other hand, certain Northern India states offer their State Champions with cash rewards as high as Rs 22,000, showcasing just how harsh the divide really is.
With a limited pool of players in Meghalaya, the money also doesn't accumulate enough for the prize money to collect itself but that said, there haven't been any initiatives yet to promote it either, which is a big reason for the high dropout rate.
"The easiest way to promote any sport in the country, as is with table tennis, is providing cash prizes to the players…the players would also like it and work more, improve and try to win," Tanushree mentions, disillusioned about when the changes will finally arrive.
"Before the North East Games, we'd like this attitude to change so that our players can also perform and surpass expectations at the Games, give us the basics at least," Kamesh emphasised again.
Lying tucked away in the far north-east, Meghalaya's table tennis is in a state of despair, caught in a fog all of its own. With the North East Olympic Games lined up next and the Meghalaya Games ensuing now (albeit in poor conditions), it remains to be seen if any socks, at all, are pulled up and a second thought is spared for table tennis.
Or like the soon-to-be-demolished Tirot Singh Stadium, all dreams of the aspiring and current players will further crumble into debris.