PARTAB RAMCHAND | 28 DECEMBER, 2018
In this cricket crazy nation it takes some incredible performances for other sports to get noticed. Cricket, whether the team wins or loses continues to make the headlines but for any other sport to attract attention the team or the individuals associated with it must finish strongly at the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games or more preferably international meets.
If in the last few years badminton has made a big splash it is because PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth have made waves around the BWF circuit, winning a Super Series title or in the case of Sindhu winning a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics. Viswanathan Anand’s exploits have ensured that chess has a large following.
2018 was a watershed year for another sport which till now has had only a minimal following. Table tennis is not going to be the next big thing in Indian sport but one cannot ignore the significant advances it made during the year. Indeed the showing was quite unprecedented particularly the feats at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games.
In a sensational finish at the Commonwealth Games the Indian men and women’s teams both picked up the gold medal. Adding cheer to the Indian camp was the fact that Manika Batra won the gold medal in the women’s individual event. She also partnered Mouma Das to win the silver medal in the doubles.
The men added to the glory with Sarath Kamal and G Sathiyan winning the silver in the doubles. Three bronze medals in the men’s doubles, mixed doubles and men’s singles (Sarath Kamal) completed the most successful run in the games for an Indian table tennis squad.
It was too much to expect the Indian squad to repeat this feat at the Asian Games a few months later with the competition being much more formidable. But they performed creditably with the men’s team winning a bronze and Sarath Kamal and Manika Batra picking up a bronze in the mixed doubles.To put the achievement in proper perspective this was for the first time India returned home with an Asian Games medal since table tennis was introduced in 1958.
Sarath Kamal who at 36 remains the country’s best player has had his share of international triumphs. He is currently ranked No 31 in the world and has had many years of playing in the German major league competitions. He has no doubt that things are looking up for table tennis in the country. ``At the start of the year if anyone would have said that we will win one let alone two medals at the Asian Games I would have laughed it off,’’ he says. ``It’s been that kind of year, the best ever for me and the best ever for Indian table tennis.’’
Despite the commendable showing of Sarath Kamal and the others the brightest star who emerged during the year was Manika Batra. She spearheaded the Indian challenge in the women’s team event at the Commonwealth Games. Few gave them a chance in a highly competitive field but the Indians girls pulled off a major upset defeating four time gold medalists and defending champions Singapore in the final.
The Singapore women’s team had never lost in the Commonwealth Games since the sport was inducted in the Games in 2002. The highlight of the achievement was Batra defeating world No 4 Feng Tianwei as well as highly ranked Zhou Yihan in India’s 3-1 win in the title clash.
Batra and Mouma Das won India's maiden silver medal in the women's doubles category losing to defending champions Feng Tianwei and Yu Mengyu of Singapore in the title clash. But the crowning glory for Batra came when she became the first Indian woman to bag a Commonwealth table tennis individual gold medal beating Yu Mengyu of Singapore in the final.
The Games turned out to be a dream run for Batra as she won four medals in four events she participated, two of them gold. She also won a bronze in the mixed doubles. And of course in a much tougher field at the Asian Games a few months later she paired with Sharath Kamal to win a bronze in the mixed doubles.
The 23-year-old Batra who hails from the nation’s capital has had her priorities set right from the beginning. After taking up the game at a very early age she turned down modelling offers as a teenager and at 16 she declined a scholarship to train at the Peter Karlsson Academy in Sweden. She studied at college for a year before dropping out to concentrate on table tennis.
It is a move she has never regretted. Currently Batra is ranked 58th in the world but she should be making rapid upward strides in 2019 encouraged by the fact that towards the end of the year international recognition came her way when she became the first Indian table tennis player to win the ``Breakthrough table tennis star’’ award at the ITTF awards function in Incheon.
2019 is going to be a crucial year for the players who hope to compete in several events internationally as they aim for Olympic qualification. With table tennis on the upswing an Olympic medal might not be out of the reckoning.