Three Steps to Glory


Warburton Cup Final – Thu, 18th April 2013
Heaton ‘E’ (Bevitt, Brooks, Hilton) [handicap 37.5]
Vs Hilton ‘H’ (Lawrence, Spibey, Smart)
Venue: Hilton Centre, 7.30pm

Red. A deep red. Like the Ali Sami Yen stadium. The walls of the Hilton Centre can disturb a player, wash his or her mind with hell-like images. IS THAT A PLAYER OPPOSITE OR BEELZEBUB? I’M SURE I SAW A HORN. Above sit forty two strip lights – a 6 x 7 gaze up at the Gods, the stars, or times tables with the kids.

I look around, peer at the players already here. Bevitt – beach shorts, brown work socks and ghetto trainers – warms up with Brooks (red top, grey/white hair, suitcase-carrying hands). I expected Greenhalgh tonight, Heaton’s regular player but they have opted for the wise head and formidable past of Brooks who has 30% more in the locker. Sensible. Very sensible.

Their revised no.3, John Hilton now enters the court. He has the calm deportment of a doctor; this a casual trip out, away from the wards, crying patients and enquiring nurses. He is resplendent in tank top, grey t-shirt, belted jeans and Steve Martin trainers. Someone shouts YOU’RE NOT WEARING THOSE JEANS?! to which the Doctor just shrugs, smiles, as if unable to find his kit but not concerned. He has whiter hair than Brooks – some accolade – yet still retains a certain disco fever with large gold watch and ring.

We are nearing ‘dawn’ for this showdown. The opposition enters. Lawrence – like an assassin all in black. Spibey – centre parting, squaw-like, demure, a red-band keeping her hair tied back. Smart – standard red top, black joggers, nerves seeping through a little. A female SAS to some, with Lawrence as Wing Commander.

We know the order of play (1×2, 3×1, 2×3, 3×2, 1×3, 2×1, 3×3, 2×2, 1×1) and so Bevitt and Spibey enter the fold. The former has kept away from this league fixture (season 2012/13), is therefore relatively unknown, potentially dangerous, without a genetic print. Spibey shows an initial wariness through that famously skittish expression of hers (something that should have been purged eighteen months ago given her win percentage). She is fidgety, not used to the modest crowd – the blush and flush of youth strangling a large portion of her natural game.

Bevitt starts. A couple of low, flat, cagey serves. 2-0 up. Effective. Riding high. He then handles the first Spibey serve. 3-0. Like a dream. Beauty and the Beast with the Detroit Tigers man (check out that faded, dapper t-shirt!) proudly roaming the table tennis jungle. Spibey crouches down, does her trademark hand-close-to-the-table multiple bounce with the ball, the 40mm celluloid pop – whatever you want to call this cataclysmic sporting invention (its white matte and 0.9 coefficient as significant as Edison’s light bulb). The ball streaks across. Bevitt fluffs it. “Ahhh, rubbish,” comes the soft lambasting, but Adele has her first point of the evening. Necessary. Urgent. Now for that belief!

11-7. 11-9. Spibey’s backhand flicks are still not delivering. She looks rusty, out of sorts and Bevitt is a worthy early leader with some phenomenal angled drives. Time to enter the 3rd game with a different tactical head. Less gung-ho from Spibey, more circumspect – lengthening the rallies, choosing her shots. The Assassin, Lawrence looks at her. No words, but she knows she has to turn it around. Christ – nothing miraculous, but she storms into a 6-0 lead. 10-0. Now she’s playing with flair, gunning Bevitt down with her fly-swatting forehand. 11-1. Relief.

Sweat appears on Bevitt’s head like a man stood under a leaking gutter. He wipes himself down – towel to hand, Murrayesque, aware of the need for grip, good vision and aerodynamics. Keen to make amends after the disgrace of the 3rd, he starts impressively. 5-0. A mirror image of the last. Then 5-1 after a well-executed angled chop from the young woman opposite. 7-2. Still in pole position. Spibey bounces the ball on the floor, thinking, thinking HOW HAS THIS COME ABOUT? A net cord drops in to force it back to 8-6. She’s skating again, motoring, but too late. Bevitt pulls into the driveway with a firm 11-7. Thirty-four points each but Heaton’s handicap gives them a net lead of four. Bevitt is congratulated by his team mates. Spibey continues the demonstrative gestures: hiding her face behind her bat; head in hands; spinning round as if in search of her game; two fists up to her chin; biting her bat. She is annoyed. Generally annoyed. Too many misses. And she’s yet to settle.

The Doctor takes his place. Hilton Vs Lawrence next up. There are slight, limbering jumps from the Assassin. He feels good, confident against the unassuming man before him. A deadly first serve down the right with extra spin and cut reinforces this. 4-1 if you turned away. Hilton seems fearful, his game shaky – far too hesitant in his shot selection. The technical simplicity of Lawrence is undoing him. 11-7. Over. Hilton is cheating himself. I have seen the graceful deceptiveness of his shots in Victoria Hall and this is not him tonight.

A pet talk from Brooks – his Roman-emperor face trying to assert some quiet authority. Hilton listens then meanders over to the table. A tentative start, but 1-0. He quickly loses his way though. 5-2 down. And then a slow slump to another 11-7. Brooks nods at him. HANG IN THERE. USE A DIFFERENT WEAPON.

It just isn’t happening. A looper from nowhere though deep into the 3rd game, his arm suddenly recognising the stage. Game point (10-9). A chink of light for Hilton. Bang. Bang. Bang. The Assassin was never a kindly gent. 12-10 to Lawrence.

There is certainly not the magic of Bevitt/Spibey to this match. It feels more like a holiday friendly in the forests of the old Yugoslavia. Something unreal about it, too carefully sculpted. Guarded shots, malfunctions in the wrist. Perhaps Cup Final night has shredded them a little, sapped them of energy. 7-3. Beautiful forehand from Hilton. 8-6. Placement shots letting him down. Damn it. I feel for the man. I can’t look. Don’t throw it away. ****. ****. ****. 11-9. Safely home. The Doctor salvages a game.

Brooks Vs Smart. A tester. Brooks – post-shoulder op’, eyes on the wane, ex-Division One so I hear. Just back from his holiday home in Turkey (although I’d swear he flip-flops through Florida). Smart – a subtle effervescence to her, watchful, with dark piercing eyes. A careful chopping game gets Brooks on his way. 6-1 before we’ve settled into our plastic chairs. The Smart forehand is slack, not its usual self. 8-3. 10-6. The first ‘let’ of the night due to a menacing but wayward ball from the Brian Gittins Cup final on the adjacent court; hard for the eyes not to wander in times of drought. Smart hits four consecutive points. Brooks wobbles a little (10-10). Shell shocked (10-11). The pressure, the intensity, the cool head see him through though. 13-11. Ooohhh.

Thoughts of the trophy, the importance of the evening, perhaps start to fill Smart’s mind. Her footwork is slightly amiss despite the excellent prodding backhands. 11-4. 11-6. Brooks is in control. Three games up and a decent haul of points. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THIS MAN? He doesn’t have the power of Bevitt, or the youthful skill of Spibey, or even the lugubrious, dark veil of Lawrence. Experience. Knows his way around. Able to read the terrain like a discerning nomad. Not the last game (6-11) which included the best rally of the night – point to Smart – but it’s a decent 41-32 win.

They’ve all had their first run out now. What follows is number-crunching madness:

Hilton         Spibey        25 – 41        (11-8, 9-11, 1-11, 4-11)

Bevitt          Smart          38 – 38        (11-9, 8-11, 8-11, 11-7)

Brooks        Lawrence    38 – 37        (8-11, 8-11, 11-9, 11-6)

Hilton         Smart          33 – 44        (11-9, 8-11, 11-13, 3-11)

Brooks        Spibey        28 – 36        (11-8, 11-6, 2-11, 4-11)

272-305 Gross. 309.5-305 Net (including the full handicap).

Heaton ‘E’ have a slight edge. It’s all down to Bevitt and Lawrence; the man who mutters, curses himself quietly, chides his own play and the Assassin, deep in thought, mindful of his glasses not slipping down his nose due to the perspiration.

“Come on.” “Watch the ball.” “Nnnooooo.” “Rubbish.” A few stock Bevitt phrases.

None of the above from Lawrence. Just concentration. A mute, torpedo-like manner.

IT’S BEGUN!!!! 8-11. 4-11. 11-5. The Heaton E ‘net lead’ is down to an excruciating 1/2pt (yes – half of one point). Winner takes all: last game….

Landslide-like bombing forehands are woofed across the net. Amazing. Then greedy. Back to amazing. Lawrence into the net. 4-1 healthy start from the resurgent Bevitt. Wide Lawrence winner (4-2). Big miss from Lawrence… LOOONNNGGGGG. LOOOONNNGGGGGGGGG. 7-3. The Assassin finds something…draws on some latent gas tanks, super-chargers, vein-enhancers, mind-turning positivity. Four straight points. Alas…7-7.

Ingerson is chewing my ear. Sat in the audience. Christ – back off. Back off. This is history. HISTORY. Has Bevitt thrown it away? Perhaps not. The gilded promise of yesteryear returns. A superlative forehand to his right. 8-7. But – ahhhhh! Inexplicable. AGAIN. A missed shot to the left. 8-8. Lawrence paws at his glasses amidst the sweat, the slippery focus, the mire before him. Back to level but can he even see?

A tragedy for either one of these gents, their teams, their kin folk. Whoever loses ought to be carried aloft, squeezed through the internal doors; into the car park and beyond, paraded around town as a giant of the table tennis community. YOU REMEMBER IT? THE 9TH MATCH, THE 36TH GAME AT 8 A PIECE. 3 STEPS TO GLORY.

Bevitt stares out across the 9-foot swamp – Lawrence’s bat has become a frogman, an able diver. LET IT BE, JOHN. JUST LET IT SINK. It does. 9-8 to Bevitt. The Assassin then somehow freezes – hits a short one into the net. 10-8. NEARLY THERE, DETROIT! A spinning, sliced shot to the left from Lawrence. Looks good. Looks…..OUT. OUT!! MISSED!! I hear you. 11-8. Bevitt has done it for Heaton ‘E’. He has ridden the merciful yet torturous chariot over the line, shown his stamina to the crowd, regaled them with his vocal spasms. Hail Dave Bevitt! Hail John Hilton! Hail Mel Brooks! Respect to Hilton ‘H’ – gross masters yet unable to turn the tide (pulling back 34pts – 4 shy of a net victory). They must feel like Al Gore.

I look at the clock. 10.25pm. I have been here for three hours. An average of 5 minutes a game. THREE HOURS. Soporific. Tired as hell. Like watching two football matches. Or Lord of the Rings. Get in the car and don’t come back. DRIVE. DRIVE!!!!

* This piece was published in full via the Bolton & District Table Tennis League websites:

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