Wooed and Bamboozled

kidded

Closed Championship Finals – Tues 23rd April 2013
Junior Singles / Handicap Singles / Veterans / Doubles / Singles
Venue: Hilton Centre, 7.30pm

Just as I drove into Horwich tonight, I saw an old woman – bent, still graceful, picking daffodils from the grassy central reservation. She seemed to signify effort and the seeking of inexpensive beauty; much like table tennis. As a sport, TT has that vital combination – it is for anyone (rich or poor) and the satisfaction it affords the limbs, the mind, the deep, fleshy walls within us is poetic, invigorating. I have often rolled back home (10.15, 10.30pm) after a heavy match night and felt – despite the tiredness – entirely refreshed, mentally sharp, fully at one with everything around me…my body, quite simply, peaceful, no tremors or tics or twitches…just gooooddd, sublime.

I wonder how many of the twelve finalists (seven individuals) have felt equal or similar heights. I wonder if the prowess of ‘the game’ – with its skill and sweat – has hypnotized them, wooed and bamboozled them, left them like babies crying for the bat. Them all, I suspect. I see no discord in their faces – just the need, the desire to play, take the bat from its ‘holster’ and…woof, nick, bang, chop.

We’ve fallen in. Into the game, the warm up. We’re breathing again. Breathing properly, rhythmically. MOVE THE FEET. MOVE THE FEET. It’s like we’ve never been away. Do you keep your paddle under your pillow when you’re not here? I wouldn’t want to burgle Barry Elliott’s house if so. He has the brutal crash and smash of a wrecking ball – the opposition to him merely a crumbling block of flats. No eyes. No soul. Just fodder. There for his perverse destruction.

I came here to see Dennis Collier, the roadie – last year’s comeback king; his defensive master class a fillip for anyone. He was rudely dispatched, dumped out of the Singles Q/F by Elliott though (11-6, 11-6, 12-14, 11-4) and fell foul in the Veterans to the other Singles Finalist, Andrew Jackson (11-7, 11-9, 14-12). Keep them apart in the draw! Don’t you know that pitting Collier against these boys so early is like Djokovic playing Nadal in the first round. An insult to The Roadie, the very fibres of his floppy, rock star hair, his grey whiskers which surround his mouth like an army manoeuvre. You better be good, Elliott…Jackson…You better both entertain me!!

They have poured in – a crowd of 60 or 70. Quite a festival. But no sandwiches tonight. Did someone forget? We had them last year and it was a scramble, a race, a battle – first to the ham. Feels more dignified with just tea and coffee – no chomping, no flying splinters of bread. Calm. Let the attention be on the players. Let’s weed out the ‘free meal’ brigade. Easy to spot – always looking to their side. HAS THE SHUTTER OPENED? ARE THOSE BEAUTIES PLATED UP YET? Not tonight. Not tonight, you hungry scoundrels!

Junior Singles Final – Danny Harris (Div 2 – 77%) Vs Jordan Brookes (Prem – 43%)
I don’t know what to make of these young guns – Harris in black (red stripe), Brookes in yellow (black stripe)…the bookie’s favourite, the if not seasoned Premier player then certainly a prospect, a dynamic and precocious talent.

Harris is stockier. He has the subtle, growling expression of a baby lynx. A boy, man, mannish boy confident in himself (recent Division 2 winner for the Clayborough camp) yet obviously wary of the threat from Brookes.

Harris loses his initial serve (0-1). He then ruffles Brookes a little by taking the next three points (3-1). Pretty good, Danny. Wounded from last year’s final defeat, but socking it to him – showing mettle, polish and the brave flair of the underdog. Damn – I spoke too soon. Brookes takes the next seven points (3-8). Technique and the low, stooping whip-action of Brookes demand that the spotlight be shifted, that the crowd end their fascination with Harris. 5-11. It’s gone. Nothing flash, a little cagey at times and the wonder rallies are yet to surface, but building, teetering on a decent spectacle.

2nd game, set (those ‘in the know’, the iconoclasts, call them sets). Harris starts the same (3-1), not to be discouraged, mentally fickle. He reads the game well, his belief has solidified a little. Given the chance, he likes to bomb his forehands into the corners. The problem is not enough are hitting the surface. Long. Quite a few. His face says DON’T THINK THAT’S MY NORMAL GAME, CHUMP to the crowd. 4-7. Slipping again. Brookes didn’t really get going (slight homage to his opponent), but now…now, he’s Ali bouncing around the ring, choosing when to turn chops into top spins at will. Deep loops. The full repertoire beginning to appear. Technical panache. 5-11. Nearly home.

A word or two from the sidelines. Geeing up their protégés. HOW CAN WE HELP, GET OUR MAN ON TOP? A change – the style of serve seems to have altered in both camps. Brookes shows that his latent backhand is no mug either. Low. Low. Low. Every time now. Picking off the shots. Harris can see that there’s no way back. For a moment I see consternation in his face. His flicked retorts and ripostes just don’t hold enough power. His forehands have weakened as well. A serve into the net. 7-11. It’s over. Maybe next time. Brookes’ calibre, his pedigree was a wee step too far. Jordan – YOU THE MAN.

Handicap Singles Final– Danny Harris [+3] (Div 2 – 77%) Vs Andy Evans (Prem – 44%)
Harris again. No more Final defeats…PLEASE! A strong start. 5-1 including the handicap. But then come the Evans’ downward chops – nice bits of sorcery, healthy extravaganzas in times of trouble. Look at that damn grip as well! Looser than Elvis’s hips – a swinging, rotating, bat-toting Wild West phenomenon. I didn’t rate this guy in the Doubles S/F but now…there’s more to him, as if let out of the stable or a safe backwater town. He has been unharnessed, told to rear up like a stallion, unceasingly pound the opposition. 7-7. Six out of the last eight points. Neighhhhhhhhhh. 8-9. 9-9. Harris shows a tiny bit of fight. 9-10. A softer, well-placed smash from the equine Evans. Just one point away. Harris falls, fails, cannot muster the fantabulous. 9-11.

3-0. Early lead. Well, that is his handicap, what the scoreboard shows before a ball has been tossed (barring an unlikely gaff from the astute umpire, Mr George ‘Bantamweight’ Berry). 3-2. 3-4. Oh, no. Has Harris slowed down? He bounces about – tries to re-charge his ailing frame. A marvellous jump into a deep forehand drive: 5-5. A sniff once more. Not given in yet. A lot of net cords tonight – most of them ending up on the right side of the table. But how to maintain this? 6-8. Long from Harris. Danny Boy. Division 2’s eighth finest player. Suddenly not in the hunt. 7-11.

Do we write him off at this stage? Is there any gas left in the tank? The kudos of a famously painful, yet inspiring 10-set league double over Paul McCormick still shimmers in the distance. Not ordinary victories but against D2’s Top Ten Medal Winner. And in both of them Danny was 2 sets down!! Stamina. DON’T MATTER, BEEN HERE BEFORE comes the white patois. Well – almost. Rifts of Lenny Kravitz burst across the floor:

So many tears I’ve cried

So much pain inside

But baby it ain’t over ‘til it’s over

 
Except it is. The ‘iffy’ doubles man, Evans has been transformed. His ‘through the window of the left arm’ serves have added a steel not seen earlier. His seems to be toying with Harris now having navigated the battlefield before him. We’re at 6-6. 6-8. 7-9. 7-11. RAISE A GLASS TO ANDY EVANS! Sorcerer. Premier League Man. The difference had to tell.

Veterans (40+) Final – Jeff Craighill (Prem – 53%) Vs Andrew Jackson (Prem – 81%)
I didn’t know it before, but this is the match I really wanted to write about. In the left corner surely David Moyes (escapee from Goodison Park with a Steve McDonald tuft of hair). In the right corner, Andrew Jackson, tight spiky hair with the bonhomie of a property developer.

Wild blasts from Craighill, the journeyman get this important final under way. 1-3. Jackson sees the man before him as a shack, without the polish of himself (resplendent in freshly-washed blue). One thing I immediately notice about AJ is his excessive use of shoulder in his shots. It doesn’t look natural, yet amazingly it seems to work. 3-7. 5-9. 6-11. A clever, strategic start. The efficient, compact style of Jackson leaving Craighill a little ragged and exposed.

Set two. More is expected from JC in this. He seems to counter the finer elements of The Property Developer’s game (deadly floating serves, whipping shots, tight control) with his own array of flamboyant, if dysfunctional moves. 4-2. A stronger start. 7-5. Hope. 7-10. Misery. The Fatal Decline of Moyes has begun. Consistency has shrugged its shoulders and left town. A brief flirtation with respectability (9-10) but no – it is not to be. 9-11.

I don’t know what happens at this point as with so many matches that swing the other way (either briefly or completely), but Craighill seems to unearth a fire, the miraculous rumblings of his game. So far we have witnessed a typical 53% Vs 81% match in terms of respective win percentages. DON’T PUT A NUMBER ON ME! we get from the Moyes’ camp though. Suddenly he is standing six to eight feet away from the table, digging out shots, pile drivers of a sort. You really have to see it. It is volleyball-esque – the 40mm flash of white…dead, certainly dead, but no!! NO!! Craighill is at his allotment – digging. Trowel. Spade. Fork. He rips the ball onto an upward, curving path when only inches from the floor. A delight. An absolute delight to see. Jackson does not know how to react. The points are draining away fast. 5-2. 8-2. Craighill forcing the pace. 10-4. A change, a mighty change to the Craighill game. Seemingly desperate lunges but that is how he wants to play it. COME ON, AJ – SOCK IT TO ME! I’LL WHIP IT BACK WITH EXTRA SAUCE. 11-4. Belief. Where from here?

The whole array of shots start to appear now – Craighill’s secret stash of weaponry. He is the Equalizer, a 21st century Edward Woodward. Just the look, the look in his face. It is not possible to doubt him. Backspin serves with side. Last ditch twisting shots with serious swerve. Too hot at times – curry powder-like. 7-4. A commanding lead. 9-5. Stretching it nicely; nicking the end of the table (always a welcome shot). 9-7. I see Jackson for the first time in the game (my eyes previously fixed on The Digger). Despite the smashes and hunger from AJ, Craighill sees out the set: 11-7.

Now for the finale – the true game of bottle. Many a man will pull it back to 2-2 only to fold, realise his sinewy desire has maxed itself out. Not Craighill. Not David Moyes. Not The Digger (The Leveller if we’re getting political). He is the great white hope, the People’s Champion. He possesses a scratchingly rough image (and casual stubble) similar to other unorthodox greats and at its core is fight. This isn’t winning ugly, but rather winning with a surprise attack, a genius adaptation of a long-lost table tennis script. 1-0. Digger alert! 3-0. 3-1 (a cross-table forehand provides Jackson with an ounce of hope). 8-4. Craighill motoring – certainly on top. 10-4: Where is he getting this mesmerizing medley from? The stoop, the pillorying of his own body must be taking its toll, hurting, turning him into a slanted circus act. 11-4. Champion Jeff Craighill. What a performance. Have we met the new Dennis Collier? I just hope he wakes up and doesn’t feel sore. I have never seen so much exertion.

Level Doubles Final
Andrew Jackson(81) & Mark Ramsbottom(81)  Vs  Barry Elliott(84) & Jeff Craighill(53)
If I was to report on the Doubles Final in full, it would be a dereliction of duty. I have become so absorbed tonight that I’ve only just looked down and realised I’m sat on a wooden-slatted chair and not the plastic one I assumed (this gives you some idea as to my waning mind). Forgive my quick summary of this nonetheless important tie, but I really have to put all efforts into describing the Level Singles Final – what I deem to be, quite fittingly, the grand, grand ending to the night. The Doubles, may I say, was a hard-fought clash:

11-13, 12-10, 11-8, 7-11, 11-6

Pleasing for Andrew Jackson, The Property Developer (slight revenge over Craighill) and a great fillip for Mark Ramsbottom, the moustachioed, burly breaker from Ram ‘A’. All in all a sweet victory over Wharton; the form guide from October’12 and February’13 suggesting that the combined strength of Jackson and Ramsbottom – despite Elliott’s peerlessness – was always going to be too much.

Level Singles Final – Barry Elliott (84%) Vs Andrew Jackson (81%)
A ten minute break. Time enough for composure to return. Elliott changes his top from the disappointing doubles grey to red. More fire. More vigour. What will we see from this man? The old guys in the audience – no longer parched due to tea and coffee wetting their lips – are chatting vociferously, loving it. This is theatre to them, real Greek tragedy – better than the dreams of youth.

Elliott steps out. He is a British Woody Allen. ARE YOU FILMING THIS? he seems to demand. HEY, HEY – SHIFT THE CAMERA, GET MY GLASSES IN! Jackson troops onto the court. Memories of the Craighill defeat haven’t entirely left him. He nicks the end of the table to get the first point of the session. An early bit of luck. 2-4. He seems confident – his forehand spraying shots around, his body turning harmoniously. 4-7. Still strong…Elliott yet to raise his game. Oh, what is this though? Elliott wipes his face with what appears to be a purple bar towel. The glasses as well. He is born again. Four straight points: 8-7. After the slight vulnerability to his immediate right (8-8) – Jackson’s favourite part of the table – Elliott brings it home. 11-8.

Woe. Jackson seems downhearted. That was too big a lead to let wilt. 1-6. A bigger gap this time…before a special Elliott forehand followed by two hard, simple back of the bat flicks: 4-6. AJ shows some mettle. 5-9. Looking better. More rhythmic. 6-10. 7-10. 8-10. Don’t balls it up. Not now. CUT! 8-11. Jackson is back.

The third game is for warriors – like jumping out of a landing helicopter in a foreign country not quite knowing what to expect. WAR. Elliott seems ready. He loves a fight. It’s gotta be stylish though…just like in the movies. Not tip-toeing around, but rather the hard stuff – bombing forehands, mercurial serves. 6-5. A trademark swipe from The Property Developer though into the far left corner: 6-6. Extra movement on the Elliott serve: 8-7. 9-7 follows. 10-7. I’M 3% BIGGER AND BETTER THAN YOU! GO AWAY! JUST GO AWAY!! Not quite yet.10-8 even though Jackson looks a little pulverized. 11-8. Three points separate them once more.

An elegant final flowering from Jackson perhaps? How does he seem? Is he hanging his head a little or still bouncing, still believing? I’m not sure. Difficult to read. He has that smooth glint about him. Which shots, which shots to use this game? Crucial, but think too much and…it’s the start he didn’t want: 6-2 down already (Elliott’s backhand, staying power when rallying and footwork look good). Punishment can move in, pitch its tent and harm a man before he’s even resumed his concentration. Jackson is hanging on now. A forehand down the middle from Elliott (it virtually climbs up AJ’s chest): 8-5. Jackson into the net: 9-5. 10-5. A high class rally: 10-6 (The Property Developer gets a slight reprieve…unafraid to play his full-blooded game much to his credit.) MOVE THE CAMERA. GET THIS LAST POINT IN. I’LL SEND IT DOWN THE LEFT. No need. Jackson hits it long. 11-6. No punching the air from Elliott. No swinging the bar towel around his head. It is a respectful shaking of hands. Jackson looks a little gloomy, understandably – reminiscent of Danny Boy Harris (each defeated in two singles finals). The night offered so much. But then the wolves come out and howl you into a stupor. Only one winner on the floor. And that can be cruel. Cruel but the making of someone for next time…

Quick Finals Guide:

JSF:     Harris Vs Brookes                   5-11, 5-11, 7-11

HSF:    Harris (+3) Vs Evans               9-11, 7-11, 7-11

VF:      Craighill Vs Jackson               6-11, 9-11, 11-4, 11-7, 11-4

DF:      Jackson/Ramsbottom        11-13, 12-10, 11-8, 7-11, 11-6
Vs Elliott/Craighill

SF:       Elliott Vs Jackson                    11-8, 8-11, 11-8, 11-6

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

http://www.tabletennis365.com/Bolton

http://www.boltontabletennis.co.uk/

 

 

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