The Ultimate Banana Skin

Everybody’s got a shot – a good shot. Irlam Steel’s Neville Singh included. His looping forehand might surface as often as a sleepy judge striking his sounding block, but it’s there. Ready to put you off balance. Ready to demonstrate that nothing is a foregone conclusion in table tennis.

Conscientious players check the form guide before meeting the opposition. They run through their opponents’ typical points per game, whether four and five-setters are a common occurrence, whether their strength lies in playing against choppers or attack-minded individuals; lastly, whether they love the big scalps, the big wins – an underdog’s paradise.

Singh’s Division 3 Win Record reads: 1 out of 45 (2011/12) and 5 out of 40 (2012/13). There is progress – 400% one might say – but in many ways he is the ultimate banana skin. Players fear getting caught up in his cycle of carefully sculpted shots, the slowed-down grace of his ‘utilising the skills I have’. The psychological damage of losing to Singh can be immense, career-threatening even. Speak to Garvin Yim (his first conquest), Diane Moss and Danni Taylor (his only ‘double’ – that famous night on 13th September 2012). All have since quit the league, walked away.

And yet, just as Floyd Patterson’s defeat to Sonny Liston in 1962 did not make him a loser, so too must the indefatigable Singh not be labelled or tarnished. He may not have had the highs of Patterson but he is an example to us all in perseverance and refusing to let his love of the game be dampened. “I have rarely felt humiliated even though humbled by my scores…I observe the good points of others in style, skill and temperament.”

Still keeping fit, “eschewing large meals and regularly walking around [his] village”, Neville Singh is not a celebrity. He is much more – a gallant battler, soon to be 75, still standing amidst the wasteland of his match scores. “My victories are indeed few…but I love the game.” When he says it, you want to nod your head, put your arm around his shoulders. Singh is a talisman for us all. There is something extraordinary and unassuming in his manner.

From the tropical climate of British Guiana in the 1950s, to the storm-laden Atlantic Ocean in 1963 (courtesy of a rolling and pitching ship), on to bitter Scotland (1986-2007), Singh’s table tennis evolution has ended in Bolton. Glory be.

* This piece was published in The Bolton News on Tues, 11th June 2013


A Grave Night for the Coffin Dodgers

The peculiarities of the Summer League handicap system were exposed tonight. Based on a team’s ranking across all five winter divisions, rather than an individual’s win percentage, they pitted same-division players’ John Barker and Alan Bradshaw against each other with Barker, the stronger player incredulously getting a 2-point start. There is little reason to believe that this had a significant impact on the final scoreline, but it is probably time for the committee to introduce a fairer, personalised system.

On paper the teams seemed evenly matched – Adele Spibey (Div3 – 71%) and John Barker (Div 2 – 33%) of Me & Partner Vs Barry Walsh (Div2 part-timer) and Alan Bradshaw (Div2 – 27%) of Coffin Dodgers. All had their weapons, their styles, their trademark shots but it was Barker, the structural engineer most effectively analysing the players before him.

First to feel the might of his sweeping, cross-table backhand was Walsh, the T-shirt mad veteran. 11-6 followed by a tense 15-13 firmly put Barker in control. Walsh – Donic’s unpaid ambassador – pawed his way back into the match, however; his blocking and well-positioned shots temporarily bringing a halt to Barker’s bluster and brawn (5-11). As if beaten back by the fullness of Barker’s game though, Walsh – more of an instinctive player rather than technique-induced – bowed (9-2), briefly rallied (10-8) then fell (11-8) just as the evening promised a five-game spectacle.

Spibey, next to appear – her tall frame exhibiting both shrewd potency and an aching humility – gave her usual pre-match drawl of not being the favourite. Bradshaw, recent double hernia operation behind him and heavy strapping down the right side of his body (knee, wrist and elbow), would disagree.

True to appearances, Spibey powered her way through the initial game (11-6); vicious backhands ricocheting off her opponent. Bradshaw, not to be undone – despite his limited manoeuvrability – got back on level terms (11-13) partly due to his teasing, deceptive spin. Perhaps motivated by the symbolic flair of her blue and yellow, Brazilian-like top and the realism of her youthful vigour Spibey regained control: 11-8, 11-8. Another 3-1 win for Me & Partner.

‘How do you stop this girl?’ Unsettle her, play unorthodox shots, get the ball to really kick. Nobody was listening: The doubles is a whitewash (3-0); Spibey destroys Walsh (3-0); Barker tears into Bradshaw (3-0). 15-2 at the close. A laboured evening for some.

* This piece was published in The Bolton News on Tues, 28th May 2013


Shawshank Redemption

The Bolton Table Tennis Summer League is less intense than the winter season. There is an air of gaiety inside the Hilton Centre which hosts the 20-team tournament. Mirth seems to breathe easy in this Mecca which often bears witness to fraught encounters. Losing is treated with a shrug rather than mental torment.

The sardonic team names represent the pairs taking part; the best of which – Coffin Dodgers – neatly describes the oldest entrants, Alan Bradshaw and Barry Walsh (combined age, 150). Tonight, however, I am here to examine Coburg’s Bob Bent & Mark Speakman and Flying Bats’ Roger Bertrand & Scott Brown. There is a slight gulf in class, hence the handicaps given to the latter of three and six points per game.

First on court are Bent and Brown. Bent has the look of a slightly grizzled and stout Tim Robbins from The Shawshank Redemption. His piercing eyes set him apart from his affable team mate. Brown, built like a Washington Redwood, with the stubble of a hobo, knows this match will be tough.

The first eight points go to Bent – his forehand rampant. One courageous effort from Brown but it wasn’t telling enough. Finally, a backhand down the left deceives Bent (8-7); a score line worth tuning into. Normality resumes though: 11-8. The second game is a replica (11-8); far too many loose shots from Brown. Bent’s bulk and menacing disposition seem to intimidate opponents. Despite encouraging top spins from Brown, his prosaic shot selections do little to rattle the experienced Bent and so the match ends 11-9 (3-0 Coburg).

Next up is the bearded Frenchman, Bertrand. Sweat glistens from his forehead before a ball has been hit. Speakman, the struggling Div1 player should have enough in the locker to fend off the Div3 champion.

Wild forehands and net shots punctuate Bertrand’s early play. He is a notoriously slow starter. 11-7 Speakman. Bertrand dips into his stash of bananas and manages to find some form: 6-11. The following game is full of hard hitting – a strongman’s circus. Bertrand, failing to read Speakman’s spin, hits it long: 12-10. The diminutive Speakman is beginning to hypnotise his Gaelic opponent. It is too much. 11-8 (6-1 Coburg).

Flying Bats salvage a modicum of respect after the 3-0 doubles defeat (Brown nicking a game off Speakman / Bertrand pushing Bent to five), but it is a slaughter. 15-4 Coburg.

* This piece was published in The Bolton News on Tues, 21st May 2013


The Lostock Lasher

There are only three players across all five divisions of the Bolton Table Tennis League with a 95% win average over the past two seasons. A couple of them stand out: Premiership stalwarts, Michael Moir (Ramsbottom A) and John Hilton (Flixton CC). Down in the depths of Division 4, however (and rarely talked about) is Lostock A’s John Nuttall with the somewhat incredible record of 113 wins out of 114.

He is unorthodox, accurate, quick and powerful, and clearly owes many of his skills to tennis; his two-handed backhand alone surprising many purists. Why has he languished in Bolton’s bottom division? Because – despite the individual, match-playing nature of table tennis – each team consists of three players. If one of these cogs isn’t performing, the emphasis on the other two to regularly ‘treble’ becomes burdensome.

After finishing 3rd (outside the promotion places) for this very reason in 2011/12, Lostock strengthened last summer via the consistent services of 89% man, Adam Francis. Having now comfortably won the 2012/13 Division 4 title, they are finally set for life outside the bottom tier. Will Nuttall, the Lostock Lasher cope? Will his near-perfect record disintegrate when subjected to the wily manoeuvres of Division 3’s finest? I suspect he will destroy most of those who face him. And his single defeat at the hands of Heaton’s Dave Jones Snr will be avenged (both home and away for good measure).

I rarely ‘talk up’ sportsmen, but John Nuttall’s game consists of certain ingredients it is hard to ignore. His supple, elastic-like wrist has the habit of bending seemingly implausible shots back at the opposition. And such forehands are not only deep but fast. Stretching the ‘enemy’ represents the nucleus of his game. If you are not nimble, if you cannot move with sufficient speed, then you are done for.

I had the privilege of playing against The Lasher for the first time eighteen months ago. And I knew immediately – from the pounding rallies, the constant pushing and probing – that this was someone I had to ‘spar’ with. For a moment I felt like Muhammad Ali needing the jabs and muscle of the young Larry Holmes in order to improve his defences.

Nuttall is relentless. He can break you. Small talk, when practising/sparring, is often sacrificed at the altar of sweat. For this, as a means of balancing the humiliation, I am grateful.

* This piece was published in The Bolton News Sports Supplement on Tues, 4th June 2013


Slumped Shoulders and Modest Applause

Blackpool, opportunistic and clever like the two ice-cream vans parked up on Sefton Lane, spoiled the anticipated party today. An unusual gamble from Bolton’s Dougie Freedman – giving no.17, Robert Hall his full debut – left the right of defence exposed and more than likely unsettled the back line which in the first half conceded two early goals.

It was a truly inauspicious beginning – one which only a high-spirited dreamer might think Bolton able to reverse. Two players excelled for Blackpool – Matt Phillips and Ludovic Sylvestre – and it was soft complacency that allowed both stars joyous and incredulous celebrations.

2-0 down. Where to go? Bolton appeared lacklustre, far from the balanced side that had orchestrated this final day cliffhanger. Some fans will credit Freedman for his 37th minute substitution which preceded the drama of injury time goals from Eagles (45+2) and C Davies (45+4) thus levelling matters at 2-2. I will not (I am four years older than DF and have a sure-hearted conviction). The refulgence of Eagles came from the middle – not his new-found position out on the wing (compounded following the introduction of Sordell).

Replacing Hall was a lesson not in tactical genius but how to deflate a young player actually gaining in confidence and starting to show beautiful ball control with his imperious left peg. It is possible that the roving menace of Davies and Sordell together – following the withdrawal of Hall – opened up the Blackpool defence, but I would counter this with the theory that Eagles simply raised his game, proved that he was the best player on the park when mindful of his own threat.

The second half, despite the hope and longing sequestered, proved to be a difficult affair. Sure, Medo still allowed Pratley to scamper forward. Chungy Lee hinted at mesmerizing runs of old. And Ream’s distribution was competent. But beyond the transient, intricate passing and the palatial, if belated brilliance of Eagles stood a team not quite hungry enough.

Their slumped shoulders and modest applause to the fans during the ‘lap of appreciation’ suggested disappointment and the hurtful knowledge of a further 12-month sabbatical from the Premiership, yet they must now begin the process of knowing how to boss the opposition. Anything less will leave them as also-rans.

I am optimistic. Tom Eaves has the look and touch of a broad-shouldered Cantona (his ‘two feet by the post’ shot signalling future audacity). Robert Hall has a whistling, sniper-like shot (and his positional sense will improve). Josh Vela and Stuart Holden – well, I needn’t be the town crier for these marvels. Three more players (GK, CH & a 30-goal-a-season striker) and a sprinkle of luck and we will be there, looking down on the pack in 2014.

* This piece was edited down to 400 words and published in The Bolton News on Mon, 6 May 2013