Joan of Arc

Rarely will there be a more attacking pair than Hilton B’s Annie Hudson (Div 1 – 75%) and stand in, Wilson Parker (Div 3 – 96%). Serendipity has led us here with the withdrawal of regular player, Chris Naylor and we must now feast our eyes on the magnificence about to unfold.

The opposition, Barcroft’s Steve Barber (Prem – 28%) and John Scowcroft (Div 2 – 77%) are worldly-wise – schooled in the finer elements of the game – but I suspect that the handicap system plus Hilton B’s snarling youth will be their downfall.

Scowcroft, lime top tonight, as if about to be plunged into a bottle of Corona, starts off well: a 1-5 lead against the brazenly talented, Hudson. The game plan with John is as it always is – bob around and hurl grenade-like shots; hope the opposing player finds it too much.

Hudson, Women’s British League player, the Joan of Arc of the Bolton Table Tennis circuit, isn’t one to simply bow though and accept the fate before her. The shots and speed of the Butterfly-attired doyenne soon begin to surface. It is 7-7 and she has upped the ante. Scowcroft needs to alter the direction of the ball rather than continue with this toe-to-toe insanity. Too late. 12-10 Hudson.

The 2nd game is another full-whipped extravaganza, a constant barrage of looping forehands and minor, between-shot adjustments to involve the backhand. Scowcroft will not submit. 9-11. He is back in the match.

Such effort had to take its toll, however. Hudson artlessly has that glint about her. She steamrolls opponents with a smile. There are fewer net shot mistakes. 11-8. Despite an unsettling ‘Oy!!’ in the 4th from Scowcroft to signal his displeasure at a piece of bad umpiring (4-5, instead of 3-6 on the scoreboard after a wondrous nick of the table down the left), Annie reels off eight points to confirm the gulf in class. 11-6.

Parker picks up where his teammate left off: 11-7, 11-8, 9-11, 11-6 (a mighty and hopeless task indeed for Barber to restrain this young wizard particularly given the 4-pt handicap each game). The doubles is less of a formality (3-2) but it becomes an impressive 9-4 on the night.

Scowcroft falls to Parker 3-0 and Hudson defeats Premier man, Barber 3-1 in the main event of the evening. It is a bountiful 15-5 from the big lights in Division One and Three.

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Farewell Ingerson

The text arrived at 1.14pm on 4 June 2013. 60-year-old Alan Ingerson, rejuvenated through his brief spell with Division Three, BRASS announced to me that he had signed for Ladybridge ‘B’ in Division One.

Despite BRASS winning the 4th tier title – in large part, of course, due to the heroics of 96% man, Ingerson – he had decided to walk away. There wasn’t quite the press coverage of a significant football transfer or the fanfare in Ladybridge to welcome the new player. And certainly no stepping off a plane to be greeted by a marching band (just 3.3 miles separate BRASS’ venue, Victoria Hall from the Ladybridge Community Centre). But to the table tennis community – fully aware of their marginalised status – this was a pivotal moment.

Players’ careers at local level can last for 70 years. Ingerson had already put in a 46-year stint and the old sparkle had seemed to return. There had been tantrums, heated moments and snarls as with any relationship but also plenty of mirth and camaraderie. Ingerson had been a par excellence signing for BRASS – an ‘out of contract’ (so to speak) mercurial wonder. His game was different to anything I’d seen before – the south-paw top spin like watching an industrial worker crank a heavy piece of machinery. Returning such balls was little short of impossible given their accentuated kick. Only the canniest of opponents knew how.

Having made his debut on 31 October 2012, he lost two of his initial fifteen matches. To most players returning from a two-season sabbatical such statistics would please them. Ingerson, somewhat traumatised by his ‘black November’, set out to correct and fine tune certain parts of his game; the result being that in his final thirty-three matches he was unbeaten. 46/48 wins – one for each year of effort since he first picked up a bat in 1967.

I have had the privilege of playing alongside many different nationalities – Ethiopian, Zambian, Iranian, French – and when Ingerson approached BRASS with a view to joining the team, I was expecting a fair-haired Scandinavian giant. Instead, we got a follicly-challenged, affable grumbler – one a joy to be around though.

Backroom transfer deals in table tennis are unlikely to be replaced with a transparent electronic system anytime soon, but I bear no ill will. We have lost our ‘Eric Cantona’ like Leeds in 1992, but his sublime presence will not be forgotten.

 

Wilson Parker-Roger Bertrand III

rivalry

Rivalry can demoralise, panic or excite a table tennis player. To know that there is one specific person out there who is your nemesis can be disheartening or revelatory. The relationship is usually borne out of a lingering stare, a reluctant acknowledgement of your opponent’s skills or mutual respect. Wilson Parker/Roger Bertrand, a McEnroe/Borg-type affair, sits between reluctant warfare and ever-so-necessary victory. The match up is many things: The Ashes; Froch/Kessler; Real Madrid Vs Barcelona.

In this instance, it is a precocious and fiery young Englishman versus a proficient and dogged Frenchman; a Wellington/Napoleon re-enactment 200 years later but without the satin breeches. Three points separate them competitively – Bertrand winning in Nov 2012 at Victoria Hall (11-8, 11-5, 11-9) but Parker gaining revenge in May 2013 at the Hilton Centre (11-7, 10-12, 11-7, 13-11).

I ask the black-clad Wilson Parker what strategy he plans to adopt tonight. He looks puzzled for a moment. “Play,” he then calmly mutters. It is dismissive and bold – the monosyllabic answer in keeping with his intransigence, yet somehow embodying the essential shrift of a broken intercom (the suggestion being that his body will know what to do – it will throw itself on the battlefield without inhibition and see what transpires).

What happens, what actually transpires is barely recognisable. I write the words ‘long’, ‘net’, ‘any ammo?’ repeatedly in relation to Bertrand’s play. His backhand is not functioning. He looks ragged, tired, far from the great, tactical genius I know. It is disappointing. Like watching Lord of the Rings without Gandalf. 11-5 (an intense, but futile Bertrand-winning-rally pulling it back to 9-5). 11-2 (a nasty nadir). 11-5 (a brutal ending – more punishment from Parker).

There is a huge, collective intake of air. Can it really be over? Already? A 3-0 whitewash? Sometimes table tennis bludgeons you, refuses to follow the script, the form guide, expectation levels. It cavorts on the horizon and laughs at your game plan, your execution of shots.

Let us not take anything away from Parker though. His chin, at times, was almost down to table height so keen was he to see the opening, thrust the ball back with extra spin on it. Despite the panache, however, I believe the subtler side of Wilson’s game is the real difference; the elegant nudges over the net; the masked concentration.

Will Bertrand return from this harrowing experience? Undoubtedly so.

* This piece will be published in The Bolton News on 25 June 2013

 

Barcroft Blitz

Sometimes you get lucky. You sit down for a match not expecting much, but are then wowed and taken to a heavenly place. Tonight’s clash between Barcroft and Arabian Nights showcased the exquisite talents of Division Two’s John Scowcroft, the 77% man from ‘across the tracks’ – a lower-tiered player compared to teammate, Steve Barber (Premier – 27%) and ‘Arabian’ opponents Dave Holden and Jim Hewitt (Division One – 50% & 58% respectively).

If I am guilty of concentrating my pen on the exploits of just one player during a typical summer league evening – to the slight detriment of the other three – then I make no apologies. Scowcroft is worth the ink. He is 77-years-old, first played in 1952, yet has the vim and vigour of a man half his age. To see him bobbing and weaving in anticipation of each awkward shot is to be reminded of Mike Tyson at his best in the ring. One could say that Scowcroft is the Benjamin Button of the table tennis circuit. He appears to age backwards.

Resplendent in green polo shirt and blue shorts, he quickly asserts himself against Jim Hewitt. He is furnished with a 2-pt handicap yet the spring, chops, fluid movement and smashes of Scowcroft are worthy of the 11-9 opening win. Hewitt, methodical, serious-looking with a hint of nonchalance has a pimpled bat capable of reversing opponents’ shots or inducing extra swerve on the ball coupled with a Blancmange-like wobble. He preys on the over-anxiousness of Scowcroft in the 2nd (8-11).

The third game both entertains and delights: Scowcroft vociferous following a contentious ‘let’ at 6-4 and the crowd mesmerized by a 50-shot rally (Scowcroft stretching his lead to 9-6, then nailing it 11-7). The combination shots – lift, backhand, forehand – are impressive and despite being behind 2-5 in the 4th, he is too strong for Hewitt and brings the match home 11-7.

Steve Barber can only smile. How can he eclipse that? Sure enough, his match against Dave Holden is achingly tight but it slips away: 11-8, 9-11, 9-11, 11-6, 9-11. Plenty of nerve from the Joola T-shirted Arabian.

Success in the doubles follows (2-3) and we’re at 7-7 on the night.

Barber ‘cracks the safe’ with a beautiful 3-2 win over Hewitt, but it is Scowcroft who compounds the victory – who else? – refusing to bow to Holden’s vexatious ‘push’. 3-1. 13-10 Barcroft. Wonderful.

* This piece was published in The Bolton News on Tues, 18th June 2013