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Division Four: Meadow Hill 6 – 3 Harper Brass ‘C’

The Shed: home of Meadow Hill – a mighty place, an intimidating place, an orange-walled palace with the odd loose plank beneath your feet. This is not a venue for the cowardly nor the complacent, nor the capricious. Big players have fallen here – Adele Spibey, David Yates, Graham Wilson, Dave Bevitt, Dave Jones Snr. I could go on.

At full strength tonight, the Meadow Hill line up consists of league secretary, Roy Caswell, the somewhat giddy, Jackie Smith and the finely chiselled, speed merchant Roy Platt. The opposing camp has wily southpaw and elder statesman, Kaushik Makwana followed by ‘Happy’ Haroon Khan and the diminutive, yet dangerous Faizan Bhura.

It is Caswell versus Makwana to start. Too many net points hinder the first game but it is the astronomy-mad Caswell who takes charge (11-7). Makwana swings at the ball sometimes as if scaring off a burglar. His shots can be erratic and overblown – the opposite of calculated consistency. The next game emphasises this: 11-3. He is in trouble and we have barely taken our seats. Hard to believe Makwana beat Lostock’s Adam Francis back in January.

Caswell, new season, new menace about him despite the jovial air doesn’t take long to put Makwana to the sword (11-4) – low, backhand serves, great length and a certain pep to his game all contribute to a sure first win on the night.

Smith, resplendent in white chinos and with a permanent grin doesn’t appear to understand fear. His early shots against Bhura suggest an unmasking of his often too latent ability. 9-6 up and looking solid, but then…where is his tactical nous? There is almost a refusal to wrap up a game without his bombing forehands. Bhura exploits the blind spot, his young mind learning all the time: 12-10, 11-4, 11-4.

Real no.1 (ignore the scorecard), Platt now takes his position. He reminds me of a slightly aloof and well-spoken Roman. In fact, his coordination is that of a chariot racer. There is no dithering from the 68-year-old and his range of shots is exceptional. Khan, in ‘clubbing’ green shirt, feels the pain immediately: 11-3. Ominous forehands from Platt whistle past him. Another 11-3 before Platt saves himself for the later matches (11-8).

Such is the destruction (Caswell 3-0 Khan, Platt 3-2 Bhura, Platt 3-1 Makwana, Caswell 3-1 Bhura), bar the Smith misadventures (two 3-1 defeats), that I cannot look anymore.


Scowcroft, the Messiah

Division One: Hilton ‘B’ 6 – 3 Heaton ‘C’

This was a meeting of the grey-haired crews; each player sporting a debonair mane of sorts. Hilton, after two narrow 5-4 defeats were glad to welcome new signing, Alan Ingerson plus stalwarts, David Scowcroft and Steve Hathaway. Heaton, yet to register a point following promotion trooped in with Paul ‘Mad Dog’ McCormick, Stephen Woods and Dave Hall.

The evening started as expected – Scowcroft overpowering Woods 11-3, 11-5, 11-6. Hilton’s no.1, playing behind dark glasses, with a slightly demonic aura, immediately made his presence felt. There is swagger in abundance, bounce and unrelenting belief in this man. Woods, unfortunate to meet him fresh out of the blocks, was made to look like a ponderous milk man.

The second match offered hope to Heaton – the gravel-voiced McCormick using plenty of elbow in his serves to conjure an 11-9 initial set. Ingerson, back in the big time following his heavy-hearted transfer from BRASS, took the next set, however (11-8); superb top spin and forehand resistance clearing the way.

The third set was pivotal – McCormick 5-2 up, then 7-6 but suddenly the self-admonishing cry of “Greedy swine”; a point not there to exploit, thus Ingerson in the ascendency (12-10). The moustachioed marvel narrowly completed matters (9-11, 11-3) – a vintage final game demonstrating his canny ability to switch to back hand top spin.

It was cruel for McCormick – his 7th long match of the season ending in yet another defeat. There is something of the mud-splattered war veteran about him; the victim of strong artillery yet still somehow running.

Hall, receptive to the Heaton bugle call having witnessed the slaying of his teammates, leapt into the table tennis jungle, weapons packed. 11-9 – opponent, Hathaway unable to respond to a clinical, forehand blaster. Ragged in the second set – perhaps overwhelmed by his team’s need of a win – Hall stumbled (5-11). Up again though, shifting the imaginary branches from his face, Hall penetrated the Hathaway camp – unglamorous forehand pushes and relentless chops flummoxing his opponent: 11-8, 12-10.

Relief from the Heaton bench. Finally, an individual win. Normality returned though: Ingerson smashing Woods 3-0; Scowcroft – his injection of speed too much for Hall (3-0). 4-1 to Hilton but then the fight back – McCormick, two match-points down (8-10), willing himself: “Dig in…Deep breaths”. 12-10. Hallelujah! (3-2 versus Hathaway). Hall, two sets down, but then the rhythmic chops (3-2 against Ingerson).

Victory? Alas – no. Hathaway 3-0 Woods. Scowcroft 3-0 McCormick.


No Stops Yet for Nuttall Steam Train

Division Three: Irlam Steel 4 – 5 Lostock

I did not go to the Hilton Centre on Thursday. I went to the Octagon Theatre. Or at least, that is how it felt. From the undulating sarcasm of Lostock’s Arfat Khan (“Yes – go for a winner every time”) to the newfound poise and control of Irlam Steel’s Neville Singh, this was a delight, a pain au chocolat wrapped in almonds.

Each match had its stage, its actors and the grand sweep of opposing styles. And what better way to start than Singh Vs John Nuttall. For a fleeting moment Singh was in the lead (1-0), living with the Lostock bruiser (5-6) and genuinely re-born. Such a state of play could not remain though. Odds exist for a reason and I would put my house, my family and the loose change in my pocket on Nuttall.

It is not that he hates losing. There is nothing Herculean about him either. He is just…good, incredibly in-tune with the vibes of the game. And I cannot see anybody beating him this season – certainly not in the league. The bookies’ dream will march on, as he did here: 11-5, 11-4, 11-2.

Irlam’s 75% man, David Yates – by contrast – has had a worrying start to the season. Beautiful technique, big shots but a little too polite at times – his Driving Miss Daisy backhand loops affording the opponent too many opportunities to smash.

His first match was a formality against the slightly nervous, Khan (11-5, 15-13, 11-4), whose early affinity with the net did not help his cause. What followed was the real test though versus Mike McKend. McKend’s ragged and unorthodox style had already been exposed against the lowly ranked, Singh (a huge coup for the latter: 12-10, 11-6, 11-8) but – as typified the evening – surprises were many.

Yates throws the ball up too much as if in an exhibition match playing ‘keep it in’. McKend, happy to forage on such generosity, edged the first set 12-10. A comprehensive beating in the two sets that followed (11-3, 11-7) gave the impression that McKend, despite his ugly push shots, could play this game with a piece of firewood.

The other five matches, sprinkled with Khan’s self-deprecating humour (“Rotten!”), produced a tightrope victory for Lostock: Matt Hood 3-2 Khan; Hood 3-2 McKend; Yates 0-3 Nuttall; Singh 0-3 Khan; Hood 0-3 Nuttall.


The Smart Show

Division Two: Bolton Uni ‘B’ 3 – 6 Hilton ‘E’

This was supposed to be the Wilson Parker Show. Hilton’s young gun didn’t disappoint and neither did his teammate, Roy Alty, but in terms of upping one’s game and playing at a new level no.3, Jean Smart firmly stole the show. One point only to the red, Stiga-attired table tennis queen yet the fight and resurgent play behind this seemingly meagre number was immense.

Bolton Uni took an early lead in this match through the compact and wily, Kirit Chauhan. With his knees bandaged to the hilt, Chauhan demonstrated that one’s mastery of the game is still superior to fitness. Visible to the crowd was him feeling his way back into the sport after a year out, and his safe serves and acute top spins slightly edged the bombing forehands of Roy Alty (11-9, 12-10, 11-7).

16-year-old Parker, next up in his dazzling lime-green top, berated himself with an early verbal tirade: “Get your head together!” More followed in later matches: “Stop stretching – get to the ball!”; “This is rubbish!”; “Lift it!” Opponent, David Jones, clearly not in the same bracket, yet improving steadily, frustrated Parker in two of the three games; his anti-static bat spray assisting but failing to overwhelm his young opponent (11-7, 11-3, 13-11).

Smart, seen rushing into the car park for this match at 7.09pm after a late call up, admirably coped following some early nerves. Her initial opponent, Andrew Gregory – commencing his 3rd season in the league – has a powerful, if energy-sapping serve and a high success rate when stepping heavily into his shots. 11-4. 13-11. It looked ominous for Smart, but then came the increased belief, the autopilot, lollypop backhand and her willingness to turn defence into attack. 9-11. 8-11. Extra authority from Gregory in the 5th set though – five consecutive points – helped this one home: 11-6. (Cruel, but deserved.)*

The next three matches (Jones 0 – 3 Alty, Chauhan 3 – 0 Smart, Gregory 0 – 3 Parker) left the evening precariously balanced – Bolton Uni and Hilton each with three wins. Smart’s magnificence then returned, her unforced error rate tumbling from around 30% to 10%; incredible consistency and tantalising, angled chops from the Bolton-born, Hilton
doyenne in her demolition of Jones (9-11, 13-11, 11-5, 11-4).

One more win for victory. Alty obliged: 3-0 against Gregory. Parker completed the torment by burying Chauhan psychologically: 11-8; 11-5; 11-9.

* Result expunged. Gregory unpaid ETTA subs. Revised match result: Bolton Uni ‘B’ 2 – 7 Hilton ‘E’