Division Four: Harper Brass ‘C’ 4 Meadow Ben ‘C’ 5
The fifth tier in the Bolton Table Tennis League is hotting up – starting to take shape. Meadow Ben – in pole position – arrive at Harper Brass’s blossoming Mecca like VIPs in a Vegas restaurant: Alan Weall, their 75% man – a cross between the Dalai Lama and Bobby Charlton; Alan Hibbert, 74-years-old yet still formidable; John Parker, tall, well-spoken – a hint of Julian Assange about him.
Meadow have a healthy 66% win record between them this season compared to Harper’s still respectable 60%. Such statistics often crumble within minutes though – fall foul of the ‘contrasting styles’ philosophy.
Faizan Bhura, Harper’s 19-year-old wonderkid, kick-starts the evening. He is up against Weall who has removed his red fleece (Lama-like robe) and now stands in Lonsdale pants and Dunlop Green Flash ready to trade shots.
9-11. Bhura worryingly throws away a 6-2 lead in the first. Frustration rarely toys with his mind, however. He looks unnerved – his focus immediately shifting to set two. 11-7. Much better from him – steady rallies and such an easy style. 11-9. Bhura nicks the third; Weall puffing slightly – hand on his left thigh.
Weall, I notice, has an extremely elegant serve. Fingers outstretched, the ball flat on his palm, he releases the white, 40mm celluloid like a magician would a dove. Bhura lets him back in: 5-11. The enjoyment on Weall’s face is marvellous to see. He is still fighting the young, still weaving around, until…Bhura changes gear. Great lift from the Harper teenager clinches the win: 11-4.
Kaushik Makwana now – a mercurial player if ever there was one; sometimes brilliant, often egregious. His opponent, Hibbert – white hair, understated threat – laps up the generous Makwana high balls: 11-3. We immediately witness the changing fortunes and probability-busting fate of the Harper secretary though: Hibbert succumbing to vicious Makwana backhands (4-11) in the second and conceding a 9-8 lead in the third (10-12).
Stamina is the thing with Makwana – often his brutal slayer – but luck is with him this time: 8-11, 13-11.
Enter Haroon Khan. He has referred to each of the opposition tonight as ‘John’ as if in an unfamiliar pub addressing various barmen. Parker doesn’t mind because that is his name, but the scoreline suggests otherwise: 11-5, 11-3, 11-6.
A 4-1 lead courtesy of Makwana and Bhura duffing up Weall and Parker looks ominous for Meadow. Cue comeback (4-4) and Hibbert, the white knight felling Bhura.