Bandits, hustlers and ringers all descend from the same family line. Generally speaking they have had parts in old Westerns (mixing it up with Clint Eastwood), have hung around pool rooms waiting for the notes to stack up or have stood on the first tee at golf clubs with concealed smiles (their better scorecards destroyed before the hearth).
Raymond Isherwood, table tennis’s 94% man from Division Four and bit-part 27% man from Division Two must have perfected the position of his holster for he regularly slays summer league opposition courtesy of his blazing ‘8’ handicap.
Controversial and unwieldy such a buffer appears to be – at least to the players that stand ten or eleven feet in front of him; the number impaling their senses given its preposterousness.
Isherwood himself is only semi-contrite: “Yeah – it’s wrong, but I’m not moaning.”
A somewhat stocky player, not obviously skilful or threatening, Isherwood serves the ball as if making bread. His hands belie the archetypal clumsiness of the ‘big man’, turning the ball into a spinning piece of dough, floured up and ready to bake.
The results so far – assisted by his mesmeric serve – have been methodical if slightly tainted by the furore which surrounds this particular competition each year: 11-7, 9-11, 10-12, 11-9, 11-5 versus Paul Brandwood; 8-11, 11-7, 11-9, 11-2 versus Bob Bent; 6-11, 11-6, 11-2, 11-6 versus Krishna Chauhan; 10-12, 11-9, 9-11, 11-6, 10-12 versus Wilson Parker; 11-4, 12-10, 11-7 versus John Biggins; 11-7, 12-10, 11-2 versus David Holden.
Apart from the Parker reverse (at one stage prompting the titanic cry of “He’s five-nil up!” just a point into the set), the Isherwood cruise ship has ploughed through big name after big name. And it is this leisurely ice-breaking which has led to calls for a further revamp of the handicap system.
How can this man be ranked alongside Division Four’s 29% player, Scott Brown the critics demand when he is three times more successful? How can he be three shelves lower than the Ladybridge duo of Brian Greenhalgh (handicap 5) and John Cole (5) when he recently sent them stumbling to relegation courtesy of three and four set victories in the winter league?
Born in July 1991 and a carpet fitter by trade, Isherwood – one could say – has been given the opportunity of smothering his opponents with underlay before the play has even begun. Invited into the ‘last man standing’ wonderland of unburdensome competition, he has taken full advantage of this bountiful scheme like an otter discovering a fish bar.
Apolitical, yet with the teeth of Tony Blair, Isherwood when not playing ‘the bandit’ is actually an astute player. Coached diligently by Billy Russell and a regular attendee of Hilton’s (unofficial) “Pro night” each Thursday, his game in the medium term is expected to be that of a Division One player.
“Lower working class” beginnings have not halted the man from Gilnow. They have merely instilled greater tenacity and fight. And such is the commitment of Isherwood – another product of the Bolton Lads’ and Girls’ Club – that his notorious pre-match meal of burger and coke has been replaced with steamed chicken and water (and a splash of Thai boxing).
Asked if he has any heroes, he replies “No” but then thinks again: “My dad due to his determination.”