Hard to watch the normal matches, the gentle drift of ping-pong balls, when an evening opens up with such a classic. Usually there is a logical order to things, a slow increase in the Hilton Centre’s voltage by dint of talent: Level Veterans’ (40+) Singles final first, Level Doubles somewhere in the middle, and finally the Level Singles – supposedly the big boys without the creaks.
Not tonight. Charles ‘Marvellous’ Musa – pores still full with his 2014 Preston Championships treble – has pitched his veterans tent and is scouring the place for weaker opposition. What he sees is a man who hung around the English Table Tennis Association rankings in the 1980s with the likes of Desmond Douglas, Alan Cooke, John Hilton and Matthew Syed. His name? Stephen Scowcroft.
It is not always obvious when you are in the presence of a former great. It should be, but it isn’t. Scowcroft does not have the face of Bjorn Borg. Neither does he have the presence of Shaquille O’Neal. His body has been ravaged a little by the sands of time. His grey, receding hair gives the impression of a modestly sophisticated businessman. What has remained, however, are the eyes – sharp, darting constructions apparent to anyone who has watched live sport.
Musa played this man just over two weeks ago in what was the penultimate match of their Premier season and managed to edge it 11-8,9-11,5-11,11-9,11-9. Now, with Scowcroft barely three months out of retirement after an apparent 20-year sabbatical and Musa, loyalties this season tipped towards Ashton ‘A’ (Preston) over Nomads ‘A’ (Bolton), such a clash is a tray of cakes to the neutral.
It is green versus blue: Musa’s bright Butterfly top the coolest attire in the joint and something he tucks in seconds before the match acknowledging the seriousness of the occasion; Scowcroft, family around him – cameras at the ready – immediately alert and engaged, his gifted left hand delving into the archives for shots.
The early exchanges conjure up an image of skilled rocking chairs firing out bullets such is the players’ rhythmic brilliance, their mastery of stretching to returns. At 5-5 in the 1st Scowcroft mouths ‘Rushing’ – the realisation that Musa has pulled him in, has notched up the intensity and intends to go with the form book. With Scowcroft 7-6 down, I scribble “Shouldn’t be losing”. His polish is obvious to an amateur – each shot sculpted, warmed by the expensive rubbers on his blade.
A source articulates it better, more harshly: “He’s still playing the big lefty forehand loop…too high-octane for his age. He can’t get back into position.” Musa sees out the set…just (13-11).
The 2nd set is full of disorder, of competing mental game plans. Musa leads 3-1 but a soft Scowcroft backhand Krypton Factors over the net. 3-5 moments later – Musa in trouble. Are you here to entertain or win? you almost hear him think. Win is the answer as he becomes cagey, tactical, begins to exploit the Scowcroft right flank. 11-8: Just one more Charles.
The Musa nose snorts firmly. A 5-2 lead in the 3rd and then the relatively easy gravitation to 11-8. “Musa!” he harangued himself with in the middle of this set, but it’s another title, another jamboree.
Handicap Doubles (scratch)
Brett Haslam & Michael Dore beat Dennis Collier & Steve Barber (7-11, 12-10, 9-11, 14-12, 11-7)
>>> Haslam, serial bouncer of the ball before serving, responded to the shoulder-rolled angled forehands of Barber. Embarrassed by his own play early doors, Haslam found something in combination with Dore to shackle the frolicsome team of Collier and Barber.
Handicap Veterans’ (60+) Singles (2 handicap to JS)
Tom Ryan beats John Scowcroft (6-11, 11-9, 12-10, 11-8)
>>> Johnny Scowcroft is like a wind-up toy, the Duracell bunny that “lasts longer, much longer”. His 79-year-old frame, kitted out in trademark moss green T-shirt and tight blue shorts, strangles the 1st set. Ryan – perhaps just off the plane from Oz wearing an old-style cap and thin white beard – works his way into the match however…his black pimples becoming too much for the flat-hitting bobber (Scowcroft – 6-2 up in the 2nd, but the wheels coming off). Those windscreen wiper shots from Scowcroft – as if down at the car wash – are insufficient, flailing now in the company of the canny Ryan. Scowcroft is still fast and furious – a human tornado – but he is rushing past himself, his armoury, the full gamut of his available talents. The match ends and Scowcroft shifts his heavy thighs and grabs his purple towel from under the table. He looks like a man who needs a whisky, who wishes to be transported into gown and slippers. Ryan, the 76% player from Ramsbottom ‘C’ in Division One – Tommy to some, Mr Ryan to others – needed to turn his back more in the early parts of this match, prevent Scowcroft from hurrying him, but he has come good, seen off the threat of the bobber.
David Scowcroft & Stephen Scowcroft beat Dennis Collier & Steve Barber (11-8, 7-11, 11-8, 11-4)
>>> Dave Scowcroft, the man with the widest stance on the circuit and the most sinister glasses, needed the support of older brother Stephen (Most Improved Player of the Season 1979-80) to eclipse the partnership of ‘The Roadie’ Collier and the buoyant and infectious Barber “who stopped ageing at 29”.
Handicap Singles (scratch)
Keith Dale beats Robert Bent (11-8, 11-6, 8-11, 11-7)
>>> A guttural sound emanates from the southpaw, Dale in the manner of a Russian tennis player each time he strikes the ball. The gum-chewing 50% man from Division One dressed in blue Butterfly top and navy shorts looks poised and stylish – the unfair mien of the iconoclastic leftie in that they always look more capable. Bent went up to the Premier Division in September 2014 but found the going tough with his flat hitting – a return of 14% better than teammates James Hewitt (9%) and Mark Speakman (2%) but nonetheless quite damning. Dale, mid-table solace in One with Nomads ‘C’, is comfortable from beginning to end in this match despite the 3rd set give-up; his shots – complete with kick – leaving the green Stiga-topped Bent vulnerable. A quiet seemed to descend the hall during this match, but that was in part due to the Musa/Scowcroft singles show earlier, still in the heads of the watching public.
Stephen Scowcroft beats Michael Dore (11-7, 11-8, 11-6)
>>> Michael Dore, the Rubeus Hagrid of the table tennis circuit, would have been better advised to slip opponent Steve Scowcroft inside his overcoat and make off with him rather than square up to the nimble assassin. Despite his heroic semi-final defeat of Charles Musa (87%) – 12-10, 17-15, 2-11, 14-12 – Dore (51%) was never likely going to challenge the improving Scowcroft whose renewed hunger for the game will only intensify. The 60% record of Scowcroft since he again set foot on this hallowed turf on the 8th January is largely misleading in three respects: 1) He has yet to restore his ‘Five- set’ head having won only 1 of 6 marathon matches this season, 2) He had a dreadful late February / early March against Flixton and Ramsbottom (losing all six) – largely trials and testing ground before a good chunk of his old game returns, 3) His form will return and the expected transfer to Flixton for the 2015/16 season will whet his appetite, particularly as Ramsbottom had it far too easy this season courtesy of a mammoth 40-point cushion in the league. Coaxed out of retirement by brother, Dave, Steve will get the big guns of Ramsbottom (Lightowler & Moir) thinking again, nay panicking, if an ounce of his 1980s form can be reproduced. Tonight, he was too much for the black and grey striped Dore – sweat pouring from the bigger man’s left breast. The expletives which on occasion escaped the lips of Scowcroft suggest an inner force crying to get out and frustrated so far in his efforts to refine his game to the levels he expects. Dore led 5-4 in the first two sets of this auspicious final but one sensed throughout that Scowcroft is only beginning to discover forgotten gems at the foot of his old locker – shots and tactics that will project him to modest highs and hopefully make the Premier Division interesting once more.
Played before tonight:
Level Mixed Doubles
Dennis Collier & Annie Hudson beat Charles Musa & Jean Smart
>>> The master chopper, Collier had to win something. From his workshop the compact, defensive warrior used lathe, wood and nous to take out the distinctive Premier/Division Three pairing of Musa and Smart.
Level Junior Singles
Jordan Brookes beats Max Brooks
>>> Watch out for ‘Mad’ Max as he conquers Division Two next season. They said a new Wilson Parker could not be built, but the signs are that something special has arrived.