Category Archives: Sports Profile

Wilson Parker-Roger Bertrand III


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


The Lostock Lasher

There are only three players across all five divisions of the Bolton Table Tennis League with a 95% win average over the past two seasons. A couple of them stand out: Premiership stalwarts, Michael Moir (Ramsbottom A) and John Hilton (Flixton CC). Down in the depths of Division 4, however (and rarely talked about) is Lostock A’s John Nuttall with the somewhat incredible record of 113 wins out of 114.

He is unorthodox, accurate, quick and powerful, and clearly owes many of his skills to tennis; his two-handed backhand alone surprising many purists. Why has he languished in Bolton’s bottom division? Because – despite the individual, match-playing nature of table tennis – each team consists of three players. If one of these cogs isn’t performing, the emphasis on the other two to regularly ‘treble’ becomes burdensome.

After finishing 3rd (outside the promotion places) for this very reason in 2011/12, Lostock strengthened last summer via the consistent services of 89% man, Adam Francis. Having now comfortably won the 2012/13 Division 4 title, they are finally set for life outside the bottom tier. Will Nuttall, the Lostock Lasher cope? Will his near-perfect record disintegrate when subjected to the wily manoeuvres of Division 3’s finest? I suspect he will destroy most of those who face him. And his single defeat at the hands of Heaton’s Dave Jones Snr will be avenged (both home and away for good measure).

I rarely ‘talk up’ sportsmen, but John Nuttall’s game consists of certain ingredients it is hard to ignore. His supple, elastic-like wrist has the habit of bending seemingly implausible shots back at the opposition. And such forehands are not only deep but fast. Stretching the ‘enemy’ represents the nucleus of his game. If you are not nimble, if you cannot move with sufficient speed, then you are done for.

I had the privilege of playing against The Lasher for the first time eighteen months ago. And I knew immediately – from the pounding rallies, the constant pushing and probing – that this was someone I had to ‘spar’ with. For a moment I felt like Muhammad Ali needing the jabs and muscle of the young Larry Holmes in order to improve his defences.

Nuttall is relentless. He can break you. Small talk, when practising/sparring, is often sacrificed at the altar of sweat. For this, as a means of balancing the humiliation, I am grateful.

* This piece was published in The Bolton News Sports Supplement on Tues, 4th June 2013