Finding a Table

Sometimes I tire of playing at the same old clubs, leisure centres and schools. They are mostly warm, accommodating and adequate places but not particularly unique.

I had a theory a while back that a hidden society resides outside of the orthodox ETTA umbrella and leagues; people loving the game, playing whenever they can – during lunch hours, after work, necessary ‘scraps’ and ‘ding-dongs’ because table tennis affords us a monarchic state of mind.

Where would I find such a world though – tables maybe not accessible to the general public, venues mightier than Meadow Hill’s “large shed”? I work in Manchester and so given China’s relative peerlessness in the game over the last 20 years (a Wang/Zhang dynasty of late), I immediately thought of Chinatown.

The area is bordered by four streets: Charlotte to the north; Portland (east); Princess (south); and Mosley (west). The plan was to visit a few restaurants inside this half square mile cordon – see if a world of basement-playing stars actually existed.

Once within it – this mini-20th century Chicago to my mind, full of bustle and character – I entered the premises of the first restaurant that took my eye. New Emperor, perhaps understandably, was not an auspicious start to my tracking down the hidden tables in this section of town. “No, no, no,” came the startled response from the waiter or manager with other things on his mind.

Hunan, China City, Happy Seasons, Little Yang Sing, China Buffet and BBQ all followed (in what order I cannot recall). At last I stumbled upon people with a low score on my ‘startled-ometer’, those willing to assist in whatever capacity without the automatic assumption that I was mad.

The big, bespectacled man at Happy Seasons kindly crossed out the restaurants that had closed – farewell New Hong Kong, Dragon City and Pan Asia. The pretty manageress or accountant at BBQ offered me a seat, a smile and a brief history of the area (Ping Hong in 1948, Manchester’s first Chinese restaurant).

So sixty-five years on – surely there was something beyond the dim sum and bamboo shoots. The trail hotted up with my visit to Great Wall. “Speak to Bonnie. Yang Sing. Princess Street.” I scooted over there. Sure enough, they have a ‘Ping Pong Cha’ evening once a month. Not the earthy, underground TT I was looking for, but a small result for my endeavour.

 

Dangermen

The process of digging and researching for a column each week can unexpectedly enrich the subject you have in mind. Sometimes I need good sources, inside knowledge, ‘the beef’ from more experienced players. The narrative will always be mine but they inadvertently hone it with their reactions, responses and behaviour.

In the course of attempting to compile a list of each division’s danger men (and women) for 2013/14, I have run up against succinct replies, general reticence and flim-flam. In short, people don’t always give you what you want. Occasionally the great nuggets surface in amongst the chaff though; players who understand that table tennis needs raw and honest coverage – something to fire its sails.

Let us start with Division Four. It will be a weaker division in September (Nuttall, Francis & Grimwood all departing). This should clear the way for St Paul’s Rory McIntyre and Ladybridge’s Philip Stewart. Expect a 90% win record from both. Joining them near the top of the averages – provided he changes into trainers and shorts – will be James Storey, Harper Green’s resident worker (deceptive speed from the big man). Farnworth’s Andrew Gregory – wounded and hurt following relegation from Three – should quickly adapt his superior game to the demands of this division. Finally, my wild card: Bolton L&G’s Faizan Bhura (bidding wars may ensue).

Division Three will be a beautiful and rarefied setting next season for a handful of very strong players. I am certain the cream will rise: Lostock’s John Nuttall – undefeated in Four and will be too hot to handle for most of Three’s constituents; Heaton’s Dave Jones Jnr – his own harshest critic (Summer League battles have toughened him); Walkden’s Richard Whittleworth – passionate and fierce (a giant); Hilton’s Mathew Fishwick (solid coaching behind him) and wild card, John Barker (relegated but technically sound).

Division Two is my level next time out following successive promotions with BRASS. I am no fool though and expect weekly beatings from most players, especially Meadow Ben’s Mike Audsley and Heaton’s southpaw, Paul McCormick. The new boy, Wilson Parker will set this league alight (his entourage alone unsettling some). My wild card has to be Hilton’s Bethany Farnworth (again, a relegation faller).

The top two divisions (One & Prem), I am told, will have Ladybridge’s burgeoning Steve Hathaway mixing it with Little Lever’s Duncan Hadfield, and Flixton’s Louis Rosenthal threatening the dominance of Ramsbottom’s Michael Moir.

 

Summer Dream

Finals Night. The last competitive run-out before September. Not quite the significance of a Warburton Cup Final or Closed Championship, but important to many players – a useful gauge as to their standing across all five winter divisions; an empirical assertion that one’s form curve is either upward or downward.

Truly committed table tennis connoisseurs stick it out until now – book their holidays in late July or August. They understand the need to extend the seven-month season to nine, sacrifice pleasure for an often greater feeling – that of pulling off new shots and defeating someone two divisions above you.

There are characters galore at the Hilton Centre tonight. It is an intensely hot evening. Too hot. It feels like a mountaineers’ base camp though such is the camaraderie and good humour.

I examine a few of the faces: Barry Walsh – in his seventies but with a knowing twinkle in his eye; Malcolm Rose – known as ‘Magic’, a fighter extraordinare; Alan Bradshaw – always ready with the chocolate after a match as if marooned; Brian Young – keen to regale those around him with a famous tale; Richard Reading – Bolton’s answer to Father Christmas.

It feels like an extended family. The warmth of these individuals is quite affecting. There isn’t an obvious hunger about them when it comes to the game, but once in the table tennis cauldron, the pit – beware!

The best four teams in this 20-team tournament have been Dynamo, Hilton B, Coburg and Barcroft – steered admirably by Wilson Parker, Annie Hudson, Jim Hewitt and John Scowcroft. Dynamo – magical in many ways – remain the only undefeated side (W 8 D 1 L 0). It has been a round-robin master class. And their knockout clash against fellow divisional winners, Hilton B proves to be comfortable: 13-5. Champions, Dynamo!

It is one half of this summer crew that I wish to mention and pay homage to in closing: 18-year-old Mathew Fishwick. Just the one ‘T’ in Mathew which is a shame as this boy deserves two. The obvious acronym (TT) would have been quite fateful given Fishwick’s transformation into an extremely competent player.

His name, in the same company as Lindsey Thornton and Andrew Rushton courtesy of The Ralph Palmer Memorial Trophy for ‘Most Promising Junior’ (2011/12), will be spoken of much more in the coming years I suspect. He has “worked patiently and tirelessly”. Expect a 75% win record 2013/14.

 

Five-Set Woe

Coburg’s Bob Bent (Div 1 / 55%) is an enigma. He has the appearance and manner of an uncompromising and offhand army sergeant and yet his serves have something of a 1920s jazz-injection about them; highballs with plenty of sophistication and liquor. It is the cutting prowess of the play which deceives lesser opponents – has them spellbound and fumbling.

Jefco’s Jeff Saunders – an unknown statistically speaking – equipped with penhold grip and raw belief, has little attacking ability but the clever knack of de-beautifying the game. His chopping, side spin returns – feet away from the table – are like menacing caveats: NOT MUCH VARIETY BUT I NEVER GIVE IN.

Bent, immediately wary of this wild card before him, somehow scrambles his way through the first game (11-9). His cheeks are puffed out, his legs heavy. He has the look of an escaped prisoner being chased by bloodhounds such is the relentlessness of Saunders.

Jefco’s unseeded grafter takes hope from the initial battle and duly wins games two and three (5-11, 9-11). With his grey mop of hair and black T-shirt, there is a hint of the ageing rocker about Saunders, an unwillingness to let the music stop.

Momentarily, it does (11-6 Bent), but Saunders prevails (9-11) through sweat, his millimetre-perfect chop and the canny methodology of a dull executioner.

Next up is Coburg’s Mark Speakman (Div 1 / 20%) and Jefco’s mighty Dave Jones Jnr (Div 3 / 67%). Speakman streaks ahead (11-8). He possesses a blistering backhand which unleashes the fury of the table tennis gods at times. Wearing his trademark blue and white top, he is, for the moment, preying on the seemingly unoiled game of Jones Jnr.

Jones has a habit of whacking his left thigh with the bat when things are going wrong, as if seeking out blood or life amid the numbness. Kick-starting his game, a semblance of his ability, he begins to produce what I know he is capable of: 4-11, 6-11. Not one to rein in the high-risk shots, he is, all of a sudden, unforgiving, acutely adaptable. 10-12.

An early 3-6 lead for Jefco; Jones narrowly avoiding a cataclysmic five-setter which can chew up your insides and leave you shaking like you’re about to enter an examination hall.

The doubles (2-3) pushes Jefco further ahead, Speakman learns how to master Saunders (3-1), yet Jones adds to Bent’s five-set woe (2-3). 10-13 Jefco. Exceptional.

 

Joan of Arc

Rarely will there be a more attacking pair than Hilton B’s Annie Hudson (Div 1 – 75%) and stand in, Wilson Parker (Div 3 – 96%). Serendipity has led us here with the withdrawal of regular player, Chris Naylor and we must now feast our eyes on the magnificence about to unfold.

The opposition, Barcroft’s Steve Barber (Prem – 28%) and John Scowcroft (Div 2 – 77%) are worldly-wise – schooled in the finer elements of the game – but I suspect that the handicap system plus Hilton B’s snarling youth will be their downfall.

Scowcroft, lime top tonight, as if about to be plunged into a bottle of Corona, starts off well: a 1-5 lead against the brazenly talented, Hudson. The game plan with John is as it always is – bob around and hurl grenade-like shots; hope the opposing player finds it too much.

Hudson, Women’s British League player, the Joan of Arc of the Bolton Table Tennis circuit, isn’t one to simply bow though and accept the fate before her. The shots and speed of the Butterfly-attired doyenne soon begin to surface. It is 7-7 and she has upped the ante. Scowcroft needs to alter the direction of the ball rather than continue with this toe-to-toe insanity. Too late. 12-10 Hudson.

The 2nd game is another full-whipped extravaganza, a constant barrage of looping forehands and minor, between-shot adjustments to involve the backhand. Scowcroft will not submit. 9-11. He is back in the match.

Such effort had to take its toll, however. Hudson artlessly has that glint about her. She steamrolls opponents with a smile. There are fewer net shot mistakes. 11-8. Despite an unsettling ‘Oy!!’ in the 4th from Scowcroft to signal his displeasure at a piece of bad umpiring (4-5, instead of 3-6 on the scoreboard after a wondrous nick of the table down the left), Annie reels off eight points to confirm the gulf in class. 11-6.

Parker picks up where his teammate left off: 11-7, 11-8, 9-11, 11-6 (a mighty and hopeless task indeed for Barber to restrain this young wizard particularly given the 4-pt handicap each game). The doubles is less of a formality (3-2) but it becomes an impressive 9-4 on the night.

Scowcroft falls to Parker 3-0 and Hudson defeats Premier man, Barber 3-1 in the main event of the evening. It is a bountiful 15-5 from the big lights in Division One and Three.

Farewell Ingerson

The text arrived at 1.14pm on 4 June 2013. 60-year-old Alan Ingerson, rejuvenated through his brief spell with Division Three, BRASS announced to me that he had signed for Ladybridge ‘B’ in Division One.

Despite BRASS winning the 4th tier title – in large part, of course, due to the heroics of 96% man, Ingerson – he had decided to walk away. There wasn’t quite the press coverage of a significant football transfer or the fanfare in Ladybridge to welcome the new player. And certainly no stepping off a plane to be greeted by a marching band (just 3.3 miles separate BRASS’ venue, Victoria Hall from the Ladybridge Community Centre). But to the table tennis community – fully aware of their marginalised status – this was a pivotal moment.

Players’ careers at local level can last for 70 years. Ingerson had already put in a 46-year stint and the old sparkle had seemed to return. There had been tantrums, heated moments and snarls as with any relationship but also plenty of mirth and camaraderie. Ingerson had been a par excellence signing for BRASS – an ‘out of contract’ (so to speak) mercurial wonder. His game was different to anything I’d seen before – the south-paw top spin like watching an industrial worker crank a heavy piece of machinery. Returning such balls was little short of impossible given their accentuated kick. Only the canniest of opponents knew how.

Having made his debut on 31 October 2012, he lost two of his initial fifteen matches. To most players returning from a two-season sabbatical such statistics would please them. Ingerson, somewhat traumatised by his ‘black November’, set out to correct and fine tune certain parts of his game; the result being that in his final thirty-three matches he was unbeaten. 46/48 wins – one for each year of effort since he first picked up a bat in 1967.

I have had the privilege of playing alongside many different nationalities – Ethiopian, Zambian, Iranian, French – and when Ingerson approached BRASS with a view to joining the team, I was expecting a fair-haired Scandinavian giant. Instead, we got a follicly-challenged, affable grumbler – one a joy to be around though.

Backroom transfer deals in table tennis are unlikely to be replaced with a transparent electronic system anytime soon, but I bear no ill will. We have lost our ‘Eric Cantona’ like Leeds in 1992, but his sublime presence will not be forgotten.

 

Wilson Parker-Roger Bertrand III

rivalry

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

 

Barcroft Blitz

Sometimes you get lucky. You sit down for a match not expecting much, but are then wowed and taken to a heavenly place. Tonight’s clash between Barcroft and Arabian Nights showcased the exquisite talents of Division Two’s John Scowcroft, the 77% man from ‘across the tracks’ – a lower-tiered player compared to teammate, Steve Barber (Premier – 27%) and ‘Arabian’ opponents Dave Holden and Jim Hewitt (Division One – 50% & 58% respectively).

If I am guilty of concentrating my pen on the exploits of just one player during a typical summer league evening – to the slight detriment of the other three – then I make no apologies. Scowcroft is worth the ink. He is 77-years-old, first played in 1952, yet has the vim and vigour of a man half his age. To see him bobbing and weaving in anticipation of each awkward shot is to be reminded of Mike Tyson at his best in the ring. One could say that Scowcroft is the Benjamin Button of the table tennis circuit. He appears to age backwards.

Resplendent in green polo shirt and blue shorts, he quickly asserts himself against Jim Hewitt. He is furnished with a 2-pt handicap yet the spring, chops, fluid movement and smashes of Scowcroft are worthy of the 11-9 opening win. Hewitt, methodical, serious-looking with a hint of nonchalance has a pimpled bat capable of reversing opponents’ shots or inducing extra swerve on the ball coupled with a Blancmange-like wobble. He preys on the over-anxiousness of Scowcroft in the 2nd (8-11).

The third game both entertains and delights: Scowcroft vociferous following a contentious ‘let’ at 6-4 and the crowd mesmerized by a 50-shot rally (Scowcroft stretching his lead to 9-6, then nailing it 11-7). The combination shots – lift, backhand, forehand – are impressive and despite being behind 2-5 in the 4th, he is too strong for Hewitt and brings the match home 11-7.

Steve Barber can only smile. How can he eclipse that? Sure enough, his match against Dave Holden is achingly tight but it slips away: 11-8, 9-11, 9-11, 11-6, 9-11. Plenty of nerve from the Joola T-shirted Arabian.

Success in the doubles follows (2-3) and we’re at 7-7 on the night.

Barber ‘cracks the safe’ with a beautiful 3-2 win over Hewitt, but it is Scowcroft who compounds the victory – who else? – refusing to bow to Holden’s vexatious ‘push’. 3-1. 13-10 Barcroft. Wonderful.

* This piece was published in The Bolton News on Tues, 18th June 2013

 

The Ultimate Banana Skin

Everybody’s got a shot – a good shot. Irlam Steel’s Neville Singh included. His looping forehand might surface as often as a sleepy judge striking his sounding block, but it’s there. Ready to put you off balance. Ready to demonstrate that nothing is a foregone conclusion in table tennis.

Conscientious players check the form guide before meeting the opposition. They run through their opponents’ typical points per game, whether four and five-setters are a common occurrence, whether their strength lies in playing against choppers or attack-minded individuals; lastly, whether they love the big scalps, the big wins – an underdog’s paradise.

Singh’s Division 3 Win Record reads: 1 out of 45 (2011/12) and 5 out of 40 (2012/13). There is progress – 400% one might say – but in many ways he is the ultimate banana skin. Players fear getting caught up in his cycle of carefully sculpted shots, the slowed-down grace of his ‘utilising the skills I have’. The psychological damage of losing to Singh can be immense, career-threatening even. Speak to Garvin Yim (his first conquest), Diane Moss and Danni Taylor (his only ‘double’ – that famous night on 13th September 2012). All have since quit the league, walked away.

And yet, just as Floyd Patterson’s defeat to Sonny Liston in 1962 did not make him a loser, so too must the indefatigable Singh not be labelled or tarnished. He may not have had the highs of Patterson but he is an example to us all in perseverance and refusing to let his love of the game be dampened. “I have rarely felt humiliated even though humbled by my scores…I observe the good points of others in style, skill and temperament.”

Still keeping fit, “eschewing large meals and regularly walking around [his] village”, Neville Singh is not a celebrity. He is much more – a gallant battler, soon to be 75, still standing amidst the wasteland of his match scores. “My victories are indeed few…but I love the game.” When he says it, you want to nod your head, put your arm around his shoulders. Singh is a talisman for us all. There is something extraordinary and unassuming in his manner.

From the tropical climate of British Guiana in the 1950s, to the storm-laden Atlantic Ocean in 1963 (courtesy of a rolling and pitching ship), on to bitter Scotland (1986-2007), Singh’s table tennis evolution has ended in Bolton. Glory be.

* This piece was published in The Bolton News on Tues, 11th June 2013

 

A Grave Night for the Coffin Dodgers

The peculiarities of the Summer League handicap system were exposed tonight. Based on a team’s ranking across all five winter divisions, rather than an individual’s win percentage, they pitted same-division players’ John Barker and Alan Bradshaw against each other with Barker, the stronger player incredulously getting a 2-point start. There is little reason to believe that this had a significant impact on the final scoreline, but it is probably time for the committee to introduce a fairer, personalised system.

On paper the teams seemed evenly matched – Adele Spibey (Div3 – 71%) and John Barker (Div 2 – 33%) of Me & Partner Vs Barry Walsh (Div2 part-timer) and Alan Bradshaw (Div2 – 27%) of Coffin Dodgers. All had their weapons, their styles, their trademark shots but it was Barker, the structural engineer most effectively analysing the players before him.

First to feel the might of his sweeping, cross-table backhand was Walsh, the T-shirt mad veteran. 11-6 followed by a tense 15-13 firmly put Barker in control. Walsh – Donic’s unpaid ambassador – pawed his way back into the match, however; his blocking and well-positioned shots temporarily bringing a halt to Barker’s bluster and brawn (5-11). As if beaten back by the fullness of Barker’s game though, Walsh – more of an instinctive player rather than technique-induced – bowed (9-2), briefly rallied (10-8) then fell (11-8) just as the evening promised a five-game spectacle.

Spibey, next to appear – her tall frame exhibiting both shrewd potency and an aching humility – gave her usual pre-match drawl of not being the favourite. Bradshaw, recent double hernia operation behind him and heavy strapping down the right side of his body (knee, wrist and elbow), would disagree.

True to appearances, Spibey powered her way through the initial game (11-6); vicious backhands ricocheting off her opponent. Bradshaw, not to be undone – despite his limited manoeuvrability – got back on level terms (11-13) partly due to his teasing, deceptive spin. Perhaps motivated by the symbolic flair of her blue and yellow, Brazilian-like top and the realism of her youthful vigour Spibey regained control: 11-8, 11-8. Another 3-1 win for Me & Partner.

‘How do you stop this girl?’ Unsettle her, play unorthodox shots, get the ball to really kick. Nobody was listening: The doubles is a whitewash (3-0); Spibey destroys Walsh (3-0); Barker tears into Bradshaw (3-0). 15-2 at the close. A laboured evening for some.

* This piece was published in The Bolton News on Tues, 28th May 2013