Shawshank Redemption

The Bolton Table Tennis Summer League is less intense than the winter season. There is an air of gaiety inside the Hilton Centre which hosts the 20-team tournament. Mirth seems to breathe easy in this Mecca which often bears witness to fraught encounters. Losing is treated with a shrug rather than mental torment.

The sardonic team names represent the pairs taking part; the best of which – Coffin Dodgers – neatly describes the oldest entrants, Alan Bradshaw and Barry Walsh (combined age, 150). Tonight, however, I am here to examine Coburg’s Bob Bent & Mark Speakman and Flying Bats’ Roger Bertrand & Scott Brown. There is a slight gulf in class, hence the handicaps given to the latter of three and six points per game.

First on court are Bent and Brown. Bent has the look of a slightly grizzled and stout Tim Robbins from The Shawshank Redemption. His piercing eyes set him apart from his affable team mate. Brown, built like a Washington Redwood, with the stubble of a hobo, knows this match will be tough.

The first eight points go to Bent – his forehand rampant. One courageous effort from Brown but it wasn’t telling enough. Finally, a backhand down the left deceives Bent (8-7); a score line worth tuning into. Normality resumes though: 11-8. The second game is a replica (11-8); far too many loose shots from Brown. Bent’s bulk and menacing disposition seem to intimidate opponents. Despite encouraging top spins from Brown, his prosaic shot selections do little to rattle the experienced Bent and so the match ends 11-9 (3-0 Coburg).

Next up is the bearded Frenchman, Bertrand. Sweat glistens from his forehead before a ball has been hit. Speakman, the struggling Div1 player should have enough in the locker to fend off the Div3 champion.

Wild forehands and net shots punctuate Bertrand’s early play. He is a notoriously slow starter. 11-7 Speakman. Bertrand dips into his stash of bananas and manages to find some form: 6-11. The following game is full of hard hitting – a strongman’s circus. Bertrand, failing to read Speakman’s spin, hits it long: 12-10. The diminutive Speakman is beginning to hypnotise his Gaelic opponent. It is too much. 11-8 (6-1 Coburg).

Flying Bats salvage a modicum of respect after the 3-0 doubles defeat (Brown nicking a game off Speakman / Bertrand pushing Bent to five), but it is a slaughter. 15-4 Coburg.

* This piece was published in The Bolton News on Tues, 21st May 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


Slumped Shoulders and Modest Applause

Blackpool, opportunistic and clever like the two ice-cream vans parked up on Sefton Lane, spoiled the anticipated party today. An unusual gamble from Bolton’s Dougie Freedman – giving no.17, Robert Hall his full debut – left the right of defence exposed and more than likely unsettled the back line which in the first half conceded two early goals.

It was a truly inauspicious beginning – one which only a high-spirited dreamer might think Bolton able to reverse. Two players excelled for Blackpool – Matt Phillips and Ludovic Sylvestre – and it was soft complacency that allowed both stars joyous and incredulous celebrations.

2-0 down. Where to go? Bolton appeared lacklustre, far from the balanced side that had orchestrated this final day cliffhanger. Some fans will credit Freedman for his 37th minute substitution which preceded the drama of injury time goals from Eagles (45+2) and C Davies (45+4) thus levelling matters at 2-2. I will not (I am four years older than DF and have a sure-hearted conviction). The refulgence of Eagles came from the middle – not his new-found position out on the wing (compounded following the introduction of Sordell).

Replacing Hall was a lesson not in tactical genius but how to deflate a young player actually gaining in confidence and starting to show beautiful ball control with his imperious left peg. It is possible that the roving menace of Davies and Sordell together – following the withdrawal of Hall – opened up the Blackpool defence, but I would counter this with the theory that Eagles simply raised his game, proved that he was the best player on the park when mindful of his own threat.

The second half, despite the hope and longing sequestered, proved to be a difficult affair. Sure, Medo still allowed Pratley to scamper forward. Chungy Lee hinted at mesmerizing runs of old. And Ream’s distribution was competent. But beyond the transient, intricate passing and the palatial, if belated brilliance of Eagles stood a team not quite hungry enough.

Their slumped shoulders and modest applause to the fans during the ‘lap of appreciation’ suggested disappointment and the hurtful knowledge of a further 12-month sabbatical from the Premiership, yet they must now begin the process of knowing how to boss the opposition. Anything less will leave them as also-rans.

I am optimistic. Tom Eaves has the look and touch of a broad-shouldered Cantona (his ‘two feet by the post’ shot signalling future audacity). Robert Hall has a whistling, sniper-like shot (and his positional sense will improve). Josh Vela and Stuart Holden – well, I needn’t be the town crier for these marvels. Three more players (GK, CH & a 30-goal-a-season striker) and a sprinkle of luck and we will be there, looking down on the pack in 2014.

* This piece was edited down to 400 words and published in The Bolton News on Mon, 6 May 2013


Wooed and Bamboozled


Closed Championship Finals – Tues 23rd April 2013
Junior Singles / Handicap Singles / Veterans / Doubles / Singles
Venue: Hilton Centre, 7.30pm

Just as I drove into Horwich tonight, I saw an old woman – bent, still graceful, picking daffodils from the grassy central reservation. She seemed to signify effort and the seeking of inexpensive beauty; much like table tennis. As a sport, TT has that vital combination – it is for anyone (rich or poor) and the satisfaction it affords the limbs, the mind, the deep, fleshy walls within us is poetic, invigorating. I have often rolled back home (10.15, 10.30pm) after a heavy match night and felt – despite the tiredness – entirely refreshed, mentally sharp, fully at one with everything around me…my body, quite simply, peaceful, no tremors or tics or twitches…just gooooddd, sublime.

I wonder how many of the twelve finalists (seven individuals) have felt equal or similar heights. I wonder if the prowess of ‘the game’ – with its skill and sweat – has hypnotized them, wooed and bamboozled them, left them like babies crying for the bat. Them all, I suspect. I see no discord in their faces – just the need, the desire to play, take the bat from its ‘holster’ and…woof, nick, bang, chop.

We’ve fallen in. Into the game, the warm up. We’re breathing again. Breathing properly, rhythmically. MOVE THE FEET. MOVE THE FEET. It’s like we’ve never been away. Do you keep your paddle under your pillow when you’re not here? I wouldn’t want to burgle Barry Elliott’s house if so. He has the brutal crash and smash of a wrecking ball – the opposition to him merely a crumbling block of flats. No eyes. No soul. Just fodder. There for his perverse destruction.

I came here to see Dennis Collier, the roadie – last year’s comeback king; his defensive master class a fillip for anyone. He was rudely dispatched, dumped out of the Singles Q/F by Elliott though (11-6, 11-6, 12-14, 11-4) and fell foul in the Veterans to the other Singles Finalist, Andrew Jackson (11-7, 11-9, 14-12). Keep them apart in the draw! Don’t you know that pitting Collier against these boys so early is like Djokovic playing Nadal in the first round. An insult to The Roadie, the very fibres of his floppy, rock star hair, his grey whiskers which surround his mouth like an army manoeuvre. You better be good, Elliott…Jackson…You better both entertain me!!

They have poured in – a crowd of 60 or 70. Quite a festival. But no sandwiches tonight. Did someone forget? We had them last year and it was a scramble, a race, a battle – first to the ham. Feels more dignified with just tea and coffee – no chomping, no flying splinters of bread. Calm. Let the attention be on the players. Let’s weed out the ‘free meal’ brigade. Easy to spot – always looking to their side. HAS THE SHUTTER OPENED? ARE THOSE BEAUTIES PLATED UP YET? Not tonight. Not tonight, you hungry scoundrels!

Junior Singles Final – Danny Harris (Div 2 – 77%) Vs Jordan Brookes (Prem – 43%)
I don’t know what to make of these young guns – Harris in black (red stripe), Brookes in yellow (black stripe)…the bookie’s favourite, the if not seasoned Premier player then certainly a prospect, a dynamic and precocious talent.

Harris is stockier. He has the subtle, growling expression of a baby lynx. A boy, man, mannish boy confident in himself (recent Division 2 winner for the Clayborough camp) yet obviously wary of the threat from Brookes.

Harris loses his initial serve (0-1). He then ruffles Brookes a little by taking the next three points (3-1). Pretty good, Danny. Wounded from last year’s final defeat, but socking it to him – showing mettle, polish and the brave flair of the underdog. Damn – I spoke too soon. Brookes takes the next seven points (3-8). Technique and the low, stooping whip-action of Brookes demand that the spotlight be shifted, that the crowd end their fascination with Harris. 5-11. It’s gone. Nothing flash, a little cagey at times and the wonder rallies are yet to surface, but building, teetering on a decent spectacle.

2nd game, set (those ‘in the know’, the iconoclasts, call them sets). Harris starts the same (3-1), not to be discouraged, mentally fickle. He reads the game well, his belief has solidified a little. Given the chance, he likes to bomb his forehands into the corners. The problem is not enough are hitting the surface. Long. Quite a few. His face says DON’T THINK THAT’S MY NORMAL GAME, CHUMP to the crowd. 4-7. Slipping again. Brookes didn’t really get going (slight homage to his opponent), but now…now, he’s Ali bouncing around the ring, choosing when to turn chops into top spins at will. Deep loops. The full repertoire beginning to appear. Technical panache. 5-11. Nearly home.

A word or two from the sidelines. Geeing up their protégés. HOW CAN WE HELP, GET OUR MAN ON TOP? A change – the style of serve seems to have altered in both camps. Brookes shows that his latent backhand is no mug either. Low. Low. Low. Every time now. Picking off the shots. Harris can see that there’s no way back. For a moment I see consternation in his face. His flicked retorts and ripostes just don’t hold enough power. His forehands have weakened as well. A serve into the net. 7-11. It’s over. Maybe next time. Brookes’ calibre, his pedigree was a wee step too far. Jordan – YOU THE MAN.

Handicap Singles Final– Danny Harris [+3] (Div 2 – 77%) Vs Andy Evans (Prem – 44%)
Harris again. No more Final defeats…PLEASE! A strong start. 5-1 including the handicap. But then come the Evans’ downward chops – nice bits of sorcery, healthy extravaganzas in times of trouble. Look at that damn grip as well! Looser than Elvis’s hips – a swinging, rotating, bat-toting Wild West phenomenon. I didn’t rate this guy in the Doubles S/F but now…there’s more to him, as if let out of the stable or a safe backwater town. He has been unharnessed, told to rear up like a stallion, unceasingly pound the opposition. 7-7. Six out of the last eight points. Neighhhhhhhhhh. 8-9. 9-9. Harris shows a tiny bit of fight. 9-10. A softer, well-placed smash from the equine Evans. Just one point away. Harris falls, fails, cannot muster the fantabulous. 9-11.

3-0. Early lead. Well, that is his handicap, what the scoreboard shows before a ball has been tossed (barring an unlikely gaff from the astute umpire, Mr George ‘Bantamweight’ Berry). 3-2. 3-4. Oh, no. Has Harris slowed down? He bounces about – tries to re-charge his ailing frame. A marvellous jump into a deep forehand drive: 5-5. A sniff once more. Not given in yet. A lot of net cords tonight – most of them ending up on the right side of the table. But how to maintain this? 6-8. Long from Harris. Danny Boy. Division 2’s eighth finest player. Suddenly not in the hunt. 7-11.

Do we write him off at this stage? Is there any gas left in the tank? The kudos of a famously painful, yet inspiring 10-set league double over Paul McCormick still shimmers in the distance. Not ordinary victories but against D2’s Top Ten Medal Winner. And in both of them Danny was 2 sets down!! Stamina. DON’T MATTER, BEEN HERE BEFORE comes the white patois. Well – almost. Rifts of Lenny Kravitz burst across the floor:

So many tears I’ve cried

So much pain inside

But baby it ain’t over ‘til it’s over

Except it is. The ‘iffy’ doubles man, Evans has been transformed. His ‘through the window of the left arm’ serves have added a steel not seen earlier. His seems to be toying with Harris now having navigated the battlefield before him. We’re at 6-6. 6-8. 7-9. 7-11. RAISE A GLASS TO ANDY EVANS! Sorcerer. Premier League Man. The difference had to tell.

Veterans (40+) Final – Jeff Craighill (Prem – 53%) Vs Andrew Jackson (Prem – 81%)
I didn’t know it before, but this is the match I really wanted to write about. In the left corner surely David Moyes (escapee from Goodison Park with a Steve McDonald tuft of hair). In the right corner, Andrew Jackson, tight spiky hair with the bonhomie of a property developer.

Wild blasts from Craighill, the journeyman get this important final under way. 1-3. Jackson sees the man before him as a shack, without the polish of himself (resplendent in freshly-washed blue). One thing I immediately notice about AJ is his excessive use of shoulder in his shots. It doesn’t look natural, yet amazingly it seems to work. 3-7. 5-9. 6-11. A clever, strategic start. The efficient, compact style of Jackson leaving Craighill a little ragged and exposed.

Set two. More is expected from JC in this. He seems to counter the finer elements of The Property Developer’s game (deadly floating serves, whipping shots, tight control) with his own array of flamboyant, if dysfunctional moves. 4-2. A stronger start. 7-5. Hope. 7-10. Misery. The Fatal Decline of Moyes has begun. Consistency has shrugged its shoulders and left town. A brief flirtation with respectability (9-10) but no – it is not to be. 9-11.

I don’t know what happens at this point as with so many matches that swing the other way (either briefly or completely), but Craighill seems to unearth a fire, the miraculous rumblings of his game. So far we have witnessed a typical 53% Vs 81% match in terms of respective win percentages. DON’T PUT A NUMBER ON ME! we get from the Moyes’ camp though. Suddenly he is standing six to eight feet away from the table, digging out shots, pile drivers of a sort. You really have to see it. It is volleyball-esque – the 40mm flash of white…dead, certainly dead, but no!! NO!! Craighill is at his allotment – digging. Trowel. Spade. Fork. He rips the ball onto an upward, curving path when only inches from the floor. A delight. An absolute delight to see. Jackson does not know how to react. The points are draining away fast. 5-2. 8-2. Craighill forcing the pace. 10-4. A change, a mighty change to the Craighill game. Seemingly desperate lunges but that is how he wants to play it. COME ON, AJ – SOCK IT TO ME! I’LL WHIP IT BACK WITH EXTRA SAUCE. 11-4. Belief. Where from here?

The whole array of shots start to appear now – Craighill’s secret stash of weaponry. He is the Equalizer, a 21st century Edward Woodward. Just the look, the look in his face. It is not possible to doubt him. Backspin serves with side. Last ditch twisting shots with serious swerve. Too hot at times – curry powder-like. 7-4. A commanding lead. 9-5. Stretching it nicely; nicking the end of the table (always a welcome shot). 9-7. I see Jackson for the first time in the game (my eyes previously fixed on The Digger). Despite the smashes and hunger from AJ, Craighill sees out the set: 11-7.

Now for the finale – the true game of bottle. Many a man will pull it back to 2-2 only to fold, realise his sinewy desire has maxed itself out. Not Craighill. Not David Moyes. Not The Digger (The Leveller if we’re getting political). He is the great white hope, the People’s Champion. He possesses a scratchingly rough image (and casual stubble) similar to other unorthodox greats and at its core is fight. This isn’t winning ugly, but rather winning with a surprise attack, a genius adaptation of a long-lost table tennis script. 1-0. Digger alert! 3-0. 3-1 (a cross-table forehand provides Jackson with an ounce of hope). 8-4. Craighill motoring – certainly on top. 10-4: Where is he getting this mesmerizing medley from? The stoop, the pillorying of his own body must be taking its toll, hurting, turning him into a slanted circus act. 11-4. Champion Jeff Craighill. What a performance. Have we met the new Dennis Collier? I just hope he wakes up and doesn’t feel sore. I have never seen so much exertion.

Level Doubles Final
Andrew Jackson(81) & Mark Ramsbottom(81)  Vs  Barry Elliott(84) & Jeff Craighill(53)
If I was to report on the Doubles Final in full, it would be a dereliction of duty. I have become so absorbed tonight that I’ve only just looked down and realised I’m sat on a wooden-slatted chair and not the plastic one I assumed (this gives you some idea as to my waning mind). Forgive my quick summary of this nonetheless important tie, but I really have to put all efforts into describing the Level Singles Final – what I deem to be, quite fittingly, the grand, grand ending to the night. The Doubles, may I say, was a hard-fought clash:

11-13, 12-10, 11-8, 7-11, 11-6

Pleasing for Andrew Jackson, The Property Developer (slight revenge over Craighill) and a great fillip for Mark Ramsbottom, the moustachioed, burly breaker from Ram ‘A’. All in all a sweet victory over Wharton; the form guide from October’12 and February’13 suggesting that the combined strength of Jackson and Ramsbottom – despite Elliott’s peerlessness – was always going to be too much.

Level Singles Final – Barry Elliott (84%) Vs Andrew Jackson (81%)
A ten minute break. Time enough for composure to return. Elliott changes his top from the disappointing doubles grey to red. More fire. More vigour. What will we see from this man? The old guys in the audience – no longer parched due to tea and coffee wetting their lips – are chatting vociferously, loving it. This is theatre to them, real Greek tragedy – better than the dreams of youth.

Elliott steps out. He is a British Woody Allen. ARE YOU FILMING THIS? he seems to demand. HEY, HEY – SHIFT THE CAMERA, GET MY GLASSES IN! Jackson troops onto the court. Memories of the Craighill defeat haven’t entirely left him. He nicks the end of the table to get the first point of the session. An early bit of luck. 2-4. He seems confident – his forehand spraying shots around, his body turning harmoniously. 4-7. Still strong…Elliott yet to raise his game. Oh, what is this though? Elliott wipes his face with what appears to be a purple bar towel. The glasses as well. He is born again. Four straight points: 8-7. After the slight vulnerability to his immediate right (8-8) – Jackson’s favourite part of the table – Elliott brings it home. 11-8.

Woe. Jackson seems downhearted. That was too big a lead to let wilt. 1-6. A bigger gap this time…before a special Elliott forehand followed by two hard, simple back of the bat flicks: 4-6. AJ shows some mettle. 5-9. Looking better. More rhythmic. 6-10. 7-10. 8-10. Don’t balls it up. Not now. CUT! 8-11. Jackson is back.

The third game is for warriors – like jumping out of a landing helicopter in a foreign country not quite knowing what to expect. WAR. Elliott seems ready. He loves a fight. It’s gotta be stylish though…just like in the movies. Not tip-toeing around, but rather the hard stuff – bombing forehands, mercurial serves. 6-5. A trademark swipe from The Property Developer though into the far left corner: 6-6. Extra movement on the Elliott serve: 8-7. 9-7 follows. 10-7. I’M 3% BIGGER AND BETTER THAN YOU! GO AWAY! JUST GO AWAY!! Not quite yet.10-8 even though Jackson looks a little pulverized. 11-8. Three points separate them once more.

An elegant final flowering from Jackson perhaps? How does he seem? Is he hanging his head a little or still bouncing, still believing? I’m not sure. Difficult to read. He has that smooth glint about him. Which shots, which shots to use this game? Crucial, but think too much and…it’s the start he didn’t want: 6-2 down already (Elliott’s backhand, staying power when rallying and footwork look good). Punishment can move in, pitch its tent and harm a man before he’s even resumed his concentration. Jackson is hanging on now. A forehand down the middle from Elliott (it virtually climbs up AJ’s chest): 8-5. Jackson into the net: 9-5. 10-5. A high class rally: 10-6 (The Property Developer gets a slight reprieve…unafraid to play his full-blooded game much to his credit.) MOVE THE CAMERA. GET THIS LAST POINT IN. I’LL SEND IT DOWN THE LEFT. No need. Jackson hits it long. 11-6. No punching the air from Elliott. No swinging the bar towel around his head. It is a respectful shaking of hands. Jackson looks a little gloomy, understandably – reminiscent of Danny Boy Harris (each defeated in two singles finals). The night offered so much. But then the wolves come out and howl you into a stupor. Only one winner on the floor. And that can be cruel. Cruel but the making of someone for next time…

Quick Finals Guide:

JSF:     Harris Vs Brookes                   5-11, 5-11, 7-11

HSF:    Harris (+3) Vs Evans               9-11, 7-11, 7-11

VF:      Craighill Vs Jackson               6-11, 9-11, 11-4, 11-7, 11-4

DF:      Jackson/Ramsbottom        11-13, 12-10, 11-8, 7-11, 11-6
Vs Elliott/Craighill

SF:       Elliott Vs Jackson                    11-8, 8-11, 11-8, 11-6

* This piece was published in full via the Bolton & District Table Tennis League websites:



Three Steps to Glory


Warburton Cup Final – Thu, 18th April 2013
Heaton ‘E’ (Bevitt, Brooks, Hilton) [handicap 37.5]
Vs Hilton ‘H’ (Lawrence, Spibey, Smart)
Venue: Hilton Centre, 7.30pm

Red. A deep red. Like the Ali Sami Yen stadium. The walls of the Hilton Centre can disturb a player, wash his or her mind with hell-like images. IS THAT A PLAYER OPPOSITE OR BEELZEBUB? I’M SURE I SAW A HORN. Above sit forty two strip lights – a 6 x 7 gaze up at the Gods, the stars, or times tables with the kids.

I look around, peer at the players already here. Bevitt – beach shorts, brown work socks and ghetto trainers – warms up with Brooks (red top, grey/white hair, suitcase-carrying hands). I expected Greenhalgh tonight, Heaton’s regular player but they have opted for the wise head and formidable past of Brooks who has 30% more in the locker. Sensible. Very sensible.

Their revised no.3, John Hilton now enters the court. He has the calm deportment of a doctor; this a casual trip out, away from the wards, crying patients and enquiring nurses. He is resplendent in tank top, grey t-shirt, belted jeans and Steve Martin trainers. Someone shouts YOU’RE NOT WEARING THOSE JEANS?! to which the Doctor just shrugs, smiles, as if unable to find his kit but not concerned. He has whiter hair than Brooks – some accolade – yet still retains a certain disco fever with large gold watch and ring.

We are nearing ‘dawn’ for this showdown. The opposition enters. Lawrence – like an assassin all in black. Spibey – centre parting, squaw-like, demure, a red-band keeping her hair tied back. Smart – standard red top, black joggers, nerves seeping through a little. A female SAS to some, with Lawrence as Wing Commander.

We know the order of play (1×2, 3×1, 2×3, 3×2, 1×3, 2×1, 3×3, 2×2, 1×1) and so Bevitt and Spibey enter the fold. The former has kept away from this league fixture (season 2012/13), is therefore relatively unknown, potentially dangerous, without a genetic print. Spibey shows an initial wariness through that famously skittish expression of hers (something that should have been purged eighteen months ago given her win percentage). She is fidgety, not used to the modest crowd – the blush and flush of youth strangling a large portion of her natural game.

Bevitt starts. A couple of low, flat, cagey serves. 2-0 up. Effective. Riding high. He then handles the first Spibey serve. 3-0. Like a dream. Beauty and the Beast with the Detroit Tigers man (check out that faded, dapper t-shirt!) proudly roaming the table tennis jungle. Spibey crouches down, does her trademark hand-close-to-the-table multiple bounce with the ball, the 40mm celluloid pop – whatever you want to call this cataclysmic sporting invention (its white matte and 0.9 coefficient as significant as Edison’s light bulb). The ball streaks across. Bevitt fluffs it. “Ahhh, rubbish,” comes the soft lambasting, but Adele has her first point of the evening. Necessary. Urgent. Now for that belief!

11-7. 11-9. Spibey’s backhand flicks are still not delivering. She looks rusty, out of sorts and Bevitt is a worthy early leader with some phenomenal angled drives. Time to enter the 3rd game with a different tactical head. Less gung-ho from Spibey, more circumspect – lengthening the rallies, choosing her shots. The Assassin, Lawrence looks at her. No words, but she knows she has to turn it around. Christ – nothing miraculous, but she storms into a 6-0 lead. 10-0. Now she’s playing with flair, gunning Bevitt down with her fly-swatting forehand. 11-1. Relief.

Sweat appears on Bevitt’s head like a man stood under a leaking gutter. He wipes himself down – towel to hand, Murrayesque, aware of the need for grip, good vision and aerodynamics. Keen to make amends after the disgrace of the 3rd, he starts impressively. 5-0. A mirror image of the last. Then 5-1 after a well-executed angled chop from the young woman opposite. 7-2. Still in pole position. Spibey bounces the ball on the floor, thinking, thinking HOW HAS THIS COME ABOUT? A net cord drops in to force it back to 8-6. She’s skating again, motoring, but too late. Bevitt pulls into the driveway with a firm 11-7. Thirty-four points each but Heaton’s handicap gives them a net lead of four. Bevitt is congratulated by his team mates. Spibey continues the demonstrative gestures: hiding her face behind her bat; head in hands; spinning round as if in search of her game; two fists up to her chin; biting her bat. She is annoyed. Generally annoyed. Too many misses. And she’s yet to settle.

The Doctor takes his place. Hilton Vs Lawrence next up. There are slight, limbering jumps from the Assassin. He feels good, confident against the unassuming man before him. A deadly first serve down the right with extra spin and cut reinforces this. 4-1 if you turned away. Hilton seems fearful, his game shaky – far too hesitant in his shot selection. The technical simplicity of Lawrence is undoing him. 11-7. Over. Hilton is cheating himself. I have seen the graceful deceptiveness of his shots in Victoria Hall and this is not him tonight.

A pet talk from Brooks – his Roman-emperor face trying to assert some quiet authority. Hilton listens then meanders over to the table. A tentative start, but 1-0. He quickly loses his way though. 5-2 down. And then a slow slump to another 11-7. Brooks nods at him. HANG IN THERE. USE A DIFFERENT WEAPON.

It just isn’t happening. A looper from nowhere though deep into the 3rd game, his arm suddenly recognising the stage. Game point (10-9). A chink of light for Hilton. Bang. Bang. Bang. The Assassin was never a kindly gent. 12-10 to Lawrence.

There is certainly not the magic of Bevitt/Spibey to this match. It feels more like a holiday friendly in the forests of the old Yugoslavia. Something unreal about it, too carefully sculpted. Guarded shots, malfunctions in the wrist. Perhaps Cup Final night has shredded them a little, sapped them of energy. 7-3. Beautiful forehand from Hilton. 8-6. Placement shots letting him down. Damn it. I feel for the man. I can’t look. Don’t throw it away. ****. ****. ****. 11-9. Safely home. The Doctor salvages a game.

Brooks Vs Smart. A tester. Brooks – post-shoulder op’, eyes on the wane, ex-Division One so I hear. Just back from his holiday home in Turkey (although I’d swear he flip-flops through Florida). Smart – a subtle effervescence to her, watchful, with dark piercing eyes. A careful chopping game gets Brooks on his way. 6-1 before we’ve settled into our plastic chairs. The Smart forehand is slack, not its usual self. 8-3. 10-6. The first ‘let’ of the night due to a menacing but wayward ball from the Brian Gittins Cup final on the adjacent court; hard for the eyes not to wander in times of drought. Smart hits four consecutive points. Brooks wobbles a little (10-10). Shell shocked (10-11). The pressure, the intensity, the cool head see him through though. 13-11. Ooohhh.

Thoughts of the trophy, the importance of the evening, perhaps start to fill Smart’s mind. Her footwork is slightly amiss despite the excellent prodding backhands. 11-4. 11-6. Brooks is in control. Three games up and a decent haul of points. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THIS MAN? He doesn’t have the power of Bevitt, or the youthful skill of Spibey, or even the lugubrious, dark veil of Lawrence. Experience. Knows his way around. Able to read the terrain like a discerning nomad. Not the last game (6-11) which included the best rally of the night – point to Smart – but it’s a decent 41-32 win.

They’ve all had their first run out now. What follows is number-crunching madness:

Hilton         Spibey        25 – 41        (11-8, 9-11, 1-11, 4-11)

Bevitt          Smart          38 – 38        (11-9, 8-11, 8-11, 11-7)

Brooks        Lawrence    38 – 37        (8-11, 8-11, 11-9, 11-6)

Hilton         Smart          33 – 44        (11-9, 8-11, 11-13, 3-11)

Brooks        Spibey        28 – 36        (11-8, 11-6, 2-11, 4-11)

272-305 Gross. 309.5-305 Net (including the full handicap).

Heaton ‘E’ have a slight edge. It’s all down to Bevitt and Lawrence; the man who mutters, curses himself quietly, chides his own play and the Assassin, deep in thought, mindful of his glasses not slipping down his nose due to the perspiration.

“Come on.” “Watch the ball.” “Nnnooooo.” “Rubbish.” A few stock Bevitt phrases.

None of the above from Lawrence. Just concentration. A mute, torpedo-like manner.

IT’S BEGUN!!!! 8-11. 4-11. 11-5. The Heaton E ‘net lead’ is down to an excruciating 1/2pt (yes – half of one point). Winner takes all: last game….

Landslide-like bombing forehands are woofed across the net. Amazing. Then greedy. Back to amazing. Lawrence into the net. 4-1 healthy start from the resurgent Bevitt. Wide Lawrence winner (4-2). Big miss from Lawrence… LOOONNNGGGGG. LOOOONNNGGGGGGGGG. 7-3. The Assassin finds something…draws on some latent gas tanks, super-chargers, vein-enhancers, mind-turning positivity. Four straight points. Alas…7-7.

Ingerson is chewing my ear. Sat in the audience. Christ – back off. Back off. This is history. HISTORY. Has Bevitt thrown it away? Perhaps not. The gilded promise of yesteryear returns. A superlative forehand to his right. 8-7. But – ahhhhh! Inexplicable. AGAIN. A missed shot to the left. 8-8. Lawrence paws at his glasses amidst the sweat, the slippery focus, the mire before him. Back to level but can he even see?

A tragedy for either one of these gents, their teams, their kin folk. Whoever loses ought to be carried aloft, squeezed through the internal doors; into the car park and beyond, paraded around town as a giant of the table tennis community. YOU REMEMBER IT? THE 9TH MATCH, THE 36TH GAME AT 8 A PIECE. 3 STEPS TO GLORY.

Bevitt stares out across the 9-foot swamp – Lawrence’s bat has become a frogman, an able diver. LET IT BE, JOHN. JUST LET IT SINK. It does. 9-8 to Bevitt. The Assassin then somehow freezes – hits a short one into the net. 10-8. NEARLY THERE, DETROIT! A spinning, sliced shot to the left from Lawrence. Looks good. Looks…..OUT. OUT!! MISSED!! I hear you. 11-8. Bevitt has done it for Heaton ‘E’. He has ridden the merciful yet torturous chariot over the line, shown his stamina to the crowd, regaled them with his vocal spasms. Hail Dave Bevitt! Hail John Hilton! Hail Mel Brooks! Respect to Hilton ‘H’ – gross masters yet unable to turn the tide (pulling back 34pts – 4 shy of a net victory). They must feel like Al Gore.

I look at the clock. 10.25pm. I have been here for three hours. An average of 5 minutes a game. THREE HOURS. Soporific. Tired as hell. Like watching two football matches. Or Lord of the Rings. Get in the car and don’t come back. DRIVE. DRIVE!!!!

* This piece was published in full via the Bolton & District Table Tennis League websites:

Division Three Ding-Dong

Division 3 Finale – Wed, 3rd April 2013
Walkden Meths Vs Heaton ‘F’
Venue: Walkden Methodist Church, 7.30pm

This is where the faces are. Wildfire Whittleworth. Cunning Kelsall. Utilitarian Unsworth. Jalopy Jones Snr. Brutish Beales. Jackdaw Jones Jnr. It is how you initially define a player. Through their expression. Their hunger. The way they warm up. Some require merriment lest the pressure demons attack them before picking up the bat. Others need the blinkered focus of a shire horse.

That the Division 3 season should end with a top six extravaganza is quite remarkable (BRASS cruelly putting the late charge of Farnworth SC ‘B’ to the sword yesterday – ruling them out mathematically with a 7-2 heist). Consider the chasing pack’s places before tonight:

>                                 P    W    D    L    Pts

BRASS                      22   19   0    3    138

Farnworth SC ‘B’    22   15   0    7    119

Walkden Meths       21   14   0    7    117

Hilton ‘K’                  21   16   0    5    115

Heaton ‘F’                21   12   0    9    113

Heaton ‘E’                21   10   1    10   96

Should Walkden edge to victory (5-4), I suspect their 122 total will be just enough. Should Heaton ‘F’ be in the mood for blood (7-2) then their E-brothers will need to spoil the party for Hilton ‘K’ by nicking a win. And Heaton ‘E’ themselves? They need a few cases of corruption to fling their able carcass into the key runners-up spot, the silver chariot, which all are fighting for during these merciful hours.

I arrive at 8pm, guiltily pull up a chair as inconspicuously as one can given that the attendance has just increased by 25% and cast my eyes over the proceeding match. It is Kelsall Vs Jones Jnr – cruiserweights in this division given their mid-60s win percentages; Kelsall, the deceptively languid giant; Jones Jnr – his serve a form of contraband smuggled into the hall. Except this doesn’t feel like a hall, but rather a colosseum. Weapons chosen, they have ambled to the table like mean-fisted characters ready to slay. 14-12, 11-6, 5-11, 9-11. One point separates them, yet the momentum is firmly with the Jackdaw.

Five-setters can break a man. There is a sense of entitlement on both sides – the ragged effort and staying power desperately craving a win for the team. Whoever loses is all of a sudden thrust into a dark, unforgiving forest, head in hands, demoralized, sweat dripping off him like a Middle Eastern oil worker.

I look at them both. Kelsall – respectful but annoyed at losing the 4th. Jones Jnr – his eyes brighter, suddenly full of belief. Interest is garnered when a match goes to five. Beautiful, intriguing and sympathetic when watching. Torrid and unspeakable when at their core. It is psychological now. ARE YOU BETTER THAN THIS MAN BEFORE YOU? Any niggling doubts then you may as well concede, shake hands – avoid the deeper pain of last ditch combat.

The Jackdaw is too rich in concentration. Full of flex and arching shots. He doesn’t like to hang around, prevaricate or procrastinate but instead keep his opponent tortured by the white noise of his attack. FORCE HIM BACK! LET HIM SEE YOUR SINISTER FRAME!

8-11. It is his. Jones Jnr has Heaton ‘F’s first point of the night. Something seems to have turned. 2-1 to Walkden, a third of the night gone, yet…behold the cavalry: Beales does a job on Unsworth; Jones Jnr sees off Whittleworth (just); Jones Snr understands that Kelsall doesn’t like to play low; Jones Jnr (oh, the audacity and flamboyance) leaves Unsworth wincing with his third 5-setter of the night. A Jackdaw. A mercurial thief indeed.

2-5. Has Walkden’s dream of promotion died? Has it been tied to a railtrack and thundered over by a bitter and dangerous rival, long-shots themselves yet willing wreckers true to their game, keen to paint an authentic final table?

A small window of light: Kelsall eases past Beales. The finale (clash of the no.1 seeds): Whittleworth scoops the last set 11-9 Vs Jones Snr. With it comes hope, the blanketing of resignation. 4-5. Hardly a fitting end, but what of the score across the way? Has Hilton ‘K’ (K for blossoming kids) secured the necessary 6 pts for 2nd?

COMMUNICATE! COMMUNICATE, DAMN IT! Ask your brothers, Heaton ‘E’ if they’ve done enough or been part of the collusion, the final night conspiracy to strip us of promotion. A text between Jones Snr and Bevitt. The numbers make their way back. 6-3 to Hilton ‘K’. The injured Wilson Parker has apparently pulled off a coup of phantasmagorical proportions. He has returned only to treble – his colleagues, Healey and Fishwick adding a further three. Gloom descends. Whittleworth seems the most affected. Down and out not on points but matches won. A truly tragic and doleful ending…

* This piece was not published as despite its factual elements re: scores and actual players, the scenes were imagined