Over the past two weeks, as the Indian table-tennis contingent trained at the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala, Peter Engel, the German national table tennis coach watched the proceedings from a distant. Passing on instructions from the sidelines was a man in his early 30s.
As Soumyajit Ghosh, Harmeet Desai and Sanil Shetty, the three Commonwealth Games debutants for India, thwacked the ball across the table, the tall frame of Achanta Sharath Kamal gave instructions and constant encouragement. Sharath Kamal, who, according to Engel, is “India’s best player by a distant”, has been a constant source of guidance and has emerged as the father-figure to India’s paddlers in the run-up to the Games.
The 32-year-old world number 44, the only table tennis player to have a singles gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in the current setup, is quick to label his instructions as “simple things that these youngsters want to hear”.
“All the guys have a very good skill-base. They know how to play the ball, the kind of spin to exert. My job is to basically keep telling them to not over-complicate matters, stop them from thinking too much about the game,” Sharath Kamal says.
The 2006 Melbourne CWG gold medallist will be the one leading India’s charge in Glasgow. In the last edition, India won five medals, in doubles and team events spread over the men’s and women’s sections.
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This time around, coach Engel said he is expecting his paddlers to pick up at least three medals, a departure from the past when he had dismissed the possibility of any medals in the run-up to the Games. The wizened Sharath Kamal, though, is upbeat about the team’s prospects.
“As far as rankings go, this is the best combination that will be taking part, considering the last five years. We are well covered in all departments and I am confident that talented youngsters like Soumyajit and Harmeet will step up to the plate,” he says.
Soumyajit, the 21-year-old paddler from Siliguri, was India’s sole male representative at the London Olympics. He won his first-round match at the Excel Arena before losing to a North Korean opponent in the next round. Soumyajit, who won the under-21 Brazil open this year, is tipped for a bright future.
“The biggest lesson the Olympics taught me was how to handle pressure. The biggest challenge in such big tournaments is how strong you are mentally. Since the Olympics, I have trained rigorously under Peter Karlsson in Sweden and also turned out for a club (Falkenbergs BTK) there, “ he says.
The youngster speaks glowingly about the difference the veteran Sharath Kamal has made.
“His reading of game situations is extraordinary. His advice is never too technical. Mostly, he will tell us to just put the ball on the table. Also, he gives you a variety of solutions, often pointing you towards the simplest,” Soumyajit points out.
Both Sharath Kamal and Ghosh are unanimous in identifying the one major obstacle in their path to glory in Glasgow — Singapore. The country swept the table-tennis event in the 2010 edition, picking up 12 medals including six gold. Sharath Kamal says Singapore’s predominantly Chinese-origin paddlers will be his young unit’s toughest test.
“They have three players who are in the top-30 in the world. Also, since the last Games, they have imported more Chinese players. We have prepared some specific plans keeping Singapore’s challenge and the characteristic of their players in mind. We will continue to work on them and at the end, mental fortitude will make the difference,” Sharath Kamal says.
While the 32-year-old has the experienced Anthony Amalraj for company, Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) general secretary DR Chowdhury says he has high hopes from Desai and Soumyajit.
“Harmeet (Desai) and Soumyajit (Ghosh) have had an encouraging season as a doubles pair. Both have played with each other for a long time and are very swift. They can definitely cause a surprise,” Chowdhury says.