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.
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 continued…