East is East,and West is West,and never shall the twain meet.
Holds true for table tennis at least. Just a couple of years before Kiplings Ballad of East and West was first published in 1889,the game of wiff-waff first took root in the upper middle-class strata of Britain,as an after-dinner recreation where a golf ball was wiffed and waffed with books for swats across a table divided by,well,more books.
A century and a half since,the West has remained the West by losing grip of yet another sport they once took pride in inventing,while the East rules the roost in the phonetically pleasing sport they now lovingly call ping pong.
In the world of table tennis today,a thick bamboo curtain clearly separates the Europeans from the Orientals,in rankings and in playing styles. Amongst the top-ten ranked ping pong men,nine are from Asia,one from Germany sixth placed Timo Boll.
Almost as overwhelming is the fact that ever since table tennis was introduced as an Olympic sport during the 1988 Seoul Games,Swedens Jan-Ove Waldner is the only non Chinese or Korean man to ever clinch aurum,as dated as Barcelona,1992 (The womens singles event has witnessed six straight Chinese winners at the Games).
Yet,despite this very lopsided universe,the Indians,consciously,have chosen to ape the Europeans. Just ask Soumyajit Ghosh,the only Indian male paddler to qualify for the London. The Asians,he says,Aate hi marna shuru kar dete hain. We,like the Europeans,like to take it a lot slower and build into a routine. Also,we put a lot of emphasis on an all-round game of mixing our defence and offence like the Europeans. But most importantly,the Europeans have taught us to enjoy the beautiful game. Style zaroori hai.
This all important style,Ghosh,19,has picked up over several months spent under the watchful eyes of Peter Karlsson,a former world champion now in charge of many an aspirant in Falkenberg,Sweden.
It was here that he mastered the white mans Shakehand or Western grip,developing it tirelessly to one day break the Penhold of the Chinese. Many have tried and some have even come close,but one day,I wish to do it successfully. And with the Shakehand,I may not have the blasting power,but I do have career-time on my side.
To fully understand what Ghosh is trying to say,it is important to understand the nature of these vastly different grips first. The Shakehand,where one holds the racquet like a firm handshake,allows the paddler to stroke both forehands and backhands employing his wrist,while the hold itself puts almost no pressure on the fingers.
The Penhold,or the ideally named Chopstick grip,is a finger heavy grasp,where the player rings the racquet handle with just his thumb and the index finger curling the middle,ring and pinky around the back. This puts immense amounts of stress on the digits,while almost negating the backhand and with it,the defence.
Most Europeans play till the age of 40,but it takes a very lucky Chinese player to even hit the ball till the late 20s, Ghosh explains. I want to play this sport into my 40s,for without this game,I am nothing.
Born and brought up in Siliguri,easily the TT nursery of India,Ghosh took a very early liking to the sport at the age of five.
While he claims that the city is no different from any in China in the sense that every street corner has a table-tennis club,the playing culture and the drive to succeed are continents apart.
In China,by the age of five,a boy is taught how to be aggressive. The building blocks of their game is focussed solely on attacking,so by the time they have taken it up professionally and are equipped with individual coaches,they know nothing in the game apart from trying to win a point from the first rally, he says. It makes them uni-dimensional,but it also sets them a world apart.
How apart you ask?
Let me put it this way. If the Chinese my age are like Sachin Tendulkar,I am yet to make it to the Under-14 team.
Ranked 168th in the world,well lower than many of the other Indians who failed to qualify,Ghosh harbours no ambitions of an Olympic medal. But ask him if he wishes to observe the work ethics of the best in the business,ie Asians,in London and pat comes the reply. No,not at all. Im just going there for the experience.
Never shall the twain meet.