Behind the pitiful scenes of Meghalaya’s table tennis

“What we’re asking for right now is just the basics, everything after that will be like icing on the cake,” admits Tanushree Das Gupta, who led the Meghalaya women’s team for the 83rd Senior Table Tennis Nationals, quickly.

Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, recently hosted the 83rd Senior Table Tennis National Championships at the SAI Indoor Training Center, where veteran paddler Sharath Kamal claimed his record 10th title. But starkly enough, it’s easy to hand-count the number of players the host nation has — a meager 20 who don’t even have a proper place to practice.

Host or not, they will reflect Tanushree’s emotions along with their state coach Kamesh Gareri and men’s team captain Suranjit Dey. The sordid conditions of the sport in the state, with no serious effort made to promote it, has emerged as a bulging vein of concern which they passed on to The Bridge after games.

Firstly, do you have a suitable place to practice? Well not really unless you are thinking of a puja mandap with a lone table with a matte floor. Or a 64-year-old Tirot Singh Stadium soon to be demolished, according to your wishes.

where do they go after that They don’t know — and this is just the trailer of what’s really brewing from the situation.

With little participation in the infrequent state championships and ranked tournaments, with no proper courts, coaches, coaches, physiotherapists and sham prize money on offer, Meghalaya’s table tennis is also without organized structures with no serious attempt to maintain its grassroots levels.

hardship and trouble

The Meghalaya team during the Nationals

With well-trained Olympians from across the country flocking to the Nationals and given the chaos of Meghalaya’s table tennis, it was no surprise that there were no players from the host state in the K’ home.

“We didn’t know that we were going to host the tournament until 40 days before the event. Our players have few facilities here. Although the budget was a whopping Rs 1.5 million to organize the National Games, barely 1% of that was spent on preparing our players for the tournament,” Kamesh Gareri revealed exclusively to The Bridge.

“On a national level, the competition is very strong. We have players from all over the country, with Olympians like Sharath Kamal, Manika Bartra, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran – of course we’re not even close to their level,” Kamesh mentions. Highlighting the glaring discrepancy.

“It’s quite ironic. We were the hosts but we didn’t have that home advantage. In fact, the assigned location for our practice was Tirot Singh Stadium, which has no mat and the tables are old and damp. So our players trained for 15 days in completely different conditions and played in completely different conditions,” Kamesh explained with a wry chuckle.

The timber-floored Tirot Singh Stadium, soon to be demolished

“Balls played differently on that surface (at Tirot Singh) and at Nationals we played brand new tables and whatever happened to the ball was magical for us – we didn’t know what to expect in the new conditions. ‘ mentioned Tanushree.

“We thought we would practice at the venue for about a week. But then we felt like we were from another state and playing indoors for the first time, but I don’t know who to point the finger at. It’s pretty sad here,” she continued.

The argument doesn’t really stop there.

“We only have one place where there is a mat and a real table, but it’s actually a puja mandap area,” Suranjit said.

“We didn’t even have a washroom to use when we used to train there. Imagine how difficult it was, especially for female players,” Tanushree continued, recalling her struggles.

Missing table tennis culture

So if you’re from Meghalaya and want to play table tennis seriously, it’s inevitable that you’ll have to literally move out of the mountains and train somewhere else – because the state doesn’t have the facilities to hone the talent.

For Tanushree, summer holidays since 2010 have meant going to Siliguri, West Bengal to train there, while Suranjit has also been admitted to a Kolkata college to practice table tennis in a proper academy there.

Meanwhile, in 2019, Tanushree, who is in her final year of sociology studies in New Delhi, became the center of her practice.

Tanushree trains at Tirot Singh Stadium

“There are several problems in Meghalaya, for one we don’t have any regular coaches. Most are part-time coaches, no one is willing to put in a lot of time,” Tanushree mentions.

“The oldest trainer, Mr. Bania, played a major role in shaping table tennis here. But since his death about five or six years ago, only worse things have happened here. There is nobody who coaches the kids from the elementary level.”

Meanwhile in neighboring Assam the table tennis setup is much more organized and Tanushree explained: “In Assam and elsewhere where I have trained (New Delhi and Kolkata) the coaches are more involved. They know how to promote the sport and even the seniors come and practice with them, the culture and the interest is there,” she explained.

“Actually, most people here stop playing table tennis after 8th grade and shift their focus to academics. But unlike other states like Assam where the seniors keep coming back and sometimes train with the juniors, over here once they leave the sport then there’s no turning back,” Tanushree said sadly, pointing out the high dropout rate .

Towards a player-driven approach

Men’s team captain Suranjit Dey in action during the Nationals

Kamesh, whose work spans this handful of 20, is obviously troubled by the state of affairs as he was also a Meghalaya player.

“It’s not that they can’t promote the sport or have no money at all. The approach needs to change to a more player-centric approach and one that benefits the players first and foremost.”

“For events like the Nationals, these players need not just 15 days of training, but 15 months of solid training considering how far behind they are.”

“In order to expect results, you should first separate the organizing and preparatory committees. The preparatory committee will only take care of the players and the coaches and work towards a common goal,” suggested Kamesh.

“One cannot directly expect someone to become Manika Batra, one cannot bring about change from above. You have to start at the grassroots, in the schools — start at 10 if you will, but at least start,” Kamesh said, seriously making his point.

“To reach that level, we need a suitable place to play, sparring partners to play, a qualified coach, a physical therapist, a coach and a nutritionist. Those are things that most academies in the bigger cities have now,” Tanushree explained.

“Some people criticize us when we don’t win even after training outdoors, but they need to understand the different levels we have to manage,” she continued.

“It’s like taking the 10th grade exams straight after a year of study while everyone else has been preparing for years, the ground isn’t level,” she admitted frankly.

Negligence – wasted potential?

While cricket and football steadily rise in popularity and even badminton academies spring up, table tennis is gathering dust despite hosting tournaments nationally.

That’s not to say that this northeastern state doesn’t have potential for the sport.

“Just a few years ago we had a youngster named Adarsh ​​Om Chhetri who got all his basic knowledge from Meghalaya but was lucky enough to be spotted by PSPB (then based in Ajmer) and taken in by them. He soon became India’s No. 1 in U-16, isn’t that something,” revealed Kamesh.

“But he is now training in New Delhi and had to move there as Meghalaya didn’t have these similar opportunities at home,” he continued.

In addition, the small number of table tennis players also makes for a weak competitive field, where there is also no motivation in the team, especially when there are not such lucrative rewards on offer.

“We would have 2 state rankings and 1 state championship. We would get money for the ranked tournaments, but only a medal and certificate for state championships.”

When it comes to money, the numbers are staggering, to say the least.

“A state champion gets 800 rupees if he wins,” Kamesh mentions. “And at U-12 you get 150 rupees if you win.”

On the other hand, certain North Indian states are offering cash rewards of up to Rs. 22,000 to their state champions, showing just how severe the divide really is.

With a limited player pool in Meghalaya, the money isn’t accumulating enough to collect the prize money by itself either, but there aren’t any initiatives yet to encourage it either, which is a big reason for the high drop-off rating.

“The easiest way to promote any sport in the country, like table tennis, is to provide cash prizes for the players… the players would like it too and work more, improve and try to win,” mentions Tanushree, disillusioned with when this is the case changes will finally arrive.

“Ahead of the Northeast Games, we want to change that mindset so that our players can also perform in the games and exceed expectations, at least teach us the basics,” Kamesh reiterated.

Tucked away in the far northeast, Meghalaya’s table tennis lies in a state of despair, trapped in a mist all its own. With the North East Olympics next up and the Meghalaya Games now to follow (albeit in poor conditions) it remains to be seen if socks will even be pulled up and a second thought given to table tennis.

Or like the Tirot Singh Stadium which is soon to be demolished, all the dreams of the aspiring and current players will continue to crumble into rubble.

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