Down memory lane: Kamlesh Mehta recalls how table tennis went from a monsoon sport to a summer of excellence in 2018

Deepti Patwardhan

"If you want a video of mine, you can't find it," says Kamlesh Mehta, one of India's most decorated table tennis champions.

For a generation that copiously and frantically documents every little thing on social media this might seem like a hark back to the darker ages. It was the 1980s, and table tennis was still largely viewed as a recreational sport. It wasn't yet bedecked with fancy taglines like 'career option' or 'medal-winning prospect' at multi-sport events. Forget video tapes and analytics, during Mehta's playing years, the Indian players didn't even have coaches and only a rudimentary understanding of physical fitness.

Kamlesh Mehta during his playing days. Image courtesy: Kamlesh Mehta

Kamlesh Mehta during his playing days. Image courtesy: Kamlesh Mehta

"At that time it was considered to be a monsoon sport, the entire season would last for only about four to five months," says Mehta, 58, who made 11 National finals between 1981 and 1994 and won the championship eight times €" a record he held until this year when Achanta Sharath Kamal claimed his ninth title.

"Nationals would stretch up to December; international competitions were very few. We didn't have circuits like we have now. There was no professional coaching €" we only used to attend coaching camps maybe ahead of a national or some international competitions. We would watch and learn.

"Knowledge is available now, which wasn't the case earlier. Now everything is available on YouTube. A player can watch his matches and spot the errors. When I was playing abroad, my seniors were here. So there was no way I could analyse what I did, what I didn't.

"Physical fitness was not a thing. I did my first ever fitness camp when I was selected for Maharashtra, at the age of 20. It was mainly running, push-ups, sit-ups, some shadow practice, general type of drills, there wasn't any focused training. And that was in preparation for Nationals, not throughout the year. Once the foreign coaches started coming in, that was the time we started doing some sort of physical fitness."

Sitting in his 11Sports office, Mehta traces the gradual learning curve the game has undergone in the country. He has remained constantly in touch with the sport, as a coach after retiring, and one of the forces behind the Ultimate Table Tennis league. Though he admits sponsors are still reluctant in investing in the sport, table tennis in India is chugging well on its own steam.

"I'm glad coaches are getting the attention they deserve. We have a structure in place now; during our times, we used to have only senior Nationals and an Under-18 tournament, now we have tournaments right from the under-10 age group."

2018 was a breakthrough year for the Indian paddlers, who did well at the Asian Games as well as the Commonwealth Games. While India was the most successful country in the sport at the CWG in Gold Coast €" with three gold, two silver and three bronze medals €" they reaped two historic bronze medals at the Asian Games in Jakarta.

"We were happy to represent India," says Mehta, who participated in two Asian Games and two Olympic Games. "Now everyone from players to parents expects a medal in multi-sport Games."

Kamlesh Mehta accepts the Arjuna Award. Image courtesy: Kamlesh Mehta

Kamlesh Mehta accepts the Arjuna Award. Image courtesy: Kamlesh Mehta

Pivotal moment

It was the 1982 Asian Games, held in New Delhi, that somewhat served as a pivotal point for table tennis in the country. With the continents' eyes on them, the government pushed for a better performance by making more resources and expertise available. A 'Department of Sport', the earliest version of a sports ministry in India, was also formed during the time. In table tennis, they appointed a foreign coach for the very first time €" Pak U Gill from North Korea €" in the run-up to the Games.

Representation, Mehta says, was the biggest deal at the time. "Playing for your school, district or state and then ultimately for India meant a lot," he says. It was a hearty replacement to negligible financial gains.

"First time I ever got an allowance was in 1982 in New Delhi, when we had a camp for the Asian Games," he says. "The allowance was Rs 2 a day!

"The first time we got allowance for a foreign tour was for the one in 1983 to Japan. You couldn't travel on your own, because of foreign exchange. When we represented India, we would be given $10 a day, that too had to be sanctioned from The Reserve Bank of India. The request had to go through the sports ministry, then we would go to the bank and purchase the dollars. Plus we would get $20 extra, we would call that airport money. So for a week-long tour, we would get $90. We would struggle there. We were hesitant about even getting a coffee, thinking how much would that cost."

Even though international competitions were few and far between, the fact that Mehta was a vegetarian made travel just a little more difficult. Elite athletes like Lewis Hamilton and Venus Williams now proudly announced themselves as vegan, but that was a time, Mehta recalls, when people outside India didn't quite understand what a vegetarian was.

"I don't even eat eggs," Mehta says, sipping from his cup of green tea. "But I wouldn't say it was a struggle, because I used to go there mentally prepared for it. Breakfast was usually good, but lunch and dinner was a problem." He would fuel up for a week of international competition with homemade theplas and kachoris.

At the time, a good-quality table tennis racquet was also as hard to come by as a fulfilling vegetarian meal abroad. While countries like China and Germany were busy stamping their authority on the game, the Indian paddlers were left fending for the basics.

"The best equipment in the sport was not made in India so it had to be imported, and most of it was through the grey market," he says. "The official import was not easy. Many a times it would be from the federation that we would get the equipment, they would get at some discounted rate.

"We didn't have proper kit, equipment was not available. Training material, training knowledge was not available. We were at a definite disadvantage. The European countries were better knit. They had leagues over there."

The Bundesliga, till date, is the most competitive table tennis league and one the Indians are starting to populate. More than ten Indian players €" including the India's current No 1 G Sathiyan €" play in Germany, in various divisions. However, Mehta, India's best player for over a decade could never participate in it because it would make him ineligible for selection at national camps.

"Unfortunately that was the policy at the time," he rues. One of the reasons behind this was, with players plying their trade abroad, there was no way to keep a tab on their fitness and form.

No video footage at the time, you see.

What remain are tales of his tactical genius; his excellence largely existing in an information void. However, the growth and development of Indian table tennis, of which Mehta has been an integral part, is for all to see.

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