CWG 2022: When Axl Rose and Arjit Singh lovers combined to give India TT Gold

In what is clearly an age-bending anomaly in Indian table tennis, Sharath Kamal likes blasting AC/DC and Guns ‘n Roses, and in rocker’s city Birmingham, has been feeding off Axl Rose. He also did other assorted age-bending things this week like beating Nigeria’s Quadri Aruna in the electric semifinals of the Men’s Team event. But he has tolerated some other forms of music, like Arijit Singh, that teammates G Sathiyan and Harmeet Desai dig, and which he finds too heavy. “Too dard bharaa (pensive).”

In a bond built over many Commonwealth Games, and being together through rough times and indifference to their wins, the Indian men’s Table Tennis team has built a gold-winning streak since 2018, playing a harmonious tune that keeps the juggernaut rolling. On Tuesday, it brought India another gold medal – Sharath’s 3rd – as the paddlers delivered a 3-1 win over young guns Singapore. “Maybe because of my years in Europe, I’m a complete rock buff. These guys…” Sharath laughs, mock chidingly, “they don’t know rock. They go ‘what’s that noise?” he chuckles, while posing proudly with his 10th CWG medal, not so much the CWG mascot. At 39, grungy Arijit Singh and goofy stuffed toy bulls, aren’t exactly an allure.

Yet, despite belonging to different generations, the Indian quartet of Sharath Kamal, G Sathiyan, Harmeet Desai and Sanil Shetty have managed to stay away from the usual discords that have disbanded many teams before. “I can’t impose on them. I want to give them the space they need. I’m not bigger than the sport,” Sharath says, of submerging all ego for the team cause. “Everyone has to do his job. Today I couldn’t win my match, so I didn’t do my job. But the others stepped up,” he explains, a day after he led India into the finals, on the back of a win that had supporters from Ghana, Botswana, Nigeria and Kenya rooting for the African icon in one right din.

In the finals against Singapore, G Sathiyan and Harmeet Desai combined to pull India out of a tricky 1-1 situation, and it was an aggressive power-thrust from Desai that ensured India ended up 3-1 winners to retain gold. “There was more pressure this time, defending the title,” said Shetty adding, the team will celebrate with some ice-cream, before the diet regimen kicks in again on Wednesday for the individual event.

At 9-9 in a Sharath game, the team would suggest the veteran try an up-spin serve, an input that would help him get the next two points. “This team has been together for years now. We don’t have to think much, we just know what needs to be said when to each other,” he said.

Against Singapore, Harmeet was similarly told to keep attacking – regular doses of rousing encouragement to keep his whippy backhand whirring. Starting as third seeds, and half-expecting Liam Pitchford’s England to turn up in the finals, the young Singapore upstarts posed a mystery challenge, even as the Indians absorbed the pressure of defending gold. With two top players in good form, there was room for the No. 3 to step up.

Dart-throwing elbows off-table

The bond in the team has grown, however, over other games and frolic. There’s cards – bluff, at which Sathiyan claims he wins, and pool and darts, the latter that Sharath gestures is his territory. Shetty kicks ass in Playstation. “But if you call him at 2 am and say you need help, Sanil will be there for you,” Sharath says of his teammate.

The team ribs Sathiyan incessantly about being attached to his phone, while Sharath gets a lot of eye-rolls from his younger teammates for being up and awake and ready for practice at ungodly early hours. “He wakes up so early,” Harmeet carps.

Their complementary natures often offset each other’s drawbacks. “The thing with Sathiyan is he can see the bright side of any situation and turn any negative into a positive. He’s never negative, and that is infectious,” Harmeet adds.

Breakthrough tournament for Harmeet

Desai, who starred in the finals with the doubles win and then pulling the critical third singles, remembers the journey he’s undertaken in a game that helped him make peace with his unfulfilled childhood dream. “As a kid, I wanted to join the army. As you know, Gujaratis don’t often join the army. But I had taken a liking to the olive uniform after watching Border. Corny, I know. That dream never worked out. But I’m glad I could represent India somewhere and win for the country,” he said after completing his win, where the pressure of defending the title had given him sleepless nights.

Hailing from Surat, TT wasn’t very common either. “There had hardly been any national player before me from Surat. There’s no sports culture there, and I always struggled for sparring and quality coaching,” he recalls.

His father played TT with friends, and had lodged a playing table at home for recreation. “He got a coach for me, but it’s not like I could stay in Surat and train,” he said. It also meant he is forced to camp in Germany for 8-9 months every year. “Initially, that was difficult because you have to cook your own food. I’ve burnt my hand once in the process, and sometimes food has tasted so bad, plus there’s no one to blame. It’s when you realise that the brats that we are at home, where we complain ki namak zyada hai, namak kum hai (there is excess salt, or less) to our mothers is so wrong on our part. You realise how difficult it is to cook,” he says, the memories striking as a revelation.

On Tuesday, the memory bugging him was of a doubles match he had lost with Anthony Amalraj at the Worlds to the same Singaporean pairing. “I kept thinking of the doubles the whole night, and we watched our opponents’ games. But today I was in the flow. Before the doubles, I just said to myself ‘Today is my day.’ After Sathiyan’s match, I was a little relaxed because we had the cushion.”

With Sathiyan closing out the semis handling pressure, it was Harmeet’s turn to finish it in the finals. “Winning in 2018 was good, but defending was the pressure. We are all more mature and experienced now. I’m glad we got it done,” Harmeet ended.

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