Table Tennis: England set to join the top table: James Leigh sees the national teams in a resurgent sport challenge the world

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DESMOND DOUGLAS will do more than appear to defy logic, the march of time and even the laws of ballistics if sometime later this week he is to be given one last glimpse of the international limelight at the age of 38. The most popular English table tennis player for 30 years would be timing his comeback perfectly to coincide with the most dramatic three months the game in this country has seen since the Fifties.

The England manager, Donald Parker, has not decided whether to give the 11-times former champion a direct entry into the singles at the European Championships in Birmingham in March. But Douglas has more or less made up his mind that he will play anyway, and, if necessary, work his way through the qualifying competition to be present at the fiesta of 400 players from 47 countries in his home city.

'I still feel good enough to do it,' the enduringly enthusiastic left-hander says.

English table tennis as a whole feels even better. So much so that Parker's players can cope without Douglas, and in the next few weeks the best national squad in decades expect to win medals not only from the European Championships but from the European League, the European Nations Cup and the Commonwealth Championships.

The women will be led by the European silver medallist, Lisa Lomas, and the men by a former member of one of the great world title-winning teams, Chen Xinhua, who travelled half-way round the world to be here and fell in love with a Yorkshire woman four years ago.

Chen then became England No 1, acquired a six-figure income from the game, and was so upset by China's decision to veto his participation for Great Britain in the Barcelona Olympics that he is working obstinately hard on continuing until Atlanta in 1996, by which time he will be 36 and his country of origin will no longer have that right.

Success on the table is matched by progress off it. About pounds 1.6m has been acquired in funding thanks to some clever restructuring and astute lobbying by the English Table Tennis Association. The ETTA has yet to crack the problem of sponsors shunning the game, but it has landed the next European qualifying tournament in this country and has its eyes on getting the game into a 2002 Commonwealth Games in Britain.

The ETTA has also acquired high status with the president of the International Table Tennis Federation, Ichiro Ogimura, with its lead - convincingly expressed, if controversially administered - on the issue of glue.

Saving children from cancer, brain damage or even death from inhaling toxics has been the ITTF's much- publicised aim, and England has gone further than any other country by placing a ban on all the 'fast' glues used ostensibly to attach rubber to bats, but in reality to increase the speed of the ball from the bat.

Ogimura should therefore look favourably on a possible English bid for the World Championships in 1997, while the ETTA chairman, Alan Ransome, may well be destined for one of the leading roles internationally.

If so, he will be part of a game which has acquired more than 150 affiliated nations, many of whom have persuaded television bosses that the small table fits the small screen, with attractive results. Ransome may thus become an important figure in one of the handful of biggest sports in the world. Once labelled the 'errand- boy' game, table tennis is delivering a bigger message than anyone could ever have expected.