Simon Kelner: A renaissance man and a much-overlooked sport

Kelner's View

Share

Not long after Fabio Capello had resigned in the time-honoured fashion of being thrown overboard, we were discussing the big sporting question of the moment: why has table tennis never taken off as a television sport, given that everything from darts and snooker to pro-celebrity golf has had its moment?

Britain has had its share of table tennis heroes: those of a certain vintage will remember the maverick champion Chester Barnes, and then there was Desmond Douglas, a torch-bearer for black sportsmen. More recently, the man who put the zing into ping-pong was Matthew Syed, someone who epitomises the rich ethnic diversity of this country – his father was British-Pakistani and his mother was Welsh – and, as well as having been the top English table tennis player for many years, he is what you might call a Renaissance man. He's an award-winning sports journalist; he helped found a successful sports-based charity; he stood – and lost – as a Labour candidate in the 2001 general election; and he is an acclaimed author.

Tonight, he is discussing the finer points of sidespin with three attentive disciples. We stood open-mouthed as Syed passed on some of his secrets in the way a magician would: seeming to tell us everything, but not quite explaining how the trick is done. And then we got to see him operate, one of the world's best defensive players in his day, standing so far back from the table he was almost in another postcode. We gave it all we had, and he'd just return the ball with interest. One of our group managed to take a couple of points from him, but one was a fortunate net cord call, and the other was while Syed was on the phone to his sports editor.

We knew how lucky we were, getting a tutorial from a world-class performer, and Syed was generous with his time, patience and encouragement. "You guys are good at reading spin. I'd better try something trickier," he said, before hitting a shot with so much sidespin that you were left wafting at thin air, two feet from the actual path of the ball.

Table tennis is a relatively cheap, very companionable, and ultimately healthy pastime, and we, as evangelists, couldn't understand why it hadn't been embraced by TV sports programmers. And why Syed wasn't a superstar doing after-shave adverts. Sure, it doesn't sound good on TV – the noise being redolent more of a school gym than an international sports arena – and the speed of the game presents a challenge to cameramen and producers. Syed said various experiments down the years – like the advent of a slightly bigger ball – had not succeeded in making the sport TV-friendly.

But the numbers playing table tennis in Britain are growing – even Dave C and Barack O had a game when the President was over here. Maybe its future is purely as a participatory sport. I can't help feeling, however, that everyone else is missing out.

 

 

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Wilbur, the pig who thinks he's a dog (Dom Joly)  

My hilarious pet pig Wilbur is more popular than I am — so I'll let him bring home the bacon

Dom Joly
 

Amazon's new 'payment by the page' policy will just result in longer but likely worse literature

Katy Guest
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'