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

Kelner's View


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.



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