G. Jagannath on how the game of table tennis enthralled many, defence techniques in playing and how coaching centres changed the face of the game

In the 1950s, it took ‘elbow power' to play table tennis in Madras. With any social club offering just one table, a throng of players waited peevishly for their turn. After a game was completed, the waiting ones made a dash for it.

The sight of multiple tables laid across a room — common at coaching centres today — was unimaginable. In fact, coaching academies were unheard of. In the mid-1950s — when I was introduced to the sport at West End, a club in Shenoy Nagar — a player learnt his craft by watching others and trying out new techniques. For want of enough time at the table, most players did not get sufficient practice before tournaments. I was singularly lucky to be supported by Father McFerran, an Irish padre who promoted sportspersons. Watching me play in an inter-school tournament at the Catholic Institute (Santhome) in 1957, he was impressed and invited me to play at the sports centre at Don Bosco, near Broadway Talkies. This came as a surprise to me, because I had been hopelessly overshadowed by the brilliance of my elder brother, G. Ranganayakulu, Madras State junior champ in 1957.

Thanks to Fr. McFerran, I could play in big tournaments and also watch the top players in action. National player T. Thiruvengadam's defensive play impressed me immensely and I began to rely more on the ‘push-push-push-and-attack' strategy than all-out aggression. In those days — when playing with rubber racquet was the norm — a player could have a grossly-defensive approach and still show stunning results. A classic example is Thiruvengadam, who ascended to the top position in 1951, beating V. Sivaraman, an attacking player and a two-time national champion in the 1940s.

Playing with their revolutionary sandwich racquet (where sponge is sandwiched between the rubber and the ply) in the 1952 world championship at Bombay, the Japanese showed what power and speed can do. Indian players, however, took long to switch from rubber to sandwich racquets. The first Madras player to use one in a premier tournament was S. Bharathan from the Mylapore Gymkhana; making capital use of his racquet's speed, he won the Madras State championship in 1963 and dominated the sport in the State until 1964, when Fr. McFerran bought me and Ranganayakulu, sandwich racquets from Sweden (made by sticking Japanese sponge-enhanced rubbers to Swedish plies).

Quality racquets imported from Japan and the West were expensive and only a handful of sports shops in Madras — Pioneer, Metro Sports, Uberoi and Mahendru Sports — offered brands such as Barna. When I started my career, Barna racquets — designed by world champion Viktor Barna and made by Dunlop — were all the rage. For Madras table tennis players, watching Barna in flesh and blood — when he came to play a test at Christian Literature Society Hall — was a surreal experience. This Hall — where six tables could be laid side by side — was a popular venue for Tests between India and other countries. The hall would be packed to capacity, as were other venues where table tennis tournaments were conducted.

Table tennis had a good following and huge spectatorship; the only grievance was a deplorable lack of coaching schools. There were positive changes in the mid-1970s, when V. Ramachandran — who was India number two in the early 1960s — established Madras' first coaching academy at Santhome High School; he was followed immediately by Senapathi who set up MSR Academy at Adyar.

These academies slowly changed the way table tennis was played in Madras.

BIO G. JAGANNATH Born in 1945, he won the national table tennis championship in 1970 and received the Arjuna Award. He has represented India in six world, three Asian and three Commonwealth championships. He has served as senior personnel officer (sports) at Integral Coach Factory and is now brand ambassador for Stag International and runs a distributorship for the table tennis sports equipment company in Tamil Nadu.

I REMEMBER With their colonial influence, Indians players adopted the handshake grip. Viswanathan — a Madras player of the 1950s — was a novelty due to his penhold grip (unique to players from countries such as Japan and China, where chopsticks are used for eating).