A “better prepared” Indian squad opens its campaign in the 19th Asian table tennis championship knowing well that even its best may fall well short of securing a place in the last-four stage of the team championship at the UP Badminton Academy hall here.

With the last edition’s top-six teams – China, Japan, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Korea and Singapore in both sections - joining the action only in the Championship Division from Wednesday, lesser teams in the fray will battle it out for two qualifying spots over the next two days on a league-cum-knockout basis.

When the First Division league begins on Monday, India’s first bjective will be to finish in the top-two bracket its group in both sections.

The Indian’s men team, which is expected to field Sharath Kamal, Saurabh Chakraborty, Soumyadeep Roy ahead of Anirban Nandy and Zubin Kumar in all the key matches, are clubbed with Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Jordan in Group ‘B’.

In the ladies section, where India will be relying mainly on the experience of Poulomi Ghatak, Mouma Das and K. Shamini, the host finds itself in the company of Nepal, Laos and Kazakhstan in Group ‘D’.

Looking at the feeble challenge, India should make the next stage. However, the format is such that the two qualifying teams will face the finalists of the last edition. For instance, should India qualify from the First Division, it faces either China or Japan in the men’s section and China or Singapore in the women’s section. Going by the strength of teams like China, Japan and Singapore, the fate of the Indian teams is not tough to imagine.

Thereafter, the Indian teams will be left to play in the playoff for 5-8 places. In the last edition, in 2007, the Indian men did qualify for the Championship Division but failed to win a single match and settled for the eighth spot. The Indian women’s team fell in the First Division knockout itself and eventually ended up 10th.

“If we are confident of making an improvement over our 2007 performance, it is because we are better prepared,” says Massimo Constantini, the articulate Italian coach attached with the Indian team in its preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

“Our destination is next year’s Commonwealth Games and I see this event as a station during our long journey. Our players have trained in China and played in the English Open and took part in the East Zone rankings at Siliguri before coming here. So I see that they are ready for the battles ahead,” explained Constantini.

Meanwhile, in an unusual departure from the practice followed worldwide, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was allowed to substitute absentee Ri Chol Guk with their originally named non-playing captain Kin Song Guk. The request for the substitution was accepted by the jury committee to ensure DPR Korea’s participation in the team championship. Rules stipulate that at least three members are named in the squad.

DPR Korea is the other team, besides India, which is being tipped to qualify for the Championship Division. “Much depends on the draw of the knockout stage,” cautioned National coach Bhawani Mukherjee and concluded, “Pray we don’t run into DPR Korea in the semifinals.”

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