India’s first table tennis gold at the Commonwealth Games came at Melbourne in 2006.
In the most recently held games at Gold Coast in 2018, India won a sixth table tennis gold. In both cases, there has been one common name on the team sheet- Achanta Sharath Kamal.
In more ways than one, Achanta Sharath Kamal has laid the path for table tennis to flourish and become a popular sport in India. For many years, the veteran paddler from Tamil Nadu was the flag-bearer of Indian table tennis.
Two years before that landmark gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, Achanta Sharath Kamal had come out top at the Commonwealth table tennis championships in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and went on to participate at the 2004 Athens Olympics. The recognition from the Indian government followed in the form of the Arjuna Award the same year.
However, it was apparent that the table tennis bug had not quite caught on yet. The paddler quietly went about doing his job though, becoming the sole Indian men’s table tennis representative at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and he believed that that year was a starting point for a change in approach.
“2008 would be the starting point,” he had stated in an interview with Scroll.in when asked about why the sport had reached the current levels. “With Delhi hosting the Commonwealth Games (in 2010), we got a lot of funding to do well there and we did.”
However, a scandal erupted in the aftermath of those games that hampered their progress and it did not help that he suffered a slump in form a year later. All these factors put piled up and led to a poor show at the 2014 event, claimed Achanta Sharath Kamal.
“But we’ve been back on track since then. 2016 was the first time when we had four different qualifiers for the Olympics,” he added in that interview.
He worked hard himself, opening up the European avenues by playing for TSV Grafelfing in the Bundesliga and used that experience to improve his game.
Those efforts also helped younger Indian players and it is no coincidence that the likes of Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Manika Batra have emerged as the new stars of table tennis during this period. The process, which started in 2008 with some hurdles along the way, took ten years to bear fruit with the multiple gold haul at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Manika Batra won the women’s singles gold and led the charge for the women’s team gold even as Achanta Sharath Kamal teamed up with Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, Harmeet Desai, Anthony Amalraj and Sanil Shetty to win the men’s team gold.
Later in the same year, India won the Asian Games bronze in both the men’s team event and mixed doubles, fulfilling a lifelong dream for the experienced paddler.
Since then, Sathiyan Gnanasekaran has come off age to take over the mantle of being the face of Indian table tennis, breaking into the top 25 of the ITTF world rankings last year. Youngster Manav Thakker also recently became the top-ranked U-21 men’s player and earlier occupied the same position in the U-18 age group.
The signs are promising for the future of table tennis in India and Tokyo 2020 would represent a perfect hurrah for Achanta Sharath Kamal, who would almost certainly be representing India at an Olympics for the last time.