It was the 2018 Commonwealth Games that launched Indian table tennis to a new high. There were gold medals in the men’s and women’s team events, and Manika Batra defied odds to win gold in women’s singles – an achievement that won her the Khel Ratna.
Later at the Asian Games, where India had never won a table tennis medal before, there were bronze medals in mixed doubles and in the men’s team event. They continued to punch above their weight at the Olympics as well, when Batra and Achanta Sharath Kamal became the first from the country to reach the third round of the women’s and men’s singles events respectively.
But now as the country prepares for another swing at the Commonwealth Games, since the start of the rise four years ago, an out-dated and myopic selection policy has left a sour note and prompted litigation.
As of Friday, three players had approached the Delhi High Court after their exclusion from the Birmingham 2022 event from the team announced on June 1.
Diya Chitale and Manush Shah were named as reserve players for the women’s and men’s teams respectively. Before Chitale’s case could be heard, the Committee of Administrators tasked with looking after Table Tennis Federation of India duties made a change to the team. Chitale was brought in, and Archana Kamath, the World No 4 doubles player, and World No 66 in singles (the second highest ranked Indian) was removed from the squad.
Chitale, a 19-year-old, is ranked 129 in the world in singles and 268 in doubles (with Swastika Ghosh).
But what makes the policy absurd is that Kamath’s exclusion and Chitale’s inclusion was done by the book, based on the selection policy that exists – one that the CoA has already called ‘flawed,’ but one that remains in effect till October.
It’s a policy that bestows 50% weightage to the domestic ranking, 30% to international, and 20% to selectors’ discretion - doubles rankings are not considered.
“Despite exercise of the Selector’s discretionary points in her favour, Archana Kamath is unable to meet the grade,” read the decision declared in the ‘minutes of the meeting’ when the CoA met on June 6.
Essentially, there were five domestic ranking events the TTFI would consider in their policy – four zonal events starting from October 2021, and the senior nationals that took place in April in Shillong.
It is learnt that players had not specifically been told that this policy will be followed this time, especially, as the CoA found in a meeting in May, that despite the policy existing, the federation had made arbitrary decisions in terms of team selection in the past too.
If the players had been notified in advance, there’s a chance they would have ensured they competed in those events rather than just the nationals.
Kamath loses out, again
The player who stands to lose out the most as things stand is 21-year-old Kamath. She’s no longer in the CWG team, and she had also been overlooked earlier in the singles event at the World Championship last year, despite her being a deserving candidate.
“It is pertinent to note herein that two players below (Kamath) in the world ranking were selected. Ms Archana was not permitted to participate in the single’s event and could only participate in the women’s doubles event despite her merit,” the CoA noted in its May meeting.
Despite that, Kamath had done well to help the women’s team finish fifth at the Asian Championships, and reached the quarterfinals in women’s doubles at the World Championships with Batra. Between those two events, she paired up with Batra to win a WTT Contender doubles title in Slovenia as well.
Her only fault was that she did not compete at the four ranking tournaments, and lost in the round of 32 at the recent senior nationals. Her domestic ranking, as a result, is 37.
The player who takes her place in the team Chitale, meanwhile has been on a decent run recently, having won an U-19 WTT title in Peru. She did compete at all the five domestic events and is placed third in the domestic rankings, behind only Sreeja Akula and Reeth Rishya – both of whom have also made it to the CWG team. Swastika Ghosh was named the new reserve player.
Where does it go?
On one hand, the CoA has tried to play it by the book, despite knowing the selection policy is flawed. On the other hand, they’ve evidently made exceptions for selecting Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Batra, and you’d say, rightly so.
Sathiyan is currently ranked 34 in the world and Batra 39. They are among India’s best. But domestically, they’re ranked 8 and 33. Should that mean they too must make way for others?
After Chitale went to court – the men’s and women’s India No 4 Manush Shah and Ghosh respectively also approached the Delhi High Court. Should the court rule in their favour, by the book, will the CoA exclude Sathiyan and Batra, as they are the only players in the two teams who are not ranked in the top four domestic rankings?
Sathiyan and Batra are also considered medal contenders in the mixed doubles event, and had won a WTT event in Hungary on the first time they paired up after the Tokyo Olympics. They’re also ranked sixth in the world in mixed doubles.
Meanwhile, Shah is the World No 98 and the third highest ranked Indian internationally, better than Harmeet Desai (124) and Sanil Shetty (211). But Shetty and Desai are ranked second and third respectively in the domestic rankings (behind Sharath Kamal) – possibly allowing them to keep their place in the CWG team.
More than anything else, it’s just a skewed selection policy – that is still being used to determine the squad for Birmingham – that has caused the damage.
The CoA has proposed a new policy in their meeting in May – which provides equal weightage between domestic and international performance (40-40-20) and also has an allowance for higher ranked players to either not need to compete in domestic events (ranked 50 or better), or play limited domestic events.
Ideally, that should have been the policy to determine the team right now. After all, it’s on the international circuit that the country’s stature in the sport will be measured, not on the domestic circuit. But maybe the administrators hands are tied now and they are just picking up the pieces from the mess left in the past.
“International exposure should be encouraged as it directly contributes to the overarching goal of Table Tennis in India - enhancing the Indian team’s international performances,” the CoA minutes said.
“Most importantly, the team seedings at the Commonwealth/Asian Games and the World TT Championships i.e, for international tournaments are arrived at based on the world rankings of the team’s players.”
But that system only comes into play from the next season. For the CWG, the CoA still has to make the best out of a flawed selection policy. As it stands, eight of the six players in the two teams have been included by the book. But are Sathiyan and Batra in the team based on the selection policy calculations? Or just because it’s inconcievable to have an Indian team without the two highest ranking men’s and women’s international players in the lineup? There are too many questions at the moment, logical answers are at a premium.
Whatever the case may be, there will be a young table tennis player, the second highest Indian in the world ranking charts, who will wonder how she didn’t make the cut.
India’s TT squads for CWG (as of June 8, 2022)
Men: Achanta Sharath Kamal, G Sathiyan, Harmeet Desai, Sanil Shetty, Manush Shah (standby)
Women: Manika Batra, Diya Chitale, Reeth Rishya, Sreeja Akula, Swastika Ghosh (Standby)
Individual rankings of the men's team players
| Sathiyan Gnanasekaran || 34|| 8|
| Achanta Sharath Kamal||38||1|
| Harmeet Desai||124||3|
| Sanil Shetty||211||2|
| Manush Shah (Reserve)||98||4|
Individual rankings of the women's team players
| Manika Batra||39||33|
| Sreeja Akula||70||1|
| Reeth Rishya||100||2|
| Diya Chitale||129||3|
| Swastika Ghosh (Reserve)||174||4|