From IPL to UTT: Table and cheer
By Ayantan Chowdhury | Express News Service | Published: 16th July 2017 08:46 AM |
September 13, 2007. A date not familiar with the masses. It was the start of a wave that would not only sweep the nation but also change the face of sports in the country. The Indian Premier League was unveiled to the world.
It was not the first of its kind. The Premier Hockey League started in 2005, the Indian Cricket League followed in 2007. But both shut down, in 2008 and 2009, respectively. The IPL was the first blockbuster, in terms of raking in moolah as well as creating a dedicated fan base. It also gave youngsters and virtual unknowns a platform to test their skills against the best.
Soon, all sports started following this model. Hockey (HIL), football (ISL), badminton (PBL), even non-glamorous sports like kabaddi (PKL) and wrestling (PWL). On July 13, 2017, table tennis rather belatedly entered the fray. Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT), a league promoted by 11Even Sports in association with Table Tennis Federation of India, was launched in Chennai. The basic aim is to try and replicate the IPL model.
It was in 2014, that then India coach Peter Engel had suggested the idea of a table tennis league. He argued there was a lot of talent in the country, but until they started playing against quality opposition on a regular basis, they wouldn't improve.
Table tennis in the country was not enjoying the best of times during that period. Bad displays at the Asian and Commonwealth Games followed and Engel was shown the door. But his idea stayed.
Kamlesh Mehta, former India coach, played a key role in the creation of UTT. The TTFI broke the idea to ITTF in 2015, requesting for a window in July for scheduling the event. “They liked the idea. Since we spoke two years ago, they made sure the 2017 calendar didn’t have major ranking events at this time,” Kamlesh said.
Most Indian male paddlers participate in leagues across Europe. India's top star and World No 43 A Sharath Kamal went to ply his trade in the German Bundesliga 10 years ago and is still playing there. The likes of Soumyajit Ghosh (Swedish Elite League), G Sathiyan (Polish Superliga) have also started treading the same path.
UTT has the potential to change that. And the sentiment was best put across by Sharath. “Had this started 10 years back, I'd have thought twice about leaving the country. The best facilities, playing against top quality players and training with them on a regular basis are the prime requirements for a successful career. This league has all that.”
According to several players and coaches associated with the league, UTT is set to be a game-changer. The three-week event will usher in an era of professionalism as well as bring in money not seen before.
“Whenever I've played abroad or seen foreign players in action, be it training or during matches, the first thing that struck me was their discipline and sense of timing. They stayed in top hotels, had access to the best facilities, reached the venue on time, completed media formalities and then got down to business. Such things have rarely been seen here. UTT will bring this,” Falcons TTC coach Soumyadeep Roy opined.
The money on offer is not meagre. Players' salary ranges between Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 20 lakh, depending on their world rankings. They signed contracts with the promoters in March and April. The winner of the competition will receive `1 crore from a total purse of Rs 3 crore. Compared to other leagues, the funds may seem ordinary, but such amounts have not been seen in the sport previously.
World No 110 G Sathiyan, the second Indian after Sharath to win a Pro Tour event, explained how money would help. “Expenses players incur on tour are high. In a year, the national team is sponsored by TTFI for four-five events. However, you need to take part in nine or 10 to improve. For all major events abroad, you end up spending almost Rs 2 lakh.”
Paddlers also need the services of physiotherapists, trainers and coaches. It’s only before federation-supported events that national camps are organised. Equipment is another concern. The cost of changing rubber and buying rackets and balls is not negligible. So for those without sponsors, it becomes difficult.
The benefits are there for all to see. For youngsters like 17-year-old Manav Thakkar and 16-year-old Archana Girish Kamath, this is an invaluable experience. “Even without playing, I've been helped. Seeing the likes of Han Ying, Andrej Gacina train has broadened my horizons. I've never played in such a competitive format. This exposure will take me a long way,” Thakkar said.
The format has been slightly tweaked. For example, a player has to complete service in 10 seconds as well as having no time-outs. The concept of deuce is also not there. All these are in order to make it short and snappy and to pique TV interest. From promotions to free entry, UTT is trying its best to make a name.
“In our times, there was nothing close to this. The exposure these players will get is immense. Also, foreigners will start warming up to the concept of coming to India. That's why we held the India Open in New Delhi. To test the waters regarding foreigners' interest. There are plans to make it bigger next year, including money and more venues. It'll take time. We're hoping for the best,” 11Even Sports co-promoter and former national champ Niraj Bajaj said.
However, there are quite a few chinks that need to be ironed out. The entire match sometimes goes on for four hours, something today's audience doesn't like to see. Absence of top Chinese players is another factor. “We've a contract with 11Even Sports for 10 years. Our deal is such that they get publicity and they're given the right to sponsor whatever tournaments they choose. The league format is too long. The plan is to sit with the promoters, review arrangements and discuss the road map for future. Hopefully, the coming days will see the birth of a great TT nation,” TTFI secretary general MP Singh said.