Muhotasin Ahmed Ridoy is so far the sixth table tennis player from outside the capital to become the men’s singles champion in the recently-concluded national table tennis championship. The 15-year-old player from Rangpur is probably the youngest among the 14 men’s national champions the country has produced in 38 national championships over the 46 years since 1974. But there has hardly been any appreciation of the youngest champion at a time when the country’s table tennis is struggling for survival.
The obvious question now is whether 10th-grade student Ridoy can further flourish in the current state of table tennis and make an impact on the international stage, similar to what Indian table tennis players did in the last Asian Games in Jakarta and the Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast.
While Ridoy is the new sensation in national men’s table tennis, the same old face persists in the women’s singles event with veteran Moumita Alam Rumi being crowned for the fourth time.
The paddlers once played table tennis with passion without much consideration of monetary reward, but even though the scenario has now changed as players are paid by their respective teams, the sport still lags behind.
A glorious past
Table tennis had never been a wide-practised discipline in country but the game was once popular among in the time before and after liberation, thanks to being widely played in some parts of Dhaka -- Azimpur, Dhanmondi, Swamibag, Farashganj, Armanitola, Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) and Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). Apart from the capital, table tennis was also played in some districts like Narail, Jashore, Habiganj, Khulna, Chattogram and Rangpur.
It is also necessary to mention here that some educational institutes like the capital’s St. Joseph School, St Gregory’s School and district Zilla Schools had facilities to play table tennis on concrete boards but it is needless to say that the sport gathered some real momentum in some recognised parts of Dhaka and its suburbs with the help of some passionate organisers.
“To be honest, in that time there were no star table tennis players but there were some iconic organisers -- like Sarwar bhai of Farashganj, Rahmatullah bhai of Dhanmondi, Mizan bhai of Swamibagh -- who were really devoted towards the sport and they helped produce a lot of iconic players,” said former general secretary of Bangladesh Table Tennis Federation (BTTF) Rafiqul Islam Tipu.
It may sound surprising that eight players out of 14 champions in the singles event came from Dhaka and they shared 23 of 38 titles while six players hailing from Narail, Chattogram and Rangpur shared the remaining 15 titles. Narail’s Mahabub Billah, Mostata Billah, Gautam Das and Javed Ahmed shared nine of those titles. The saturation is even greater in the women’s singles events, with nine players hogging the 38 titles.
Interestingly, DMCH and BUET also had great contributions to Bangladesh’s table tennis as students from both educational institutions took part in the national championships regularly. Dr Munshi Noor Ahmed, a DMCH student of that time, was the first national champion in BTTF-sanctioned championship in 1974, before which BUET hosted the Bangladesh Open Table Tennis Championship, which was considered the national championship.
Four-time champion Saidul Haque Sadi, eight-time champion Mosadekul Haque Rochi, three-time champion Nasimul Hasan Kochi, two-time champion Ali Khan Sumit, two-time champion Sad Uddin Kislu are all from Dhaka and were once household names much like footballers. Then, six-time champion Mahabub Billah from Narail and five-time champion Manosh Chowdhury from Chattogram emerged onto the scene and kept dominating despite being at their fag end of their careers, thanks to the scarcity of new faces and quality players.
Unfortunately, there is now little buzz surrounding table tennis in the aforementioned parts of Dhaka except in Armanitola, so no household names like Rochi, Kochi, Sadi, Kislu, Akbar Aziz and Sumit have came to the fore. Meanwhile, the young generation in Narail has also lost interest following a lack of proper facilities and opportunities, sounding a clear alarm of not getting champions like Mahabub, Mostafa, Gautam and Javed from Narail.
“Table tennis is now not played in different parts of Dhaka except Armanitola because the clubs in those areas have long since lost interest to nurture players as they failed to provide the wages to their own players in the face of lucrative offers from other big clubs,” said Enayet Hossain Maruf, secretary of Armanitola Jubo Sangha and director of Sheikh Russel Table Tennis Club.
“I have been detached from table tennis for a long time but I heard about 10 years ago that is now no culture of table tennis Azimpur like we once had at Azimpur Community Center,” said eight-time champion Rochi. “I had once engaged in table tennis in a bid to bring children to the game but I couldn’t show them any future in the sport.”
“We came into table tennis through the guidance of former champion Mostafa Billah bhai and some senior table tennis player in Narail, but now there are no senior players who can provide the proper guidance and training to upcoming players. So, the practice of table tennis in Narail has gradually been shrinking,” said 2017 national champion Mohammad Javed Ahmed.
“You may find a lot of players and teams taking part in every national championship but the fact is that the same old faces are playing year after year and representing different districts,” said a BTTF executive committee member, preferring not to be identified.
“The present state of table tennis is zero because a group of organisers, who have no knowledge of and passion for table tennis, hold BTTF posts and at the same time prevent devoted organisers from entering the federation,” said Maruf, alleging that the Bangladesh table tennis team went to Hungary to take part in the World Table Tennis Championships without a single day’s preparation.
Rafiqul Islam Tipu also believes that the internal clash among organisers is holding the sport back.
“Not only table tennis, most disciplines are going backward due to internal conflicts among the organisers. Besides, no table tennis player could give a breakthrough at international level and thus could not capture the imagination of the youth,” said Tipu.
“Some organsiers come from outside Dhaka to attend executive meetings and go back with handsome financial facilities but they don’t make any contribution to table tennis, while some organisers have no technical knowledge of the sport,” said a BTTF EC member seeking anonymity.
A slim ray of hope
Despite the odds being stacked against the sport, there is still some hope as a new generation is getting involved at school and university levels.
“In the last four to five years, some organisations like Pallima Sangsad, Delhi Public School, International University of Bangladesh are organising school tournaments regularly with students of mostly English-medium schools taking part while students at University level are also participating in national championships,” said former player and coach Mohammad Ali. He added that BSKP and Quantum Cosmo School of Rangamati are also producing quality and skilful players.
Organiser Enayet Hossain Maruf also informed that they have been promoting table tennis across the country by providing approximately 300 tables at cheap prices as the guardians are now more eager to engage children in indoor sports.
Youngest champion Muhotasin Ahmed Ridoy knows well that he will have to work harder to retain the title in the next championships and to shine at international level but he does not have facilities in Rangpur to hone his skills further. It is also very important that players emerging from university and school competition as well as neighbourhood tournaments be brought into mainstream focus to bolster the national pipeline.
Back to Ridiy, who will take the responsibly of fulfilling the promise of a young star? While it is true that there seems to be no one around who will back Ridoy, it is now a desperate need for organisers to be united and nurture players like him and other upcoming paddlers by drafting a modified strategy that can adapt the sport to changed circumstances.