USA Table Tennis

History of U.S. Table Tennis Volume 13: 1984

CHAPTER THIRTEEN 

            1984: Eric Boggan in India. 1984: Profile of India’s Subhash Mashruwala. 

            Pursuant to Power Poon’s amateur-minded attempt at the April Louisiana Open to circumvent ITTF regulations on players receiving prize money, I think it helpful for would-be U.S. tournament sponsors to note the following quote from the Minutes of the May 29-31, 1984 ITTF Council Meeting at Herzogenaurach, West Germany: “With regard to ITTF recognition of tournaments, it was agreed that any tournament in which the maximum prize was not more than 1,250 Swiss Francs [whatever at the moment that is in dollars] would be automatically recognized by the ITTF without the necessity for an application to be made. It was also agreed that the maximum total prize money offered at any competition would be 500,000 Swiss Francs and that the fee for ITTF recognition would be 5% of the total advertised prize money.”

Sounds hopeful, does it? At least prize money tournaments—hey, the sky’s the limit, if not yet outer space—can have the imprimatur of the ITTF. Of course, as Roy Evans warns in his recent “ITTF President’s Report” (SPIN, Feb., 1984, 30), “young players, juniors and cadets, whose game will be coming to its peak at Olympics-time in 1988, must take care that they keep their activities within the quite generous guidelines of our amateur eligibility. It is very likely that many of these youngsters see 1988 as an impossible dream and will not take enough care at this moment to study every financial inducement that may come their way.” [Is it encouraging, or not, that financial inducements come their way?]

USTTA Executive Director Bill Haid takes up the warning with his adjacent Official Announcement: “Players who accept prize money or participation fees, EXCEPT AT COMPETITIONS SPECIFICALLY RECOGNIZED BY THE ITTF, will not be eligible for the Olympic Games.” If that’s not clear—and it isn’t (“How much can I win, Mom?”)—best for players and parents to be en guard. Ditto, says Haid, “regarding the use of an athlete’s name or picture on any table tennis EQUIPMENT. This constitutes an automatic endorsement and the athlete becomes ineligible to participate as an amateur athlete in USOC -sanctioned events (such as the National Sports Festival, the Pan Am’s, and the Olympics).”

Ah well, it’s much too late for Eric Boggan to be an Olympian. His play-for-pay habits have long been formed. Two weeks after winning that $1200 at the Louisiana Open, he was off (Apr. 25-May 1) to two Grand Prixs in India. Here, with father Tim as Editor, they cover, first, the tournament at Delhi, then the follow-up one in Calcutta: 

“Indian Grand Prix I (in Delhi) and II (in Calcutta) were held only a month after the European’s had ended, so it was understandable that, except for Eric Boggan, only Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian players were invited to attend.

The players were put up at the Tai Palace in Delhi, the Park Hotel in Calcutta. The accommodations were fine, and the food couldn’t have been better (westernized mostly—but still, if you wanted them, there were some highly seasoned dishes, hot chicken/ginger curry, for example). The Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) Organizing and Working Committees (“Are you feeling well here in India, Eric?...How do you like Delhi?…Calcutta?...My, the weather’s warm, isn’t it?”) politely saw to it that the players were comfortable (“Would you like drinks?...Ice cubes?).

We were treated first-class all the way, even to a police escort through the thronging traffic—all this in lavish contrast to the myriad numbers of squatters, who, it may be for generations, have staked out their little muddy tent-piece of street-side property.

            Eric, getting into Delhi at midnight from his halfway-round-the-world flight, was out there at the table next afternoon ready to begin Grand Prix I.

            How’d he do?

            Well, in his preliminary six-man round robin he beat the aging veteran Manjit Dua in straight games. Dua, though he was to go five games with World #12 Kim Ki Taek, has a simple left-handed spin game without much variation. His anti style was defensive, safe—without power. And he was very vulnerable to any forceful blocking to his backhand.

            Eric also along the way beat World #8 Fan Chang Mao—his best win over a Chinese.

            Fan, who to Eric seems a little naïve for a 22-year-old, has outstanding athletic ability. He’s in perfect shape, has a great build—is strong all over. He has marvelous footwork. Has a good head—always fights. And though his eye on the ball is like a cat’s on a bird, he seems like he’s always having fun when he plays.

            Eric was amazed by Fan. The man just doesn’t block or roll shots. Instead, with his short little wind-up, he again and again goes for the all-out smash. If you can return Fan’s high-toss serve you’ve got a chance. Eric said Fan’s toss was higher—20 feet up sometimes—than any other player’s he’s seen. Also, you’re not to try to drop a ball short—you’ll never catch him unprepared. He doesn’t open by blasting the ball, but with good fakes gets you out of position. It’s best to try to force play to the corners. True, Fan’s got no middle, hits on the wide forehand or the wide backhand—but if your shots are corner-quick and authoritative you can exploit his usual strengths.

            Against penholder Fan, Eric said he was very relaxed. The Chinese always had to hit several balls to get through Eric—and Eric himself didn’t passively block but stroked his shots hard. ‘My backhand’s very effective against penholders,’ said Eric. ‘I worked Fan around to his backhand corner—but kept him honest with jabs to his forehand. Also, I sort of stole the first game, caught him at 18, then made a loop-kill…finished with a half-reckless smash that went in. Had I lost the first, I might have been beaten three straight. As it was, with the impetus I got, I won the first, third, and fifth.

            Fan, as it turned out, came second to teammate Xie Saike in the first of these Indian back-to-back tournaments—while Eric…

            Before getting a momentary lift from beating Fan, Eric had lost to Kamlesh Mehta, the Indian #1, who at the last World’s in Tokyo had helped India score a 5-2 victory over the Nigerians and so advance to the Championship Category.

            ‘I don’t want to talk much about this early match with Mehta,’ said Eric. ‘I wasn’t whole-heartedly committed to coming all that way to India to begin with—but since I told them I was coming, I came. I was tired from jet lag, and there was no doubt that Mehta was hungrier than I was. I tried about 75%. When I didn’t place the ball hard, he could spin to both corners. He’s a normal topspin player, but he has a good backhand counter, and I kept losing the long countering points. I was up 20-16 in the first and lost it, up 20-18 in the fourth and lost it. I needed to win a few big points—and just didn’t care to win enough. Enough.’

            Eric’s loss to Chandrashekhar (whom he’d beaten three straight in the quarter’s of our last U.S. Open) was even worse. Here Eric was given some hostile spectator treatment, some ironic heckling (by anti-American Sikhs?...Hindu Punjabis?) to the point where (‘Good shot, Boggan…Right on…Way to go’) he said he just didn’t feel like playing, like fighting hard at all. ‘I didn’t think it was worth the effort to work. That’s how screwed-up I was.”

            And in still another bummer, Eric, up 2-0 on Kim Ki Taek, lost the last three.

            As a result, he did not advance to the quarter’s but (‘I was so humiliated’) finished ignominiously tied for 9th—that is, last. And, as a telephone call home that out-of-it night indicated, he was little consoled by the $500 ‘show money’ he’d received. Now he’d be sitting out a playing day. Some downer after he’d scored that win against a strong Chinese!

            Eric’s roommate at the Taj Palace in Delhi was Hiroyuki Abe, the Japanese National Champion. He wasn’t always in the best mental state for winning either. Every day he’d put down his little Sony Walkman with the Tokyo Boys speaker to phone Japan to see how his expectant wife was doing—in three days the baby was due. (Towards his last day in India his concern for her really affected his concentration.) Why, Eric wondered, hadn’t they got another Japanese to come? Maybe it was because Abe spoke some goodwill English, was quite likeable?

            Eric was struck by how planning, how ordered he was. He’d brought a heater with him—and boiled water. Ate his own food. Shared his rice, his chocolate. Let Eric use his shaver.

            Physically, Abe (at 5’9”/130 pounds?) is razor-thin but has solid rock-like muscles and is quick as a cat. He stands way to his backhand corner—only blocks with his backhand…when he has to. Invariably he tries to spin the first ball hard. He has a half-distance touch-spin that he hook-rolls in, or he spin-loops in hard…depending. Also, he can go off the table and backhand-sweep a shot in.

            Eric thought it strange that he never played Abe either in Delhi or Calcutta. 

            In Calcutta, Eric had a much better head, had, with his injured pride, increased incentive to try his best.

            How’d he do?

            Well, he didn’t beat Delhi winner Xie Saike, who, in turn, lost to Calcutta winner Fan Chang Mao.

            Did World #5 Xie Saike—with his thin-boned build, his muscles that didn’t flex out—train hard? That was Manjit Dua’s question. About Saike’s forehand Eric had no question—it was, in his opinion, the most grooved in the Game. The way this lefty pips-out penholder rips into the ball it’s as if his eyes were beamed into it. Only when he’s tentative does he miss. Saike stays right up at the table—has a great third-ball service game. If you can get a shot deep into his forehand he has to take a step back, then you can get to his backhand. But when he cuts that backhand jab, the ball wobbles when it comes to you.

            Xie’s pretty sociable, says Eric. Also casual—he lives in his sweat-suit. ‘Boggan,’ he said to Eric, ‘no good in Delhi--$500.’ So he has a sense of humor too.

            In Calcutta, Eric got the monkey off his back. (As apparently did someone else—literally. For, believe it or not, a monkey came right out of the audience and jumped onto the playing table.) Eric was able to even the score with the Indians Chandrashekar and Mehta who’d beaten him in Delhi. Chandrashekar, the Indian National Champion in ‘79/80/81, loops the forehand and has pips on the backhand with which of course he plays the ball down. He was not as good in Calcutta, not as quick, as he had been in Delhi—and Eric beat him three straight. Both Mehta, the 1982 Indian National Champion, who knew Eric was gunning for him, and Eric himself were a little tight for their match—with the result that Eric beat him in four.

            This meant that Eric would again meet the very streaky penholder Kim Ki Taek. Kim has a very good forehand and, though he wants to play all forehand, his backhand’s not bad either. ‘He can open and then give you a Kim Wan all-out backhand,’ said Eric, ‘but that’s a rare occasion. Once Kim gets forehand control, you’re a goner. So you force and hit down on the ball so that Kim with his flat stroke has trouble lifting the underspin.’ Eric kept hitting his backhand down and hard, and controlled Kim’s serves by keeping the ball low and placing it well, sometimes anti-pushing to Kim’s wide forehand. ‘Kim’s first shot is never a blaster,’ said Eric. ‘But he’s a 2-3-4 machine getting into top gear.’

            Eric thought Kim a very nice guy, who seemed personable, mellow, sincere—a good listener. One morning Eric joined Kim and his Korean companions for breakfast and helped them order. ‘How about a ham omlette?’ said Eric. ‘Ah,’ said Kim gratefully, ‘I English little, but Boggan good English.’

            This time Eric beat Kim three straight. His pattern of serve, anti-flick, and backhand crack was particularly effective.

            Eric’s last opponent was the #1 North Korean Cho Yong Ho, World #21. In Delhi he’d finished third behind the Chinese.

            Cho has a good high-toss serve. He plays the whole table with his forehand—has no backhand. He spins the first loose ball and thereafter is like a spinning machine. He’s strong, squatty, wears a knee-pad, and is very, very fast for his age.

            Eric lost the first and then, after being up 19-16, lost the second. ‘I was feelin’ grim,’ said Eric. ‘But I knew I just had to play more aggressively. Forget technique, I thought. Just get the ball going to his backhand. No more push returns. First and second shots have to be quick for me, then once I get the ball rolling and have some control, I have a lot more options. I’m quicker this year than last. After the serve I can come in from anywhere and loop. I worry about returning back into position, but, down 2-1 in this match, I just had to make the initial loop and take it from there. I play better when I play naturally, from instinct, rather than from any kind of controlled pattern play.’

            This match—for 3rd Place and $2,000—Eric came back to win in five. And with it the favor of the Indians who watched him fight. ‘I never experienced anything like it,’ said Eric. ‘I signed hundreds of autographs. People came up to me…and shook my hand. They just seemed to want to feel me.’             

            “My friend Subhash Mashruwala, now 45, began playing table tennis tournaments in India about the time I, Tim, coming late at 19 to serious play, joined the USTTA. In 1955, at the age of 16, not realizing he could have entered the Junior’s, Subhash won his first Gujarat Men’s Singles title (though technically Gujarat was not to become an Indian state until 1960).

            The Mashruwala family was deeply involved in textiles—and, indeed, with the hum of World War II, the many mills in Subhash’s hometown Ahmedabad (nicknamed ‘The Manchester of India’) had made it the richest city in the country.

            But lest you jump to the conclusion that riches and table tennis necessarily go together, allow me to point out that for the 1958-59 season Mashruwala was ranked #8 in India, and that, as he says, ‘for the next 25 years not a single player from Gujarat would get anywhere near such results—my record still stands unequaled.’ The proud peacock is the national bird of India.

            Perhaps Subhash’s modest or immodest success had something to do with his practice partners? About this time he began playing with a mechanical engineering student who was destined to become the world-renowned Dr. Sudhir Kakar, author of the famous Shamans, Mystics, and Fakirs. Maybe listening to Subhash for hours on end first stirred Kakar’s psychiatric interest in this field?

            In 1958, says Subhash, he was the first man in India to use inverted sandwich rubber. It’d been presented to him by Jimmy Mehta, one of India’s Davis Cup players, who’d brought it back from Japan. Thick sponge—that was what Subhash began playing with. ‘Even the National Champion wanted to look at my bat,’ he says—asked me, ‘Can you control it?’

            As if Subhash ever had any difficulty with control. Like even the most educated of Indians (in a nation where as late as 1975 70% of the population was illiterate, and some so self-consciously proud as to carry paperback books they couldn’t begin to read), he worried only about self-respect.

            In 1960, Mashruwala played in the Asian Championships in Bombay—and though he was not on the Indian National Team, he was one of two Indians to qualify for the 128-man Singles draw. Yeah? So who’d he meet? None other than S.B. Joag, the Indian #2. You’ve never heard of him? Never knew that he used to beat the formidable Vietnamese Mai Van Hoa, one of the world’s best players, under 5?

            Well, Masruwala knew it. In their first game, Joag was up 14-0. ‘I was feeling so bloody stupid,’ says Subhash…with almost a kind of pride, as if that were another record of his that still stands. ‘I must concentrate,’ he said to himself—and, up 20-19 in the second, he took a leaf from his friend’s as yet unwritten book and gave the #2 Indian his #1 sidespin serve—which, for shame, Joag, psychic-struck, couldn’t return. Then, up 2-1, and 20-19 match-point in the fourth, Subhash fakired out another serve and Joag’s Asian Games chances went up in rope-smoke.

            After that, India banned sponge, the war with China prohibited any National Championships, and so in 1963 Subhash, having given up his racket, came to London to live.

Could he stay away from the sport? No, he could not. In the absence of servants, he even stood in line to buy a new bat. Then he began recreational play in the Fourth Division of the so-called Business Houses League. (‘I tell you,’ he said to one disbelieving opponent, ‘you bloody well have to serve with an open palm!’).

Yes, Subhash, who now laughingly says he knows English better than his native Gujarat, always did appear to get along well with the British. ‘Actually,’ he says, ‘India never did win her independence from the Raj. It was given to us.’

In the next few years, Subhash’s Business House team was perennially promoted until finally he was playing in the First Division against an English Top Ten player like Vic Ireland.

In 1967, though, Mashruwala was back in India, in his home state of Gujarat—where only two tournaments a year were being played. ‘Ridiculous,’ said Subhash. So that by 1969, when he was the Hon. Secretary of Gujarat—that is, not as I thought (before Rufford Harrison corrected me), the Honorable Secretary of, but the Honorary Secretary of, the Table Tennis Association of Gujarat—there were now 10 tournaments a year.

Increasingly, Mashruwala became more and more interested in the administration side of the sport. In 1972 he was Organizing Secretary of the All-India National’s at Ahmadabad—‘one of the finest National’s ever.’

As Subhash took on more and more administrative duties, you might say he matured. Flying back from a meeting in Bangalore in 1970, he met Sita, an air hostess for Indian Airlines from Coorg, a state famous for pretty women and the quantity of liquor their men can drink. You’ve heard the expression, ‘Marriages are made in Heaven’? ‘Well,’ says Subhash, ‘this was the nearest I could get.’ (That 1500-pound English sheep dog with Sita doesn’t look that heavy. Of course not, silly; 1500 pounds—that’s what the dog cost.)

Yes, Fate had cast Gujarat and Coorg together. And today, in between her meditations, Sita has the care of 12-year-old Monesh (shakehands); 9-year-old Nilesh (penholder), and 7-year-old Anish (Eric Boggan grip).

In 1974, Subhash brought the Indian Team to the U.S. Open in Oklahoma City, where, as President of the Association, I naturally came to meet him. Later, as the Indian Team played touring matches in Grand Rapids and Washington, D.C. I got to know him. One dirty habit he has—sure you want to hear? He doesn’t chew tobacco, he eats it.

First you take a betal leaf, then you apply a chalky substance (the kind you use for whitewash), add water, sprinkle over it a smelly, spicy aromatic—a combination of cinnamon and cardamom perhaps—mix with the bark of a tree ground into a very-fine thin powder which will work as a base to the acid white chalk, and, finally (oh, m’god, I hope I’ve got all this right, since otherwise my readers will have canker sores all over their mouth), add chopped betal nut and chewing tobacco. Ah yes, after a meal, says Subhash, ‘THAT is the real thing.’ He even goes so far as to insist that this ‘paan’ is eaten as a mouth refresher (especially if you’ve had onions for dinner?).

Subhash’s mother and father have this paan habit—this addiction—ever since they were teenagers. ‘As youth today have taken to pot and hashish,’ says Subhash, ‘so Gujarat youth have taken to this. There are paan shops everywhere—some within 50 feet of one another—and some net 3,000 rupees a month. Of course it’s not just bad on your teeth, chewing Indian tobacco can lead to cancer.’ But, says Subhash, ‘my parents can continue to refresh their memories by passing on the habit to me, and, after all, the obnoxious aroma can break one’s addiction to smoking.’ As for Subhash’s wife, Sita, does she eat tobacco, spit betal ‘blood’?...Beg pardon?...Oh, she can’t hear—but just in case Subhash might be indulging she’s averted her face.

At the International Matches in Washington, D.C., the U.S. and Indian teams marched in, and then there was the playing of anthems. Except, embarrassingly, one of the secretaries of the Indian Embassy was heard to exclaim, ‘THAT isn’t the Indian anthem!’ Never mind. After hearing the record to its absurd conclusion, Captain Mashruwala—as if he were playing a low-keyed version of Victor Laszlo in ‘Casablanca’—rose to the occasion and directed a chorus of the real Song of India.

In 1975, Subhash was very much a part of the Calcutta World Championships. He was one of those responsible—perhaps his D.C. experience had something to do with it—for the success of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. And he also committed himself to doing World Championship commentary on All-India radio. I was the fund-raiser/captain of that U.S. Team and after the World’s my wife Sally and I were house guests for a week at Subhash and Sita’s home in Ahmedabad. There, we were witness to the occasional cultural differences we’d never experienced in our States-side lives. For instance, No, we hadn’t tried, and weren’t going to, ‘Shankh-Prakshalan’—the Yogi process of cleaning the intestines by swallowing 20 glasses of lukewarm saline water. Subhash wasn’t insistent about that. But he did try to teach us to eat with our fingers. ‘It’s not just the tongue and the teeth that will tell you if the rice is cooked properly.’

After we’d returned home, the next time I saw Subhash was at the ’77 World’s in Birmingham, England, where he’d been sent by the Indian government to prepare 15-minute daily dispatches for the Indian BBC. (You should also have heard him handle an India-West Indies cricket match—say the last test in Madras before a crowd of 80,000. Had to talk a good game there.)

In Birmingham I learned that Mashruwala had formed the Gujarat Roller Skating Association—with himself at President. Ordinarily, roller skating was played only in Northern India during the summer—at the hill stations, the hill resorts.

In the ’76 National Roller Skating Championships in Calcutta, both a Gujarat girl and a Gujarat boy finished second. This made such an impact that from then on everybody seemed to think that Subhash knew as much about roller skating as he did about table tennis. No surprise then that in ’79 Subhash went with a troupe of 60 skaters to Jamma, Kashmir—and won 7 out of 8 Championships. Or that in the 1980 Ahmedabad National’s, Gujarat skaters again did well—won 11 out of 16 possible medals.

The next World Roller Skating Championships were to be in Columbia—so who in all of India would be more qualified to captain the Team than Subhash. He promptly raised $11,000 ($100,000 buying power in India) and with 7 of his best Gujaratins took off for Bogota. Amazing, huh? Just this one state representing the whole country.

So how’d they finish?

(Shhh….)

But of course winning isn’t everything. By ’83 the Team that had gone to Bogota had found other interests—three of the girls were expecting—so Subhash decided to concentrate only on the Juniors. After all, when you finish last, there’s room for improvement. So Subhash was off on a roll again—this time with a boy 15 and a girl 14…but without government assistance. Forget how the girl did, but the boy finished 23rd out of 29—‘beat a Japanese,’ said Subhash, as if he were thinking of Ogimura.

I hope you don’t believe with his success at roller skating Subhash had abandoned table tennis. He walked into a Gujarat tournament as a spectator, then, although the Senior draw was already made, and he had no sneakers, he couldn’t resist. Might he play? For you, Subhash, of course. And of course Mashruwala, though clearly out of practice, won the event.

Also, last I heard—Subhash is not the best correspondent in the world; rather, he or his emissary likes to surprise you by appearing playfully on your doorstep in the dead of night—he was appointed Chairman of the Coaching Committee of the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI).

Which reminds me. I still have half of this little packet of cloves Subhash left with me. ‘Would you like one?’ he’d asked. ‘It’s an aphrodisiac, you know.’ Then, smiling, he added, ‘It’s also good for a toothache.