With Division 1 of the Scottish National League 2016-17 set to reach an exciting conclusion, Charlie Ellis shares the thoughts of some of its leading lights. They reflect on the season so far and what the SNL might tell us about the state of Scottish table tennis.
The Scottish National League (SNL) has established itself as an important feature of the Scottish TT season since it was re-formed in 2010. Winning the Division 1 title has become a priority for Scotland’s top clubs and this had led to some tenacious tussles. The withdrawals of Knightswood A (champions in 2015-16) & Grange A, and North Ayrshire’s availability issues, have had some impact on this season’s Division 1. However, the league has been boosted by the promotion of two strong sides (Dumfries A & Triangle A) from Division 2 and the participation –for the 1st time- of Craig Howieson (for Drumchapel A) and Kenny Lindsay (Murrayfield A).
What is the state of the 1st Division of the SNL? This article is based on questionnaires & interviews conducted with several Division 1 players in December 2016*. In general, these players have enjoyed playing in the SNL Div 1 and believe that the standard is decent, though somewhat ‘variable’. While most accept that it’s unfair to compare it with the British League (BL), those who have played in both believe that there are features the SNL could borrow from it. As with Scottish table tennis more generally, there are positive signs but much more that can be done.
Division 1 of the SNL is set for an exciting conclusion, with the destination of the title uncertain. Drumchapel A will start as clear favourites, though Murrayfield A (bolstered by Kenny Lindsay) have put in a good showing and will go into the final set of fixtures (April 1st in Saltcoats) level on points with Drumchapel A.
All the players interviewed could foresee no other winner than Drumchapel. As Chris Main put it: ‘it is hard to see past Drum A this year. Tao Shi is class and Craig, Calum and Sepehr would be really competitive on their own’. Danny Bajwa believes that Drumchapel A are ‘looking strong at the moment’ but that it ‘will be an interesting final weekend’. Calum Morrison of Murrayfield A accepts that, ‘realistically we’d need North Ayrshire to do us a favour’ (North Ayrshire play Drumchapel in round 6) while Kenny Lindsay accepts that ‘realistically…the best the team can achieve is second place. Drumchapel are too strong overall and also have a better games difference. To come first we would need to beat Drumchapel 4-2, which is very unlikely. Still, to come second [would be] a great result’. Sepehr Bidari was confident that ‘we have enough depth in the team to win the title this year’.
Match Day 2-November 26th, Bathgate Academy
On a busy day, matches started at 9.45 and the final balls were struck at 5.45. Each team had 3 matches so there was much to play for. Throughout the day there were close matches between several of Scotland’s established
players and some of the leading juniors & cadets. For Alan Whitton (Scottish Vets A), this season has brought a ‘new group of challenges with a new group of talented youngsters making their way in the Division’. This has been an encouraging feature of the season as it’s surely part of the raison d’être of the league to expose our up and coming players to good quality senior opposition.
In the 1st round of matches Chris Main was stretched all the way by Keir Morton who was unable to convert a 5-1 lead in the 5th set. North Ayrshire eventually defeated Dumfries 4-2. Similarly, Dylan Curry of Triangle A pushed Calum Main fairly hard. North Ayrshire (deprived of the services of Colin Dalgleish-who was playing in the British Universities Tournament) had low expectations for the day but battled hard, gaining 4-2 wins versus & South Ayrshire & Dumfries. They then pushed Murrayfield A very close in an excellent match. Chris Main edged a tense 5-setter against Calum Morrison and though neither was at their best the match was an absorbing one. Morrison considered this his best performance of the season. He feels that in such matches he has a ‘real incentive to win’ as he searches for a ‘breakthrough’ win against one of the top senior players. Being able to get close to players like Chris Main gives him a boost to his confidence and a feeling he is ‘closing the significant gulf’ in ratings & rankings.
In the pivotal match (Kenny Lindsay vs. Chris Main) it seemed that Lindsay might succumb to the pressure but he eventually squeaked through: 11-9 in the 5th. It was an intense match for both of the players and those spectating and Kenny’s relief was clear to see from the video of the match point (!). Lindsay considered it his season highlight: ‘to have a chance of securing 2nd place this was a match we couldn’t afford to lose and all 3 of us played very well to win 4 – 2 and keep up our 100% record. The team had excellent support from teammates from across the divisions, which made it feel like more than just a team victory – it was a club victory!’ It was certainly a match, which showed Division 1 at its competitive best.
Ethan Chapman expressed the views of several players in characterising the league as somewhat ‘divided’ while Kenny Lindsay believes that the ‘overall standard is reasonably high, but there is a huge gulf in standard between the top and bottom teams and this is leading to too many one-sided matches. The gap in playing standard between the best few players and the weakest…players is far too wide and detracts from the competition’. The figures bear this out: just under 50% (9 out of 20) of the matches in Division 1 have finished 6-0 to the winning side.
The players did mention the way fluctuating availability can render the standard ‘variable’, to use Alan Whitton’s word. Clearly the absence of Chris and Richie Main from their 1st set of fixtures and Colin Dalgleish have undermined North Ayrshire’s chances this season and somewhat unbalanced the league. As Bajwa put it, ‘if 1 or 2 key players can’t compete at a SNL weekend because of injury, clash[es] with [other] competitions etc., it plays a big part in who wins the league’. The standard ‘is strong but when teams show up with a weaker number 3 or not even a full team it gives the weaker teams a better chance of beating the big teams which kind of makes the league a bit unfair’. While Chris Main believes that the standard of Division 1 has gone up there are several strong players who are not playing in the SNL. Bidari’s view is that ‘despite the fact that some highly ranked players don’t play in the national league it’s still a decent division but obviously it can be much better’. Can the percentage of top players playing in the SNL be increased?
LESSONS FROM THE BRITISH LEAGUE
While it is perhaps unfair to compare the SNL directly with the BL, a number of the players did consider that the professionalism of the BL was something that should be emulated. According to Chris Main, the SNL website and the new social media pages ‘are all done professionally’ and that these were positive developments. Of course, extending such professionalism has cost implications. So one advantage of the current SNL is the absence of the barriers to participation associated with the BL-a point made by Chris Main: ‘SNL team entry costs provide good value for money, and are cheaper than BL.’
Danny Bajwa enjoys playing in the BL because of the greater variety of styles that he finds there –defenders, hitters etc. In Division 1 of the SNL only Tom Lawlor (Scottish Vets A) maintains the defender’s art. Playing against defenders is a great way for developing players to improve the consistency of their loop and their patience. So our younger players may be missing out due to the dearth of defenders and general homogeneity of styles.
Calum Morrison talks of the greater ‘strictness’ found in the BL-in relation to equipment, clothing and service. Both he & Chris Main believe that having ‘proper’ umpires would be great though Main accepts that this would be ‘difficult’. Morrison made the point that if the SNL is meant to help players prepare for top-level tournament play then the absence of strict rules (especially in relation to service) won’t assist Scottish players make the ‘Scottish players would benefit from stricter [enforcement of] rules’. Compared with the BL & ETTU Cup (Calum played for Knightswood in their recent matches), the SNL seemed rather lax.
Chris Main believes that the opportunity of playing in the ETTU Cup has been a big factor in the growing strength of the SNL: ‘with North Ayrshire winning the title 4 years in a row’ and hosting ‘a successful home tie of the ETTU Cup, I think this has made clubs aware of the opportunity that comes with winning the SNL, which makes SNL a priority with a number of top teams out to win it’. Playing in and hosting ETTU Cup matches takes a lot of effort but it could be seen as part of the need for clubs to become ever more professional in their organisation and approach to funding.
Having more regular contact with clubs on the Continent (often in towns of similar size) offers a clear model for Scottish TT. North Ayrshire’s journey from one battered table in a small hall to hosting ETTU cup matches in just over a decade shows what can be done. The way in which the clubs on the Continent are woven into the fabric of the local community and draw in substantial sponsorship from local businesses is surely the way forward.
Bidari offers a more pessimistic take on the health of the SNL than the others. He certainly sees the British League as a suitable model but that the ‘gap’ in quality can only be bridged through ‘much more professional’ organization and that this is a prerequisite improving the ‘overall standard of table tennis played in the SNL’. He is frustrated by the lack of sponsorship & general interest in the SNL and this ‘beautiful sport’ in general. At present the sport was failing to realize its ‘huge potential’ given its suitability for the Scottish climate.
Only Alan Whitton has memories of the previous incarnation of the SNL –when it was played in a home and away format: ‘I used to play in the old National league about 20 years ago in the Falkirk team with Gerry Campbell, Stuart Crawford (before he grew up), Martin Crawford and Gordon Waddell. Good days and we got to play at the different clubs. Four man teams, two singles each and a doubles (I think but my memory fades). It was particularly memorable that coming back from Greenock one evening, freezing rain falling, when a car powered past, immediately lost control and spun across the road in front of me twice before coming to rest on the grass shoulder. Fortunately, we stopped ok and the driver was more shaken than stirred.’
The players seem to share Whitton’s view that the central venues give people a ‘chance to talk with a larger group of players, see more matches and keep some idea of what is happening in the Divisions’. The decision to end this year’s SNL at a single venue was supported. Though central, Bathgate isn’t universally popular with some considering the lighting less than brilliant while Bidari reckons that it ‘lacks atmosphere’ and Lindsay considers the courts ‘slightly too small’. Bell’s in Perth (by Ethan Chapman) and Aberdeen Sports Village (by Chris Main) have been proposed as possible alternatives.
I think we can reasonably say that the state of the SNL Div 1 reflects the general state of Scottish TT. On the men’s side the batch of promising juniors & cadets have given the league more depth & gives scope for optimism. Though Rebecca Plaistow has played a couple of matches for South Ayrshire, the near absence of women players from Division 1 is a concern. While most of the players believe that the league is worth playing in there is little doubt that the quality of play and organisation have room for improvement. Division 1 provides the top rank of players a reasonable playing experience but not on a consistent enough basis.
*Thanks to all those who took the time to answer the questions: Kenny Lindsay, Danny Bajwa, Sepehr Bidari, Calum Morrison, Ethan Chapman and Alan Whitton.
Photos- by Gordon Muir.