by Rob Bath
Peter White was my doubles partner in the last season of table tennis I played for Harrogate in the Torrens Valley League. Over the first few rounds we’d been struggling to field six players in C-grade every week, so Pete was co-opted back to the game after an absence of 20 years or so.
Apparently he was a pretty handy player back then, before we moved out this way. I often played table tennis with his brother Jim, but had never seen Pete play. I knew him as a local farmer, all-round sportsman and in particular a talented cricketer for Callington.
He was also the Harrogate community’s Go-To Man for just about everything: a brilliant, intuitive fix-anything mechanic, generous barbecue host, prodigious beer drinker, school bus driver and owner of useful tractors and other heavy machinery. Farmers and hopeless townies alike would always call Pete to get them out of strife. Famously, he once came up with the idea of pouring water into a dry well to float a trapped cow safely to the surface, an incident reported in the national media.
About ten years before that 2007 season he had a massive, near-fatal heart attack which put paid to his cricket career, but following bypass surgery he stayed on with the cricket club as a respected administrator. Table tennis was his comeback to competitive sport.
C-grade teams in our comp usually comprise experienced, reasonably skilled players in the first, second and sometimes third rankings, with the lower slots filled by kids – nine to 13-year-old beginners. There’s an unspoken rule. Adults go hammer and tongs against each other, but if you happen to come up against one of the kids (say at number three if your opponents are an adult short that night), you must convincingly concede just enough points to sustain their confidence, without gifting them an improbable win.
Some of these kids are so tiny they can barely see over the table. In two or three years they’ll be towering over you, smashing winners past your aging reflexes without the slightest concern for your humiliation. That’s the way it is. It’s a jungle out there.
I was ranked Number One that year, and Pete came in at Number Two. Singles and then the reverse singles were played in three levels – ones/twos, threes/fours and fives/sixes. Pete and I played the same two opponents in any given week, so our individual rankings were irrelevant. Nevertheless, it was obvious that after brushing away 20 years of cobwebs, Pete was the better player.
For a while we were a bit uncoordinated in the doubles, but had our act together by the last night of the minor round, an away game at Mount Torrens. Our mission was clearly defined. If we won, we would play in the finals. If we lost, we would put our bats in the cupboard until the next season.
Jeremy Benton was Mount Torrens’ Number One. In most seasons he was their top-ranked A-grade player, but had come down to the Cs so he could drive his 12-year-old son (their Number Six) to the winter-night games. Jeremy was an extravagant spinner of the ball, able to impart huge side-spin as well as the more commonplace topspin and slice. He was a nice guy. He was unbeatable.
We were first up, and I was hitting them nicely. We were level-pegging towards the end of the first set, when I realised what was going on.
I paused and said “Thanks, Jeremy, but play dinkum. We all know you’re going to win. It’s OK”.
I went down 17-21, 2-21, 4-21. I can’t remember much about the reverse singles except that I won while Peter lost to Jeremy by a similar margin.
Our doubles match was the last of the night, and it was the decider.
The rules allow players to come up the order in doubles pairings. Jeremy’s partner was his son. Given that Jeremy had switched on his full-bore A-grade game and was cleaning us up, Pete and I abandoned the Don’t-Attack-the-Kids protocol and scored every point we could off the boy. Despite that, we lost the first set easily and were grimly breaking even half-way through the second.
The main problem was Jeremy’s serve. As his fizzing, swerving hand-grenades looped over the net, we tended to prod defensively in the hope of minimising the damage – with little success. Pete was about to face a bracket of serves. I had an idea, and drew him aside for a whispered mid-game conference. I suggested we attack Jeremy on service, pick it up on the half-volley, kill the spin and smack it back hard and low.
“Might work”, he said. Man of few words, Pete.
He launched a kamikaze counter-assault and lost five points in less than a minute. Three balls went long, one into the net, and the other flew sideways through an open door and into the foyer of the Mount Torrens Hall.
I nodded and gave him the thumbs-up. A few minutes later, after I’d repeated the exercise, Pete called me over for another conference.
“I don’t think this is working,” he said laconically. “Do you?”
In the absence of any other strategy, we decided to stick with the plan.
And so it went.
Children amongst the handful of spectators devised a sort of parallel game that was a bit like slips-fielding practice: anticipating our wild mis-hits and catching us out on the full. There was much hilarity and cheering.
Suddenly, it was 9-20 in the third and almost certainly final set of the night. As Peter faced Jeremy’s fifth serve, we were one point away from mothballs.
That next point was one of those action sequences you replay in slow motion at night in bed.
Jeremy’s serve was a floater, humming like a top and dropping, ready to explode off the table. Pete collected it with a full swing, rolling his bat over the ball, sending it millimetres over the net, deep into the opposite corner, skipping away into the bleachers before either Benton senior or junior could move a muscle.
I nodded at Pete. He nodded back.
Jeremy said quietly: “Shot”.
Then it was my turn to serve it up to Benton the younger. If I could win five in a row it would be 15-20, and anything could happen.
And never played again. In 2008, the Harrogate powerbrokers decided to take us out of the Wednesday night Torrens Valley competition and into the Tuesday night Bremer Valley League. I never minded the away games to Woodside, Charleston, Lobethal and sometimes Forreston or even Kersbrook. But driving around on freezing winter nights to Callington, Monarto and even more remote locations didn’t appeal.
I stayed on for supper that night at Mount Torrens. Had we won, I probably would have made my excuses and left, but if you do that after a loss, you look like a bad sport.
Pete looked like he was in for the long haul, nursing a cup of tea and catching up with several generations of in-laws. Later, when most of the kids had gone, he’d probably fetch the flagon of port out of his car. As table tennis suppers go, it was pretty good. There were Tim-Tam biscuits of course, and somebody had brought little triangular white-bread sandwiches with curried egg and lettuce.
You don’t see those much any more.
Peter Thomas White