Manika Batra vs TTFI: Pandora’s box opening-up

Until the intervention of the ITTF Integrity Unit into the match-fixing allegation, it was only Manika Batra who was under fire. Indian table tennis awaits a tough time, perhaps its darkest phase.

Manika Batra drags TTFI to the Delhi High Court in September on attending mandatory national camp before a tournament.

Table tennis in India has been under scanner. The game’s Indian star Manika Batra dragged the Table Tennis Federation of India (TTFI) to the court of law after it dropped her from the Indian contingent for the Asian Championships under a rule that mandates her compulsory attendance in national camps before a tournament.

In a plea, she challenged the TTFI‘s ruling in the Delhi High Court, saying that in an individual sport it is not mandatory to attend the national camp all the time. It is a choice that should stay with the athletes, she further said. The hearing in the case is still on. On Thursday, the court has pushed the hearing date to December 6.

Batra vs TTFI

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Manika Batra and her personal coach Sanmay Paranjape in Tokyo.

It must be remembered that Manika Batra, India’s highest-ranked women’s singles paddler, came under the wrath of TTFI when she refused national coach Soumyadeep Roy‘s presence during her third-round match against Austria’s Sofia Polcanova at the Tokyo Olympics. TTFI alleged that she brought disrepute to India on the international stage by refusing Roy’s counsel.

In a breach of discipline and showing disrespect to a former paddler and national coach, TTFI issued a show-cause notice to Batra soon after the Olympics.

On September 3, responding to the TTFI, Batra retorted stating that she did not bring any disrepute to the nation. Rather she avoided someone who forced her to indulge in match-fixing during the Asian Olympic Qualifiers in March held in Doha.

In a dramatic incident, Batra’s personal coach Sanmay Paranjape was found absent from the side of the court at the Olympics as Roy took his place. But as soon as the match started, Batra refused Roy’s advice which saw the latter leaving the court. Such a situation at the biggest sporting spectacle of the world saw Batra drawing widespread criticism.

But when she opened up about her Asian Olympic Qualifiers match against world No. 95 Sutirtha Mukherjee, which she lost 4-2 (7-11, 11-7, 11-4, 4-11, 11-5, 11-4), a new angle, very serious in nature, came into the fore.

Manika Batra, who ranked 63rd in the world, alleged that she was forced to concede the match so that Mukherjee, who could only make it to the Olympics by winning the qualifier, could qualify for the Tokyo Olympics as second Indian women’s singles paddler. Batra, who was ranked higher on the Olympic qualification chart, entered the Olympics due to her better ranking.

Following this incident, TTFI, headed by President Dushyant Chautala and Secretary-General Arun Kumar Banerjee, waged a war against Manika Batra. Things turned ugly when she moved to the Delhi High Court upon not finding a place in the Indian team for the continental championship.

ITTF not resting

Until then, it was a matter of national concern. But on Wednesday, when the International Table Tennis Federation‘s (ITTF) Integrity Unit, known for its zero-tolerance against corruption, took an update about the controversy, it raised a serious concern about the future of Indian table tennis.

It is learned that Indian paddlers and coaches involved in match-fixing in March could face bans.

Twist in the tale

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Sutirtha Mukherjee with her personal coach Soumyadeep Roy.

On Wednesday, when Paranjape’s Whatsapp text surfaced, a twist in the fiasco was found. Now, Batra could come under the scrutiny of the ITTF for her claims.

As part of the documents submitted by the TTFI to the ITTF, a text from Sanmay sent to a former player on March 19 at 11.14 am has the potential to blow away Manika Batra’s fight against TTFI, including her court battle.

As per Sanmay Paranjape’s text, she had agreed to give away her match against Sutirtha Mukherjee, who trains under Roy in Kolkata, so that two Indians could qualify for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Another document from the umpire, who officiated the match, further went against Batra and her coach.

The umpire revealed his conversation with Paranjape that he had on the morning of the match; and said Paranjape was happy that two Indians would qualify for the Olympics. “When Mr. Paranjape came and exchanged pleasantries with me, I asked if both Indians were going to Tokyo. He smilingly replied that – you guessed it right,” the umpire wrote to the ITTF.

It is, now, understandable that the ITTF will impose bans on the coaches – Paranjape and Soumyadeep Roy- and the players – Batra and Mukherjee- for their alleged role in match-fixing.

Soft target

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Manika Batra during her third-round match at the Tokyo Olympics.

But one aspect which must not go unnoticed is that of the Indian federation’s role in the controversy. Was the federation not aware of the misconduct by the players and coaches? Why is it still tight-lipped about the issue?

A full-throttle investigation should be launched into the case to rule out a repeat of match-fixing that brings disgrace to the game.

Coming to the Olympic qualifying match between Mukherjee and Batra, it could have been a case that Batra was cajoled to concede the match. As a player, she was not ready for this compromise. Her mistake was that she did not open up about the match in Doha itself. Instead, she revolted in Tokyo. She also deserves harsher punishment for breaching the integrity of the game.

But one thing which is clear from this mess is that until the intervention of the ITTF Integrity Unit, it was only Manika Batra who was under fire. The TTFI manufactured a half-baked story to make her a scapegoat while announcing that the rest are innocent in a desperate attempt to wash off its hands.

India’s national sports federations are notorious for their misconducts, and often they look for victims to get over a controversy. In this case, too, the office bearers of the TTFI looked for a soft target in Manika Batra.

As things turned ugly now, the controversy hurts India’s image as a sporting nation gained at the Tokyo 2020.