The 2022 edition of ITTF World Team Table Tennis Championships Finals begin in Chengdu, China from September 30 amid a strict Covid protocol and for India, in the absence of one of its best players - Achanta Sharath Kamal.
The delayed Worlds is the first international event in China since the Beijing Winter Olympics earlier this year and will be played inside a bubble. China had already pushed back the Asian Games and the Men's Asian Cup due to the country's Covid policy, while Chendgu was in lockdown until recently.
However for table tennis, which is a sport dominated by Chinese players at the highest level, an exception was made with rigorous safety protocols, such as entry only by chartered flights, daily PCR testing, a strict bio-bubble, and regular health updates.
Who is in the Indian squad?
Indian table tennis veteran Sharath, who was the standout player at the Commonwealth Games earlier this month with three gold medals, opted out citing personal reasons.
In his absence, world No 37 and CWG bronze medallist G Sathiyan will lead the Indian men's team that includes Sanil Shetty, Harmeet Desai, Manush Shah and Manav Thakkar.
The Indian women's challenge will be led by Manika Batra, along with 2022 CWG breakout star Sreeja Akula, Reeth Rishya, Diya Chitale and Swastika Ghosh.
What is the tournament format?
The World Team Table Tennis Championships will start with the group stage, with the top 16 teams progressing to the knockout stages. Each tie is the best of 5 matches with each match being the best of 5 games. There will be no doubles at this event.
At the draw ceremony on Wednesday, the Indian men's team was drawn into Group 2 along with Germany, France, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan while the women's team was placed with Germany, Egypt and Czech Republic in group 5. The top two from each group will progress, with the remaining spots occupied by the best third-ranked teams to make up 16. There are seven men's groups and six for women, with placement depending on overall ranking.
With Germany, traditional heavyweights and second seeds behind China, present in the groups, the Indian men's team, which is more experienced even without Sharath, will have its work out cut out. Germany have recently crowned European champion Dang Qiu - however, top ranked players such as Dimitrij Ovtcharov, Patrick Franziska, and Timo Boll have been left out of the squad, which means Sathiyan could have a slight ranking advantage.
The Indian players have been in decent touch, with a men's team gold at last month's Commonwealth Games. Their latest outing was the National Games, where the table tennis tourney was played much before the opening ceremony in order to accommodate the team.
At the National Games, Harmeet Desai and Sutirtha Mukherjee had upset top seeds Sathiyan and Manika Batra to reach the men's and women's singles finals and eventually win gold. Other than this loss, Sathiyan reached the quarterfinals of men's singles at WTT Contender 2022 in June where he stunned world No 6 Darko Jorgic and an upcoming Chinese player, before earning a team gold and singles bronze at the CWG in July.
Other players to perform well in the National Games were Sreeja Akula, who won silver and Manush Shah, who was part of the victorious Gujarat men's team.
Who are the favourites?
Hosts China, of course. They are the defending champions in the men's and women's events and historically the dominant force in both. Olympic singles champions Ma Long and Chen Meng as well as current world No 1s Fan Zhendong and Sun Yingsha, are all included in the hosts' squad.
Independent India has never won a team medal at the World Championships, with the only success coming in 1926, when Athar-Ali Fyzee, Hassan Ali Fyzee, A.M. Peermahomed, B.C. Singh and S.R.G. Suppiah earned bronze. Suppiah also took home the men's singles bronze in that event.
Talking about the massive gap between China and the rest of the world in table tennis, Sathiyan said that while the fear had reduced to some extent, the Chinese system was exemplary.
"China have invested a lot in the sport, not just money but also a system. The system we have academically is what they have for table tennis. They have a syllabus for table tennis; what should be taught at six years, what should be taught at 10 years. It's taught throughout the country in the same and way and every few years they upgrade. They have so many coaches involved and their budget you can't even imagine," he said at a recent media interaction on the sidelines of GoSports Foundation's workshop in Mumbai.
"It's a system they started in 1960s and they started to perform well only in the 1990s. India may not take 30-35 years but we are in the right direction. The fear has gone I would say, I beat a Chinese player in Zagreb. It's not the name, but the quality we fear. The top 3-4 Chinese stars may be really good but people have started to beat Chinese players now. There are more tournaments and we are meeting them often. I am sure we have started a little bit to crack the Chinese wall," he said.
The 2022 World Team Championships will be broadcast live on the Eurosport TV channels in India, with live streaming also available on Discovery+ app as well as the World Table Tennis' official website and their YouTube channel.
Saturday, October 1
Men: India vs Uzbekistan - 12:30 PM IST, Women: Germany vs India - 3:30 PM IST
Sunday, October 2
Men: Germany vs India - 3:30 PM IST, Women: India vs Czech Republic - 6:30 PM IST
Monday, October 3
Men: India vs Kazakhstan - 3:30 PM IST, Women: Egypt vs India - 3:30 PM IST
Tuesday, October 4
Men: France vs India - 3:30 PM IST