Table tennis: Giant-killing english depart with bronze

English paddler Liam Pitchford hailed his team's camaraderie for carrying them all the way to a medal finish at the World Team Table Tennis Championships. He is hoping this feat will buoy the English toward Olympic qualification.
English paddler Liam Pitchford hailed his team's camaraderie for carrying them all the way to a medal finish at the World Team Table Tennis Championships. He is hoping this feat will buoy the English toward Olympic qualification.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Unheralded men's team lose semi-final but win supporters with their fearless display

Defeat is rarely cause for celebration, let alone in the semi-final of a world championship; but as the England men's table tennis team trudge back to their hotel after losing 1-3 to Japan, they can perhaps afford a light tipple at a nearby watering hole.

While their fairy-tale run at the World Team Table Tennis Championships ended yesterday at the hands of third seeds Japan, England, the tournament's 18th seeds, have won plenty of admirers with their intrepid showing, earning them a bronze medal.

Their sombre expressions at the mixed zone yesterday suggest the team believed victory at the Malawati Stadium was within their grasp - and it was.

Down 1-2 going into the fourth singles, world No. 64 Liam Pitchford raced to a 2-0 lead against world No. 7 Jun Mizutani, only to lose the next three games.

Swarmed by the fawning international media at the mixed zone, the players gradually broke into smiles when they realised the magnitude of their achievement.

"If a week ago someone had told me we'd win a medal, I wouldn't have believed them," said Pitchford.

"To get a medal is amazing, it's just now, right after the match, it's a little disappointing. I'm a little annoyed with myself, but we will do better next time."

For the Englishmen, newly-promoted to the championship division after winning the second division in 2014, their outing was one that passed many milestones.

Yesterday's semi-final appearance was their first since 1983, even before anyone from yesterday's line-up - Pitchford, 22, Paul Drinkhall, 26, and Samuel Walker, 20 - was born.

They finished as the best-performing European team and are also the first newly-promoted team to reach the last four.

In the group stage, they took advantage of an injury-stricken Germany, upsetting the second seeds 3-1 in a win which saw world No. 159 Walker stun Patrick Franziska, ranked 43rd in the world, 3-1.

In Friday's quarter-final, they somehow overcame France, the same team who had trounced them 3-0 in the group stage four days earlier - but not without a scare.

Leading 10-6 in the rubber game of the deciding fifth singles, Drinkhall blew four match points against Emmanuel Lebesson and was even down 10-11 at one point. But he claimed the next three points for a historic win.

The giant-slaying continued in the semi-final against Japan, as Walker stunned world No. 20 Yuya Oshima 11-6, 11-6, 8-11, 11-9.

For the team, this was a journey that began two years ago at the Commonwealth Games. In Glasgow, the players came together for their first tournament, finishing second to Singapore in the team event.

This time, Pitchford said it was their camaraderie that carried the team on this magical run.

"Just the team, really, we just all pulled together and played for each other," said the Liverpool fan, who bears a striking resemblance to the 2.03m-tall former Reds striker, Peter Crouch.

He certainly hopes to walk tall at the Olympic qualifiers next month.

"We're working towards Olympic qualification in April. This (performance) will give us more confidence going into that," said Pitchford.

Japan return today for a showdown against China, 3-0 victors over South Korea.

With the Chinese women also making the final after a 3-0 win over Chinese Taipei, it is a Sino-Japanese affair in both finals.

Either one would have had reason to celebrate, but for now, the night belonged to the fallen English.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline 'GIANT-KILLING ENGLISH DEPART WITH BRONZE'. Print Edition | Subscribe