Wembley Stadium is a sacked pleasure dome. At twilight, the deserted amphitheatre and the buildings around it look like the showgrounds of a terrible empire. The old halls lack the majesty of Kubla Khan's leading leisure attraction. But their dimensions recall the architecture of today's dominant power in the east, namely the People's Republic of China. What better setting in which to watch table tennis, which is for ever associated in the minds of the cold war generation with the tentative emergence of Mao and Deng from behind their Great Wall?
As I understand it, the best-informed Sinologists in table tennis are still at a loss to explain the mastery of the Chinese. But I'm willing to bet all the tea in the People's Teahouse that they've made a great leap forward from relying on officials known as twiddlers, who are still part and parcel of the domestic rule book. I gather that twiddlers are line judges, though I look forward to letters on youth-club headed stationery putting me right. Twiddlers do the best they can with the naked eye. On the evidence of the Commonwealth Masters Invitation championship at Wembley Conference Centre, western table tennis has yet to produce anything like the labour-saving "magic eye" of the lawn code.
If you've grown up knowing a rough-house version of the sport, you assume that one of its chief characteristics is the modest demands it makes on manpower. In extremis - if your brother is riding his bike, say - you can have a perfectly good game against a household wall. But my first exposure to top-flight competition has taught me that, in addition to twiddlers, the crowded table-tennis oche must accommodate two more attendants. These are the umpire, and a bloke who flips over the numbers on the manual scoreboard. Imagine the mocking laughter in the Fully Automated House of Revolutionary Ping-Pong!
Perhaps it helps oriental players that their chosen sport resembles a martial art. As in disciplines of noble combat, table tennis is a mind game. At the Wembley final, Britain's Matthew Syed took on Duan Yong Jun (above) of Singapore. Syed bears the scars of a mental struggle away from the Lincoln-green MDF, having fought and lost the parliamentary constituency of Wokingham in the Labour interest against John Redwood, the Vulcan himself. As the players faced each other across their titchy pitch, like an old card table with all the baize worn away, Syed tried to psyche out his opponent with his service game. He bounced the ball on the floor, which would surely have got him sin-binned if he hadn't happened to be the local hero. By contrast, the Singaporean coddled the ball and blew on it, as if he was waiting for a chick to hatch. In the liveliest rallies of the match, the pill travelled so rapidly that it was like a stream of pure white energy. The players might have been Jedi knights locking light sabres. Duan Yong Jun ran out the narrow winner, despite Syed's experience of fighting the Dark Side.