Table Tennis legend, Burjor Khambatta, (popularly called Baji), who created much upsets with his defensive style of play, shocked the table-tennis fraternity when he passed away of a cardiac arrest, on 5th April, 2023, after a brief illness.
Born on 2nd June, 1935, ‘Baji uncle’, as he was fondly known, came into prominence in the early ’50s. Though he was never won the national title, he was India’s second ranked player in 1955, 1957 and 1960. Moreover, he was in the top eight for seven consecutive years. He was arguably the best defensive player of his time. A solid defence with an occasional backhand flick, which would take his opponent unawares, was the reason for his stupendous success – ‘Giantkiller’, ‘Shocks’, ‘Recovers to Beat’, as the headlines of his newspaper cuttings preserved so meticulously by his family, reveal. No surprise then, that he came to be known as ‘The Great Wall of India’.
During his reign, Baji outclassed all his contemporaries, including Dilip Sampat, Sudhir Thackersey, Uttam Chandarana and Bomi Amalsadwalla. At one point, the SBI team boasted of three Parsis – Farrokh Khodaiji, Baji Khambatta and Bomi Amalsadwalla.
Farrokh Khodaiji, erstwhile numero uno of TT, shared, ”Baji was humility personified. Whoever went to him for advice was never turned back. Baji was a player you would want to have in your team.”
In 1955, Baji represented India in Afghanistan in an Invitation tourney, beating Kabir – Afghanistan’s number one player. 30th December, 1957 marked his proudest moment, when he reached the National Finals at Colombo, after beating Ceylon’s top-ranked player in the semis (Ceylon was then considered part of India for the Nationals).
However, rapid technological breakthroughs and radical changes in the attacking style of play didn’t help his ultra defensive style in later years, although he continued to play for Bombay and Maharashtra, well into the 60s.
His age and slow gait belied a sharp memory. On 14th October, 2022, he presided as the Guest of Honour at a function celebrating Parsee Gymkhana’s unique feat of a hat-trick of victories in both – Men’s and Women’s category, in the prestigious Mumbai First Division Interclub Table-tennis Tournament. His phenomenal memory enabled him to recount not only the names of players at past World Championships, but even the referees of key matches, from over six decades ago!
I remember him telling me once when I visited his house that his favourite player was the Japanese Hiroji Satoh, who won the World Singles title when the Championship was first held in India – in Bombay in 1952. The reason, as he explained, was that Satoh surprised his opponents with sponged rubber – the very first time it was used – forever revolutionising the way table-tennis was played.
Even after Baji stopped playing competitive table-tennis, he kept himself busy being the Chairman of the Selection Committee and Coach-cum-Manager of the Maharashtra team as well as his State Bank of India team.
In recent years, he enjoyed playing cards and would be spotted at Hindu Gymkhana engaged in playing rummy with friends. He was a familiar face at the Parsee Gymkhana All-Parsee TT Tournaments prize distribution. While he lauded the current upcoming Parsee youngsters, he also lamented the fact that after Farrokh Khodaiji, no Parsi had been able to break into the top eight.
Rest in peace, Baji uncle. All-Parsee TT tournaments will never be the same without you.