Steve Braunias challenges political party leaders to a game of table tennis.

So this week I emailed the offices of the leaders of all the credible political parties, as well as Gareth Morgan, and because I see it as an opportunity to study their character and their nerve at close quarters, I challenged them to a game of table tennis.

Three have accepted. A fourth is keen. A fifth is stalling. I'm waiting to hear back from two others. The one no came from Morgan, prompting me to write to him, "What I have established from our brief correspondence is that you're a chicken."

To which he responded by - what is it with this guy and his preoccupation with pussy? - letting the cat out of the bag, and publishing our emails on his Opportunity Party blog on Wednesday.

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I was hoping to break the news of the Great Table Tennis Political Character Study of 2017 here and now, but there you have it. Foiled by a chicken. Beaten to the draw by a mustachioed coward.

Fair play. It's the only the way he was ever going to beat me.
If he changes his mind - chickens make a habit of crossing the road - I'd welcome a game.

Morgan's long limbs give him reach and I imagine he's a confident, impetuous player. But all you have to do is take one look at him and mark the guy down as a phoney and a blowhard.

Table tennis is the chess of sport; it'd reveal him as a man without a plan.
I'm not actually very good at table tennis.

My technique is poor and I tire easily. But sport is never just sport; physical fitness is merely the car, and talent is the driver, but the rest - the wheels, the engine, the battery, the locking torque converter thing - is all in the mind, comes down to a matter of nerve, to strength of character, to perseverance, cunning, wit, passion, remorselessness, homicidal rage, and other merits.

We have a right to expect these qualities in our political masters. I'll be on the lookout in the upcoming tournament, but in the heat of battle I'll be most interested in monitoring my own performance. I want to win. I want to beat them senseless. I have form. Unfortunately most of it's bad.

Last weekend I played a tournament with a couple of chums - both players since their gilded childhood, back when I lived in a shoebox in middle of t'road - and lost every game. I asked Duncan for his assessment. "Just a quality player," he said. "Really focused. Crafty. Sometimes took a while to get into the game." Nice. I asked Ant, but wished I hadn't.

Opportunities Party leader Gareth Morgan drew the line at playing Steve Braunias at table tennis.Photo/ file
Opportunities Party leader Gareth Morgan drew the line at playing Steve Braunias at table tennis.Photo/ file

His response: "Steve I truly wish I could play with wild abandon and gritty determination like your good self. Alas I am stuck with just natural flair and solid execution . . . Your good sportsmanship and genial mood overshadowed any awkward tendency of your wrist and bat to not bend at certain pivotal moments. You played an interesting game if rather limited in its overall diversity."

And so on Wednesday I waddled into Rodney's Table Tennis supply store in New Lynn, the likely venue for the party leader tournament, and where I arranged for a private coaching session with the owner, and former number 85 in the New Zealand rankings, Rodney Bygrave.

We went mano o mano. He was unplayable. Political advisers puff themselves up as spin doctors; Rodney was a spin surgeon. But he had some good tips, mostly tactical.

A customer walked in and filmed me with his phone. He showed it to me and pointed out some basic faults in my technique. All I noticed was how fat I looked.

Then he offered to play a game. Chris warned he had a hard and wicked top spin; as for his back spin, it was hard and wicked. Both these claims were true but I stepped up and whipped his goddamned ass.

He was shocked, dazed, impressed. We had a rematch. He scraped a draw and won the next two shots, giving him a hard-fought victory. I told him about my challenge to the party leaders. Well, he reckoned, I have every chance of beating them senseless.

What are their likely strengths and weaknesses - not just as players, but as human beings? Let's inspect them under the bright white x-ray light of table tennis, the game that illuminates our every failing.

Bill English

I could take English. True, he'd remain calm, unflappable, steady, but I doubt he has range. He can ping, but can he also pong? And look at that famously lame walk-run video he posted on Facebook. It's more stumble-lurch. Mentally, too, he's stiff, cumbersome. He plays the angles by counting his fingers.

I met him once. It was during his disastrous 2002 election campaign. Helen Clark made mincemeat of him in a live TV debate chaired by John Campbell, who I arranged to meet afterwards for a drink at SPQR on Ponsonby Rd; as he was leaving the studio, I said, "Bring English. He could do with a drink."

We found a table and ordered the hard stuff. Things got out of hand pretty rapidly and the last thing I recall is standing on the table and making a lot of noise. English, wisely, slipped out the door.

Much the same would happen at table tennis. Bill! Get your people to call my people. Game on, bro.

Andrew Little

I could take Little. He plays golf, and has been known to ski; he probably moves well around a table. But I suspect he lacks decisiveness. You're alone when you play table tennis.

His caucus and his policy advisers wouldn't be any use to him; he'd stand or fall on his own merit. I think he'll fall: he's said yes to a game.

James Shaw

I don't know about the Green co-leader. I'd love to beat him, because I can't stand his face. It's a slappable mug, isn't it, smug and smirky and holier than thou. But he's agile - he does something called bikram yoga - and he's smart.

Table tennis is the game of intellectuals and philosophers. He'd be in his element, the prick. We'll see: he's said yes.

David Seymour

I'm not sure about the Act man. He's unpredictable, a dark horse. He once built a car. Another time he built a kayak. What if he's built his own table tennis bat? We'll find out: he's said yes.

Te Ururoa Flavell

At last - someone older than I am. The Maori Party co-leader was captain of the first XV at St Stephen's in the Bombay hills, but that was like a thousand years ago, nearly. He was born in 1955. He blathers on the Maori Party website, "It's important to me to keep fit. You can't perform at your best if you're not healthy."

Yes, but what about his mental health? I'm not sure whether he's a quiet achiever or that more common species of politician, a quiet under-achiever. The truth will out around the table. His office has indicated he'll accept my challenge. Good luck, old man!

Winston Peters

His office are making excuses and talking about his frightfully busy schedule. Uh-huh. Well, I'll settle for his NZ First deputy, Ron Mark. Ex-army. Fit as 40 bastards. No problem there; old soldiers very often go to table tennis to die; I'm more concerned about Mark's ruthless disposition. I think he'd make a tough opponent. I'd much rather play his chicken boss.

Hone Harawira

To tell you the truth I only remembered the Mana Party late on Thursday and sent him an email at midnight, so no word yet. I'm not holding my breath. Table tennis seems just little bit too . . . Pakeha for Harawira. I should have challenged him to table te niss lol.

But I hope he says yes to a game. Interesting opponent. I'd probably feel intimidated. The thing would be to invoke novelist Henry Miller, a lifelong table tennis disciple; he played many famous artists, and said, "No matter how glamorous an opponent may be, I never let him, or her, distract me . . . I play a steady Zen-like game."

Wise words for all players of table tennis - and all politicians as they enter an election campaign, and prepare to do battle. What are they made of? What have they got? Table tennis reveals all. Please join me in the Weekend Herald every Saturday as I report back on my encounters with party leaders. They're playing for their political life; I'm playing for you.