A cue to raise the profile of the sport

“The general standard of snooker in India has improved, but the numbers have not been like in China where thousands play. India does not have those numbers,” says the former Asian billiards and snooker champion, Alok Kumar, in a chat with G. Viswanath.

Alok Kumar has seen the vicissitudes of life around a billiards table for well over two decades. Perhaps that is the reason why the 46-year-old bears the visage of a stoic. He campaigned hard in yet another high-quality competition for the wild card at the Indian Open and very nearly dashed the hopes of Sumit Talwar in the knockout match at the PYC Gymkhana, Pune. “I have taken painkillers,” said Alok, as he went into the tea break leading 3-2.

He clearly indicated that his shoulder was just not in order as he eventually lost the match over seven frames.

Alok’s cue sport story has been an unwritten template for most Indian players. He has won the Nationals many times, improved upon it at the Asian level and tried to surpass his best at the world level.

It is a peculiar situation in the Indian scene, where there is the evergreen and champion performer Pankaj Advani and the rest. The gap between them is very wide. Aditya Mehta made a bold move to focus on professional snooker, but the majority of the others play almost all of it — English billiards, 15-Red and 6-Red snooker, 9- and 8-ball pool. The bespectacled Alok is one among the rest, but he is above all of them because of the experience and history he brings wherever he plays.

Ahead by a mile… in India, it is Pankaj Advani and the rest. The gap between the two is very wide.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Not long ago he was invited to become the Secretary of the Punjab Billiards and Snooker Association (PBSA). “This happened when I was in Jordan for the 2004 Asian Snooker Championship. The PBSA was in deficit by Rs. 6000; we had Rs. 2000 in the bank and had to clear a liability of Rs. 8000 for purchase of trophies. I was supposed to be the Secretary for just one year, but I’m still the Secretary and the association’s finance is on the brighter side, at a healthy Rs. 15 lakh-plus.

“A player should only be a player and not Secretary as well. This is not the right thing to happen. But since I suffered, not for one or two years, but for 15 years, I just continued. There was a time when I literally cried for help and motivation. Nothing happened. There was infighting in the association. But in 2004, when I won the Asian title, they themselves called me to take over. They told me to make my team. I said I will nominate the team for a year and will give up if I don’t like it. But I continue to be the Secretary of the state association,” said Alok.

The former Asian snooker and billiards champion talks to Sportstar about the state of cue sport, snooker in particular, in the country.

Excerpts:

Question: What is your assessment of snooker in the country now?

Answer: Snooker has been looking good for the last five to seven years. A lot of credit goes to the young generation of players like Aditya Mehta, Pankaj Advani and Manan Chandra. They took over from the preceding generation very well. The federation (BSFI) is also trying to do a lot of good things. The Indian Open (professional world ranking tournament) was the biggest they could have done because that kind of tournament is like a dream come true for all of us. So, the credit goes to Capt. Mohan and his team in the federation, and to the players who did so well. The Indian players are looked upon as good when they go abroad and they are getting the benefits.

You referred to the younger generation taking over from the preceding generation. But what is it in terms of growth and numbers?

The numbers are not up to satisfaction. More youngsters should be playing snooker. The general standard of snooker has improved, but the numbers have not been like in China where thousands play. India does not have those numbers. I don’t know what China is doing extra or what India is lacking in; all said and done, the snooker boom has not arrived in India.

ADITYA MEHTA… focussing on professional snooker.-SANDEEP SAXENA

China has a Top-3 player in Ding Junhui, and a few more like Xiao Guodong, Liang Wenbo and Cao Yupeng are in the pro circuit now. Could this be the reason for the humungous growth?

No, growth happened first and then came the world champion (Ding). It’s still a mystery to me. China did not have any history in billiards and snooker. I was in China in 2001, and I was surprised to see 70 to 80 tables in a single parlour — all locally manufactured tables and thousands playing snooker. I don’t know how snooker became popular in China. Their technique was so good and that again is a mystery to me. Where did they learn? All of them played with fantastic technique. Not just Ding, the others too. They were as good as any Indian player then. I don’t know how they picked up the game because language was a big problem for them.

Yet, not too many higher-ranked Chinese are there in the pro circuit…

Professional circuit is a different thing altogether. If you have hundreds of top class players, there is always the chance of a few making it good in the pro circuit. The thing in India is we have five very good players and two (Mehta and Advani) are in the pro circuit. Generally, the chances are very less for this kind of thing to happen.

Where do you find the growth in India?

Wherever the state association is active, there is growth. Ultimately, the association is responsible for the game in the state and they have to do certain things. Like in Maharashtra, there is a league. That’s a fantastic idea. They have been doing this for many years and hence there is interest for billiards and snooker in Maharashtra. They may be low-level leagues, but hundreds take part in the league in Mumbai alone. Some take up the game seriously and do better. The Karnataka association has been very strong. I am actually surprised that Karnataka has not produced as many good players as it should have. Apart from Advani, there are one or two more like B. Bhaskar. Karnataka should have produced much more. Tamil Nadu has a good association.

But take Delhi — it is India’s capital and many international tournaments have been held there. But players are struggling to practise there. The association was defunct. Now they have formed a new association and there have been some changes. Hopefully, they will do well now. The association plays a big role for the growth of any sport.

I was the only player in Punjab for so many years. Nobody paid me a single penny for playing or winning tournaments. I took over as Secretary in 2004 and since then we have been paying the players for taking part in Nationals. If a player wins, he is felicitated with cash prizes. Now there is interest in Punjab. Lilly (Dharminder) has done well, and a couple of juniors are doing well. One of them made a break of 122 in the Asian Championship held in Chandigarh, and immediately we gave him Rs. 21,000, there itself. We have to motivate the players.

There is some activity in Bengal. There used to be four ranking tournaments in Kolkata. All players had at least four tournaments. Bengal had lots of players. A new team has been formed now, and they are doing good tournaments and that’s showing. Sourav Kothari is doing well, and so is Brijesh Damani. Shahbaz Khan is another player, but he has not been handled well. He’s a very talented player. He has become a doctor, but he still loves to play snooker. His temperament is different; he needs elderly support and has to be looked after. This aspect is missing now.

What needs to be done to lift the profile of the sport further? Probably an annual tournament with higher prize money and a national league…

The federation is planning to have a league. The Players Association (PA) started a league called ‘Cuemasters’ 10 years ago. We played the league in Ahmedabad and Hyderabad. That’s how Capt. Mohan came into the picture. The PA was a good thing to happen. The prize money increase in the National Championship and other tournaments was due to the PA.

There was an incident in Meerut when the total prize money for billiards and snooker was Rs. 1 lakh. Myself and Geet (Sethi) were at a press conference. There was a very difficult question of what was the prize money? To cover up we just said Rs. 1 lakh, without mentioning that it was the total prize money. That evening, in 2005 or 2006, I called a meeting of the players and told them we have been playing for Rs. 20,000 for the winner and that henceforth we should play only where the winner gets Rs. 1 lakh. There were reservations among many players who felt that many tournaments would be cancelled. But, surprisingly, there were more tournaments the next year.

I always believe that it is the responsibility of the person organising a tournament to take the initiative. One needs connections at the right places to get sponsorship. One needs contacts and ability to influence people. Rajan Khinvasara of Pune has been doing a wonderful job. He gave me money for the Asian Championship in Chandigarh. He has no business interests in Chandigarh and it does not help him in any way. However, because of his love of the game he gave me decent money. So, it was my initiative that got the money. I got money from ONGC and others and conducted a good tournament and saved money for the association too. The federation has sent us some details for a league. Let’s see when they start it.

Advani has given up his pro tour card. Do you see it as a setback of sorts for Indian snooker?

I cannot say that. I asked him to continue playing both. I told him to play pro snooker for two more years. He’s doing so well and hence I think he should have done that. Aditya (Mehta) will not quit. It’s tough to stay and play in England. Aditya does not feel bored there. He has been playing there for a much longer time than Pankaj.

Do you think there should be an academy for snooker in India, like the one in Thailand?

It’s better to have foreign coaches and equipment in India; it will benefit 20 players. I told this once to Michael Ferreira when there was a move to send four players abroad spending Rs. 20 lakh. An academy can be easily established in India. I want to start an academy in Punjab. The problem is I am a player now and I don’t want to give up playing. I have talked about this to the PBSA president.

What is the total prize money available to players in India from competitions?

Well it’s around Rs. 1 crore. Ideally, it has to be Rs. 15 crore. This will give a good boost to the game. Well, Capt. Mohan is trying. He has visions, he has connections and he makes an effort. I appreciate that. I was always critical when BSFI was run by P. N. Roy and his team because they did nothing. I am not being personal. But when you are holding a post, you must do justice to that post or quit. They did not show dynamism at all. Their job was not just to write letters to the ministry and send teams abroad. Their job was to promote the game as well.

After almost a month of preliminaries, played in Delhi, Chennai, Indore and Mumbai (CCI), and a 24-player competition in Pune, Pankaj Advani along with ?ve other cueists won wild cards for the second Indian Open World Ranking Tournament, scheduled to be played in March 2015.

Originally scheduled for October 13-17 this year, the BSFI (Billiards and Snooker Federation of India) had to defer the GBP300,000 event due to the Maharashtra Assembly Elections (October 15).

With Advani giving up his pro tour card, he became the topdrawer card in Pune. After a hesitant start against South Eastern Railway's Neeraj Kumar, Advani annihilated opponents to assure himself of a berth in the Indian Open. Faisal Khan, Dharminder Lilly, Brijesh Damani, Sumit Talwar and Neeraj Kumar are the others who made the cut.