A feat received with much fanfare

THE Cuesport contingent returned from Busan with mixed emotions. The breakthrough carved by the Rafat Habib-Yasin Merchant pair by way of the snooker doubles gold on the opening day of the Cuesport event sent a wave of hope, happiness and pride in all of us present at the Dong Ju Stadium. This was India's first ever medal in snooker at the Asian Games and was instrumental in raising the spirits of the entire Indian contingent as it was the first gold for India at Busan. There were many more golds, which were won subsequently, but on October 1st, at a time when our total medal tally showed only two silvers, Rafat and Yasin's feat was received with much fanfare.

India's Yasin Merchant (left) and Rafat Habib celebrate their snooker doubles gold with a victory over Hong Kong's Marco Ka Chun Fu and Au Chi Wai in the Asian Games.-V. SUDERSHAN

Clearly, Yasin with the experience and confidence of two Asian snooker titles behind him, was looked upon by Rafat and indeed by all of us as the one who would play the lead role in the campaign for the gold. Rafat's best claim to fame was a runner-up slot in the national snooker championship. But somehow, the Chennai-based cueist rose to new heights at Busan and matched Yasin in every department of the game. The gold was a team effort and inspired by the honour of representing his country at a platform like the Asian Games, Rafat seemed to be in a daze after Yasin and he received the gold even as the Indian flag was raised accompanied by our National anthem at the awards ceremony. A seasoned pro like Yasin broke down as he stood at the victory podium.

After the euphoric victory by Yasin Merchant & Rafat Habib in the doubles snooker event, everyone's expectations from the snooker team, expectedly, went sky high. But the next day, India crashed out of the snooker team event losing to fancied China in the opening round. Notwithstanding the confidence injected into the entire cuesport contingent by Yasin & Rafat, all of us were fully aware that to overcome China was never going to be easy.

Boasting of the 15-year-old Ding Jun Hui, winner of the Asian under-21 snooker championship this year, world under-21 snooker championship and the Asian snooker championship, China ironically won 2-1 through victories by the other two Chinese cueists Jin Long & Pangwe Gua, who defeated Manan Chandra and 17-year-old Pankaj Advani respectively. Ding was distinctly off colour and Yasin capitalised on his opponent's mistakes to cruise to a 3-1 victory. The format necessitated all three players from the respective countries to play their matches simultaneously. 17-year-old Pankaj played gallantly but was clearly outclassed by an opponent who desperately wanted to make amends for his country's listless performance in the snooker doubles event.

Despite the first round defeat of India in the snooker team event and Yasin's subsequent 3-1 first round defeat to Jin Long of China in the snooker singles, there prevailed a feel-good factor in the entire cuesport contingent. The momentum provided by Yasin and Rafat had instilled a sense of urgency and hope in Manan Chandra, the 21-year-old who was unable to negotiate his match against Jin Long in the snooker team event.

In the team event he had seemed listless and was unable to discover the passion and fluency, which is a predominant quality of his game. However in the singles he was clearly transformed into a bubbly enthusiastic cueist who somehow managed to rediscover his form after the disheartening start to his campaign at the Asian Games. He had been unfortunate to be in the top-half of the draw, which was loaded with players like Noppodol Sangnil from Thailand and Marco Fu of Hong Kong.

Indeed, when he lost to Noppodol of Thailand in the first frame of his best of five frame contest from an almost impregnable position (his opponent required two snookers on the yellow), most of us watching shook our heads in disbelief and resigned ourselves to a result which could not be very complimentary. Yet, Chandra, a former world under-21 runner-up, dug deep to level the scores. Gaining confidence with each ball that he negotiated, Chandra went on to win the next two frames in style to earn a superb 3-1 victory.

His second round opponent, the indomitable Marco Fu from Hong Kong was bound to pose a much bigger threat. Fu is the highest ranked Asian in the professional snooker circuit and more importantly is a player in form. Yet, Chandra discarded him with ease, which was so heartening to watch as an Indian supporter. The 3-1 win was fluent and the significance of the victory was not lost on the Indian cuesport contingent. Personally, this was Chandra's finest win and opened up the distinct possibility of another medal. But sadly, he went on to lose in the quarterfinal to a rank outsider, Neona Tola from Cambodia.

Thailand's Chaithanasakun Praprut is all concentration, watched by Indians Geet Sethi and Alok Kumar during the billards doubles final. Praprut and his partner Mongkhon took the gold.-V. SUDERSHAN

We were the favourites for the gold in both the billiards doubles and the singles. However, deep down we were all well aware of the dangers of the shortened format - best of three 100-point games. And eventually, we succumbed to the self-imposed pressures induced by the ruthless format. Alok Kumar, my worthy doubles partner, performed with great grit and a superb 91 unfinished, in fact, helped our team to eliminate our semi-final opponents from Myanmar after some nerve-wracking moments.

But in the final we lost 2-1 to the Thai pair of Praprut and Mongkhon. The dejection and surprise was written on our faces even as Praprut negotiated the last red in-off into the centre pocket after over two hours of play in the best of three 100-point contest.

Neither Kumar nor I played well in the last and most crucial match of the doubles event. After almost 45 minutes of slow calculated play, we won the opening game but a nerveless 76 by Praprut threw open the contest. The deciding game had all the drama, excitement and nerve jangling moments. But somehow, we failed to dig deep enough and were unable to use the opportunities that came our way and had to settle for the silver.

The billiards event concluded with Thailand's Praprut clinching the gold medal by defeating Myanmar's Kiaw 2-0, while I made amends for a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Kiaw by raising my game to expected levels to win the bronze by defeating Myanmar's U. Aung San 2-0. Devendra Joshi crashed out in the quarterfinals losing 2-0 to Myanmar's Aung San. This perhaps was the biggest disappointment for the Bharat Petroleum sports officer in an international career, which now spans over a decade. Our pool players Dharminder Lilly, Mukesh Rehani (9-ball pool singles), Amit Khansaheb (9-ball pool doubles) and Mohammed Asim (8-ball pool singles) all performed with spirit and application. While we were unable to get back a medal from pool, the fine showing by our cueists in a discipline where we have just recently got organised was indeed heartening. The skills required to be a top pool player are not unlike billiards, where we have such a rich tradition. If our pool players are given adequate tournament exposure and good tables to practise on, we can assure the country a medal in the next Asian Games.