A first step towards professionalism

PANKAJ ADVANI is the rising star of the Indian green baize sport. He wants to emulate the likes of Om Agrawal, Geet Sethi and Yasin Merchant and set new benchmarks.

G. VISWANATH

PANKAJ ADVANI is the rising star of the Indian green baize sport. He wants to emulate the likes of Om Agrawal, Geet Sethi and Yasin Merchant and set new benchmarks. The only way he can do that he says is by going to England and play tournaments there. "We have to go to England to improve our game. The more we play there, the better. Our game will look up," said the national junior and senior snooker champion. Recently he lost to Australia's Neil Robertson in the quarterfinals of the World junior snooker championship in New Zealand. Robertson beat the defending champion for the title.

The 18-year-old Advani spoke to The Sportstar at the Cricket Club of India about his first step towards turning pro and other aspects of the game in India. Excerpts:

Question: You have chosen the green baize sport, not a dominant game like cricket, which has produced many players from Bangalore. What appealed to you the most in billiards and snooker?

Answer: I did not decide to go in for snooker as such. I just got introduced to it. It just happened and for the best as a matter of fact. I just went to a nearby parlour where my brother was playing with his friends and I just tried a shot or two. Thereafter I became obsessed with the game after a couple of months. Then I went to the Karnataka State Billiards Association and learnt the basics.

It's only after I won the junior National Billiards title at the age of 14 that I realised that I should take up this sport seriously. I used to play cricket, table tennis and badminton at school level, but I felt I was very good at billiards and snooker. I was always scared of the hard ball in cricket.

I had formal coaching under Arvind Savur, who is now my coach. He came to me one day at the KSBA and invited me to his place. He kept giving me new ideas and I began picking up the game fast. If not for him I would not have been half as good as I am now.

Did you ever think that you could make a career out of billiards and snooker?

Yes, you can make a career out of this sport, but at the professional level. And at the moment I am working towards reaching that professional level. In England they have this qualifying tournament to enter the professional circuit. I will be playing in that and three other tournaments there. If I finish in the top 20 in the qualifiers then I can become professional. May be I cannot make a career out of this sport in India, but in U.K., I can. That's why I am going to U.K. to train and play and let's see how it goes.

Do you look upon any Indian player to emulate?

Yes, Geet Sethi has always been one of my favourite players. He's been a great billiards player, but he's done a lot in snooker, too. One must not forget that he's been a World and Asian semifinalist at the amateur level, he is the only Indian who has made a break of 147 and besides has other achievements. In snooker, Yasin Merchant has been exceptional. I would like to reach the standard he was in at his peak in the professional circuit. No Indian has finished in the top 65.

He has played in the Pro circuit for six years and he says "it's really tough." He has always encouraged me and we enjoy an excellent rapport. We are going for the World Championship in China. I have to learn a lot from him.

Only the late Om Agrawal who won the World amateur title and Yasin had made a big impact in snooker. Are you aiming to make a career out of snooker by playing abroad?

I am going to do my best. I am doing my studies at the same time, but I have a lot of time to finish them. When I am studying, I can pursue snooker seriously as well. After I finish my education I will come to know how good I am and where I stand amongst the professionals. I am giving myself about two and half years to turn a professional.

I don't know what's going to happen. This is my first visit to U.K. to play snooker. I am going to play tournaments, find out how good I am and also if it's worth settling down there, but it's always good to be at home. It will be a very good test for my skill and temperament in England. I will be trying to get into the top 128. There are 128 players for the qualifiers and I think 16 or 20 will progress to the top 128.

How much have you picked up seeing the top players in action?

Definitely, I have. I have seen the top 16 players like Stephen Hendry, Mark Williams, Ronnie O'Sullivan. Watching them play has helped me. In India and at this level every player has ideas, it's a matter of how one is able to apply what he sees in the top professionals and executing it. The selection of shots is very important.

Technique-wise I have to improve on one aspect which is getting up at the time of playing the shot. Probably I will check that out in England because there are professional coaches over there. I am not concentrating much on my technique at the moment. The idea is to play more tournaments and match play.

I am going to train under Chris Henry for one or two weeks after the Challenge Tour of four tournaments. The Indian Government has given us a grant of Rs. 5 lakhs each to me, Rafat Habib and Yasin. I will be paying 25 pounds per hour to Henry as his professional fee. I will train for four hours a day.

We have all worked hard to reach this level, but our approach will change after the training in England. I guess our attitude will change and our confidence level will change. This will help our preparation for the World seniors. The top 65 professionals are not allowed to play in this tournament in China.

Many players of the past did not have the financial security. How are you going to manage?

There are sponsors, companies willing to give assistance. That's not going to be a problem for me. I love the game, I love to play it and so why not give it the best shot.

Would you say that a dozen players as good as you would really give a boost to snooker in India?

The standard is good in India, but what one must realise is that there are so many good players in England. And one has to go to U.K. to play snooker at the highest level. I believe that we should all play all the tournaments that are held in India, but at the same time we have to go for training in England and play tournaments there.

There are excellent players in India like Manan Chandra, Aditya Mehta, Sourav Kothari and experienced ones like Yasin, Ashok (Shandilya). One cannot count them out; their plus point is their experience.

What should happen in India to lift the competitions?

I think the game should be marketed in a better way. For a game like billiards, the format should be reduced and there should be more prize money tournaments in snooker like this (the Cricket Club of India event sponsored by DSP Merrill Lynch). We should be thinking of playing ten to 12 tournaments in India and earn a decent prize money from them.

So you are looking at a sum close to Rs. 50 lakhs from ten or 12 tournaments?

I think that's going a bit too far. As a start this is good, the CCI event. But if the game gets marketed well, people will start pumping in money, it would be welcomed. I hope it happens.

Who is your favourite player and what's the big difference between snooker played in India and England?

Stephen Hendry is one of my favourite players because of the power he sustains and his ability to stay at the top for many years. He's tremendous.

To be at that level one has to maximise the opportunity. One has to finish it all in one visit which doesn't happen all the time in India. In England it happens most of the time. That's the difference between snooker played in India and England.