A lacklustre final

FOR the connoisseurs of billiards, the Alok Kumar-Dhruv Sitwala summit contest was mundane. It never rose to the heights expected of a title clash. A visibly drained Sitwala was all copybook and Alok regained the title after four years.

KIRTI PATIL

FOR the connoisseurs of billiards, the Alok Kumar-Dhruv Sitwala summit contest was mundane. It never rose to the heights expected of a title clash. A visibly drained Sitwala was all copybook and Alok regained the title after four years.

Alok Kumar, the champion, in action against Dhruv Sitwala in the final. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

The law of averages had caught up with Sitwala, the World number five in the IBSF rankings. He did all the hard work, but when the time came for the final push he shuddered.

Alok Kumar described Sitwala's condition the best:

"Dhruv had come through a very difficult and draining match against Pankaj (Advani). That took all his energy and he was mentally tired. My task was made easier."

The Punjab cueist himself had been a casualty in a similar situation in the 2002 Ahmedabad Nationals. He had defeated the then World Champion Geet Sethi in the semifinals, but was laid low in the final by Ashok Shandilya.

Sitwala's coach Subhash Aggrawal hugs his ward after his sensational victory over Pankaj Advani in the semifinals. Sitwala, however, had to finish runner-up to Alok Kumar in the final. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

In Jammu, those boots were worn by Sitwala. First he came through the rigours of the qualifying tournament, and then expectedly topped his group, with a polished 359 in his opening league match against G. Kishore Kumar.

For the next five days, Sitwala was the owner of the highest break as no one came even close to the 300-mark.

Just as Pankaj performed with authority and resolve in the junior section, he chose this occasion — semifinal against Sitwala — to show his wares.

Their contest was billed as a virtual final. And, it did develop into one in all respects. Sitwala was cautious, but consistent, and Pankaj was aggressive and confident.

Pankaj Advani tore apart his opponents in the pre-quarterfinal and the quarters, but he succumbed narrowly to Sitwala in the semi-finals. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

Sitwala had come through a difficult quarterfinal against the defending champion Ashok Shandilya, who was riding high after winning the 50-up format World championship in Sydney. Sitwala's copybook style, and sincerity to the game worked in his favour as he overhauled a lead of 200-plus to oust Shandilya.

An unceremonious episode had Shandilya threatening to give up the match midway through. During the match, Sitwala came up with back-to-back century breaks of 174 and 134, thus narrowing the lead. A BSFI official praised his efforts after Sitwala finished his 134, but Shandilya took exception to this.

He sought a break and stormed out of the venue to complain it to the chief referee. After much persuasion, Shandilya agreed to return, but all through this period Sitwala never left his chair. He sat through, meditating, waiting for his next turn. Pankaj, meanwhile, had easy outings. In the pre-quarterfinals, he tore apart the defences of Punjab's Dharminder Lilly and won 1065-397. He then went past Railways' Rafath Habib, 1189-720, in the quarters.

Now Sitwala was his biggest test. One good thing about Pankaj is that he hardly wastes time on the table thinking about his next shot. On his 12th visit Pankaj left the audience in awe.

Giving an immaculate exhibition of the top table game with a sprinkling of drop cannons to adjust the ball positions, Pankaj crossed 300 and then outscored Sitwala's 359 before finally getting stuck at 384, when he missed a red in-off.

Sitwala, at that time, was down by nearly 500 points, but he did not panic. "I realised that to get a break of 400-plus was difficult. Balls were also not rolling well for me," Sitwala said. "I decided to live in the present and forget about the lead Pankaj had taken. It was a matter of two or three good century breaks and I was in," he added.

Qualifier Siddarth Parikh beat world number three Devendra Joshi in the quarterfinals. Parikh was beaten in the semifinals by Alok Kumar. He lost the third-place match, too, to Pankaj Advani. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

Another 117 came from Pankaj, but Sitwala ran a race like the famous turtle in the folklore. The railwayman kept scoring consistently and when he missed he ensured that Pankaj got awkward ball positions. In the crucial period, Pankaj had nine blank visits to the table while Sitwala scored substantially.

Still, the match was alive till the last minute as a good opening would have sent the game either way. After enjoying the lead in the first half, Pankaj was now doing the chasing job. And, it was difficult proposition, especially against Sitwala.

"He was more settled than me. I didn't get much positions and he would still make the breaks," said Pankaj, who attempted a few bold shots in vain towards the end of the match. "I needed those points more than him. That's why I went for it, but unfortunately I got a thick red and missed an in-off," he said about his break of 35 in the 40th visit while trailing by just 64 points.

The time was drawing to a close and it was the end of Pankaj's spectacular run in the 69th Senior National championship. The bottom half was less exciting. Alok Kumar was almost on the verge of losing his quarterfinal match to the seasoned Shyam Jagtiani. But, Alok's vast experience carried him through to the semis.

On the other side, World number three Devendra Joshi was beaten fair and square by Siddharth Parikh. Joshi made the mistake of letting boardroom politics affect his game. Mistakes crept in and the qualifier Parikh capitalised on it.

But when Parikh faced Alok in the semis, the versatile Punjab cueist crushed all his aspirations.

Alok is basically a snooker player and lacks the guile of an orthodox billiards player. But when faced with a traditional billiards player, he shifts to a different mode.

Alok did exactly the same against Parikh, the World number nine. On every visit, he was always on the hunt for a half century. He stopped in the 90s four times and also had three centuries and a double ton to quash any hopes Parikh might have nursed.

The excitement ended here.

Alok Kumar and Dhruv Sitwala were the most unlikely finalists any punter could have betted for.

Sitwala followed the copybook style while Alok remained practical. No big breaks came from either of the players, the 122 by Alok being the highest for the match. For a good measure, Pankaj took the third position, his best finish in the senior section. He reeled off 10 half tons and two centuries as Parikh, as in snooker, settled for the fourth position.

In the end, the 69th National billiards championship held at the Hari Niwas Palace in Jammu will be remembered more for the boardroom tables than the green baize tables.

Ashok Shandilya threatened to default his quarter-final against Sitwala midway through after a BSFI official praised a century break by the latter. After much persuasion Shandilya returned, but he was beaten in the end. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

There is no denying that most of the senior players were reluctant to travel to Jammu, which otherwise was a fantastic venue the Nationals has had for many years.

The players had raised security concerns and many decided to skip the Nationals on the premise that the seedings here would not be considered for the selection of the Indian team for the international tournaments.

Then those who led the anti-Jammu front changed their mind and participated but when the Billiards and Snooker Federation of India (BSFI), in its own wisdom, decided that since the majority of the players had played in Jammu the rankings were good enough to pick the Indian team.

That's where the BSFI and the Billiards and Snooker Players' Association came to a confrontation. There were hectic parleys between the BSFI and the players' representatives, and the interlocutors such as the National coach, Michael Ferreira, who despite being part of the federation talked in the players' voice.

Good sense prevailed as both the parties decided to go one step back and come to a mutually agreeable solution.

The results:

Final: Alok Kumar (Pun) 1080 (99, 62, 122, 106, 98, 88, 54, 66) bt Dhruv Sitwala (Rly) 829 (108, 54, 56, 64, 87, 101).

Play-off for third place: Pankaj Advani (Kar) 1330 (88, 87, 80, 89, 113, 72, 92, 58, 62, 59, 115, 85) bt Siddharth Parikh (Rly) 871 (108, 50, 133, 183, 70, 97).

Semifinals: Sitwala 1075 (70, 142, 109, 98, 70, 144, 98) beat Advani 996 (384, 117, 54, 56, 54); Alok Kumar 1810 (66, 53, 180, 82, 96, 94, 92, 101, 63, 94, 58, 121, 220) bt Parikh 996 (71, 97, 87, 130, 85, 78).

Play-offs for 5-8 positions: Ashok Shandilya (Rly) 475 (77, 83, 196, 56) bt Rafath Habib (Rly) 117; Devendra Joshi (Mah) 282 (76) bt Shyam Jagtiani (Rly) 221 (66); Joshi bt Shandilya on a spin of coin; Jagtiani 419 (106, 134, 65, 65) bt Habib 110.

Quarterfinals: Sitwala 833 (78, 96, 174, 134, 54, 97) bt Shandilya 669 (68, 170, 112, 91); Advani 1189 (86, 93, 63, 63, 61, 56, 68, 111, 81, 67) bt Habib 720 (60, 70); Parikh 936 (56, 82, 63, 110, 100, 102, 50, 67, 50) bt Joshi 871 (96, 82, 52, 103, 51); Alok Kumar 694 (61, 74, 97, 67 unfinished) bt Jagtiani 615 (78, 156, 73).

The placings: 1. Alok Kumar; 2. Sitwala; 3. Advani; 4. Parikh; 5. Joshi; 6. Shandilya; 7. Jagtiani; 8. Habib.