A lot of exciting talent

Pankaj is in no way a discovery. He has been around for a while, but now Pankaj has evolved into a potent force and is equally feared by the seniors. And, his ability to adapt — in playing high-quality billiards in the morning, and snooker in the evening — is really commendable.

KIRTI PATIL

THERE was no second opinion about Pankaj Advani. At 17, this teenager has been dishing out the kind of stuff that raises hopes of a bright future.

Double Junior National champion Pankaj Advani proudly displays his billiards shield and snooker trophy. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

Pankaj is in no way a discovery. He has been around for a while, but now Pankaj has evolved into a potent force and is equally feared by the seniors. And, his ability to adapt — in playing high-quality billiards in the morning, and snooker in the evening — is really commendable. The icing on the cake was Pankaj Advani's title double in the 27th Junior National billiards and snooker championship in Jammu.

Even if Pankaj dominated the scene, his emergence has definitely enthused many fellow juniors.

In the past this sport has seen only Geet Sethi, who as a junior, upstaged the seniors. But now, besides Pankaj, there are five others, who are capable of upsetting the senior players. And, it augurs well for India considering that five years from now cue sport will be a medal event in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Unlike a few seniors who had apprehensions about their security, all the juniors assembled in Jammu. There was a full house and a keen contest followed. It was another matter that Pankaj Advani, Sourav Kothari and Rishabh Thakkar were common in both the billiards and snooker final leagues. However, irony caught up with the other finalists, Brijesh Damani and Aditya Mehta.

Ideally a snooker player, Brijesh ousted the fourth-seeded Aditya in the second round and went on to make it to the four-player-league final in billiards.

Rishab Thakkar_ the runner-up in billiards, he is coached by Michael Ferreira. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

On the other hand, Aditya made up for the failure in billiards by cruising into the snooker final with a deserving win against the third-seeded Dhruv Verma.

Let us assess the two events separately.

Billiards: It began with a 37-player draw and four finalists had to be identified. Pankaj, in the first quarter of the draw, hardly found any challenge. After blasting Uttar Pradesh's Sunil Rastogi 997-162 in the second round, Pankaj reeled off four century breaks against Rajasthan's Ravinder Singh in the quarterfinals. In the 982-282 win, Pankaj had runs of 150, 103, 131 and 128, also marking the first century of the championship.

Much against the projections, Pankaj made the World number nine junior, Vaibhav Punvatkar, look a novice. Vaibhav was in Jammu after a creditable outing in the IBSF World billiards championship in Sydney, where he lost in the pre-quarterfinals. But Pankaj was a different proposition altogether. All that the Maharashtra cueist could do was to be a spectator to Pankaj's performance.

Opening with a break of 87, and a 92 in the next outing, Pankaj let his intentions be known. A 124 in the third visit and a 165 in the fourth just about quashed any hopes Vaibhav might have had as the Karnataka youngster won 1088-258, again the first to cross the 1000-point barrier in a two-hour match.

Aditya Mehta headed the second quarter, but Brijesh Damani proved lucky. The Bengal junior went on to hold the fort and join Pankaj in the final. Fourth-seeded Sourav Kothari raced past Vinay Katrela of Karnataka 762-322 in the semis, after having enjoyed a walkover in the quarters.

From the last quarter, second-seeded Rishabh Thakkar joined the final league beating battle-weary Wasim Ahmed of Tamil Nadu, 603-139 in the second round; a serious Dhruv Verma of Punjab, 599-420 in the quarters, and an indifferent Pamin Shah of Gujarat, 675-362 in the semis.

The first set of final league matches gave an impression that Pankaj's reign at the top was not all that guaranteed. He just about scraped through against the promising Rishabh 836-804, in a three-hour match. Rishabh was close on the heels of Pankaj throughout the match, but finally fell short by 32 points.

Sourav Kothari_ placed second in snooker and is the best all-rounder after Pankaj Advani. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

On another table, Sourav made a telling comment by raising a break of 170 to give himself a chance to win the highest break award. Sourav defeated Brijesh 1130-734.

In the evening, though, Sourav lost to Rishabh making it even more easy for Pankaj to defend his title. Pankaj took out all his frustration of the morning match on Brijesh, winning the tie 1568-592 with three century breaks, 148, 155 and 130.

The next day, Pankaj had a two-point agenda. Beat Sourav and confirm the title, and overhaul the break of 170. He achieved both with distinction, leaving Sourav to curse his stars. Rishabh salvaged some pride by retaining his national ranking after scoring his second win in the league, a 1055-708 verdict over Brijesh.

Snooker: A 38-player field produced more intense matches than billiards, for the four slots in the final league. Defending champion Pankaj Advani hardly faced any resistance on the way to his designated place in the final. He defeated Sumit Talwar of Chandigarh in the second round, Ajay Kumar of Himachal Pradesh in the quarters and Ravinder Singh of Rajasthan in the semis, all 3-0 wins, in the first quarter of the draw.

Fourth-seeded Rishabh Thakkar lost just one frame in three matches before making it to the final from the second quarter. Tamil Nadu's J. Varun stretched Rishabh to four frames, otherwise the Maharashtra cueist had a smooth path till the semis, where he stumbled upon Brijesh. Both played a cautious game, but the luck was on Rishabh's side as he won the first two frames on black ball. Then the third came easy.

From the bottom half of the draw, Aditya Mehta was through, but Sourav Kothari was given a scare by Wasim Ahmed. In what was one of the best matches in the junior section, Sourav forfeited his lead twice before winning 3-2.

Brijesh Damani_ a raw talent, he gets too complacent when in the lead. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

Since two Maharashtra players featured in the final league, the prime match, between Pankaj and Sourav, had to be played first. This took the sheen off the last set of final league matches.

Pankaj was businesslike. He gave little leeway to Sourav in the first two frames. Hardly any junior has shown such a good command over both forms of the game in the recent past. Pankaj authored a break of 94 in the third frame against Sourav and wrapped up the proceedings with a clean 4-0 scoreline. Aditya had similar figures against Rishabh and just about announced his intentions.

The next morning, the audience had a treat. The centre table offered a Sourav-Rishabh clash which the Bengal cueist decided to mould his way. After winning the first three frames 79-9, 97-7, 60-9, Sourav came up with what seemed an impregnable table-clearing break of 133. Rishabh was yet to open his account in the last frame.

And, on table number two Pankaj was down two frames to Aditya. Slowly and resolutely Pankaj crawled back into the match by winning the next three frames. Aditya gave himself another chance by making it 3-3, but Pankaj's experience came handy as he won the decider 75-10 for a 4-3 verdict.

One hurdle was crossed, but there was a challenge set up by Sourav which had to be addressed. Playing against the whipping boy Rishabh, Pankaj was always on the look out for an opening. He won the first two frames and lost the third, which hardened his resolve.

Pankaj gambled with a long pot after Rishabh left a red open. Pankaj followed that with a pink, and then he was on song. In all he had nine blacks, two pinks, three blues and a brown as the table was cleared of the red balls. Then Pankaj had a good position for yellow and he went about clearing all the colour balls for a break of 136.

Sourav was playing against Aditya on the next table, and was gracious enough to cross over and congratulate Pankaj, who had taken away from him the honour of the highest break in snooker too.

``You always have to beat my record,'' Sourav said.

The results: Billiards:

Final league: Sourav Kothari (Ben) bt Brijesh Damani (Ben) 1130-734; Pankaj Advani (Kar) bt Rishabh Thakkar (Mah) 836-804; Thakkar bt Kothari 852-619; Advani bt Damani 1568-592; Advani bt Kothari 1292-667; Thakkar bt Damani 1055-708.

Semifinals: Thakkar bt Pamin Shah (Guj) 675-362; Advani bt Vaibhav Punvatkar (Mah) 1088-258; Damani bt Sagar Yadav (Guj) 766-337; Kothari bt Vinay Katrela (Kar) 762-322.

Final placings: 1. Advani; 2. Thakkar; 3. Kothari; 4. Damani.

Snooker:

Final league: Advani bt Kothari 59-37, 63-37, 105-16, 62-11; Aditya Mehta bt Thakkar 61-38, 67-12, 64-10, 91-40; Kothari bt Thakkar 79-9, 97-7, 60-9, 133-0; Advani bt Mehta 48-60, 46-85, 65-19, 101-4, 65-9, 38-58, 75-10; Advani bt Thakkar 67-8, 72-20, 42-68, 136-0, 93-7; Kothari bt Mehta 57-29, 57-56, 11-62, 74-14, 19-60, 65-20.

Semifinals: Advani bt Ravinder Singh (Raj) 66-31, 65-36, 51-35; Thakkar bt Damani 57-54, 45-38, 72-45; Mehta bt Dhruv Verma (Pun) 67-44, 65-54, 67-68, 74-31; Kothari bt Wasim Ahmed (TN) 58-47, 53-64, 64-27, 50-61, 68-33.

Final placings: 1. Advani; 2. Kothari; 3. Mehta; 4. Thakkar.