A phenom in cuesports

INDIAN teenagers aspiring for a sporting career have multiple choices when it comes to role models.

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

Pankaj Advani, who is among the young band of achievers, is talented and articulate.-K. GOPINATHAN

INDIAN teenagers aspiring for a sporting career have multiple choices when it comes to role models. Pankaj Advani joined an elite list of young achievers blessed with talent and temperament to inspire a generation. After Sania Mirza's courage on court at the Australian Open and Narain Karthikeyan's poise under pressure in Formula I, he is on the verge of becoming a cuesport phenomenon. Three months short of 20, this Indian is a world champion twice over — the World Snooker Championship in 2003 at China, the World Billiards Championship in 2005 at Malta.

At an age when teenagers of his age are coming to grips with their potential and exploring various career options amidst the hustle-bustle of college life, this second year commerce student is almost a double graduate in sport. The youngest world champion in snooker at 18, Pankaj finished ahead of world billiards class in both 150-points and time format at 19-plus. Both titles were won in open events organised by the International Billiards & Snooker Federation, the world body for cuesport with 64 affiliate nations.

Snooker demands exceptional concentration levels and ability to think on the feet, billiards is a test of mental endurance and cue discipline. Like Rahul Dravid adjusting to the demands of limited-overs/Test cricket and excelling in both, India's cue wonder is straddling twin worlds, switching seamlessly from one to another on the green baize. "I enjoy snooker. My billiards game has changed over the years. I now realise I was not playing the right billiards. That has been sorted out, with help from coach Arvind Savur," said only the second player in history (after Paul Mifsud of Malta) to pocket both world titles.

The equivalent among commerce students being a Chartered Accountant-cum-Cost Accountant. "I don't know whether comparisons can be made, even within any sport. Every achievement is special," said this Bangalore-based Sri Bhagawan Mahaveer Jain College pupil. The difficulty is making a career choice. "It is tough to do both at professional level. I need to seriously think about which game to play. Maybe in a couple of years, I will," said the world champion at Mumbai's international airport, en route home from Malta.

"There are hurdles to overcome when looking at snooker as a career. The game is played in England only, no other nation has so many professionals fighting it out for a living, so staying there for six-eight months at a stretch costs money. I will give it a serious thought once pro snooker moves out of England. I am not talking as just an Indian. Most young Asians face the same difficulties playing and staying there," reasons Pankaj, emphasising on need for growth of snooker circuits in other countries. Asia has the numbers (32 affiliate nations in IBSF), the breakthrough is awaited.

The vital question here is whether India is ready to embrace its performers by supporting them en route to the top, instead of companies waiting for exceptional talents to claw their way to the summit before lining up to cash in on newsmakers like Sania and Karthikeyan. Agencies like Globosport, a player/event management agency operating out of Bangalore and managing Sania's career moves, come into play here as a vibrant link between player and sponsor. Corporate interest in F-1 live telecasts heightened after Michael Schumacher's reported conversation with the `fastest Indian' at Sepang, Malaysia.

"We are getting out of the one-sport culture and this is good for Indian sport," observes the articulate youngster with both snooker and billiards world titles in his pocket, in an e-mail interview. Oil & Natural Gas Commission have backed him so far with employment on the sports quota. "I am very thankful to ONGC for the job security they have given me. I am the youngest Personnel & Administrative Officer in the company. With a regular salary coming in I can concentrate more on the game without having to think too much about the future. Incentives for medal winning performances are added motivation." Excerpts from an interview:

Question: Indian youth have another achiever to look up to for inspiration, besides Narain Karthikeyan and Sania Mirza. Do you feel the same way, after the reception on arrival from Malta?

Answer: The reception after my arrival from Malta has been very good. As for looking to me for inspiration, that is for the public to decide.

Can you be called a role model for young Indians eyeing a sporting career? Or do you feel the need to do more after wearing the world champion tag in snooker and billiards?

Another one for the public (to determine). I hope I am. Where winning is concerned, the more the merrier! The reception at Mumbai airport when I landed and here in Bangalore shows that people are taking notice if you return with a world title.

The world champion being greeted with sweets and flowers by his mother at the Bangalore airport.-G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR

Who was your role model during formative years in Kuwait and India? Why? Did you dream of emulating any famous names, in cuesport and otherwise?

I was just four-years-old when I was in Kuwait. I did not know the meaning of a role model. Once I started playing the sport, it has been Geet Sethi because of his achievements on and off the table. I also idolise my coach Arvind Savur, who is also my mentor and guide.

The level you have reached, winning mind games make difference between potential and performance. How have you prepared your mind? Or are you a natural?

Visualisation has been a part of my mental preparation throughout. As far as the game is concerned I play by instinct. I am fortunate to have Savur by my side, he taught me the tricks of the trade. The tournaments here prior to Malta, the level of competition in India, helped toughen me for events ahead.

From personal interaction with people at Bangalore and the rest of India, do you sense a change in public perception of cuesport as a possible career, beyond having fun in pool parlours and clubs?

I have met a lot of youngsters recently who are taking this sport seriously and I think we will see a lot of young people making a name for themselves in this sport in the not too distant future. Places like KSBA in Bangalore, where I received my maiden coaching and where I have been practising for the past so many years, have coaching camps during summer vacations. More clubs/pool parlours should offer such coaching so that the game is played on a competitive level and not for fun.

The accomplished Pankaj Advani is also a recipient of the Arjuna Award, which was given to him by President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam in September 2004.-RAJEEV BHATT

Having attained world levels at 19 in the sport, money is needed to build on this advantage by competing on the pro circuit. Is there a support system for performers like you, or do world champions themselves have to sacrifice training time to seek out sponsors?

First of all, both snooker and billiards world championships that I won were open to everyone, including professionals. If you are talking about billiards then I have already cracked the circuit. I played my first professional billiards championship in England at the age of 15. As for snooker it is still a decision I have to make. Yes, one does have to look out for sponsors and here is where the corporates must come into `play'.

In what ways can cuesport in India reward its corporate backers? To put it another way, how will a tie-up with world No. 1 Pankaj Advani benefit a sports-inclined company?

The corporates would get mileage from being associated with the youngest world champion in cue-sport (provided they hype this factor). The fact that I have won three world titles by 19 (world snooker, billiards Time/Points formats) should be reason enough for them to back me and have faith in my ability to win more titles and get them more mileage.

Indian firms/MNCs are lining up to invite Sania for brand promotions after her recent WTA rankings. Narain Karthikeyan is getting endorsement offers for being the first Indian to drive into F-1. How do you explain this trend?

We are slowly getting out of the one-sport culture, and this is good for Indian sport. I foresee other sports also getting a slice of the corporate pie. Results have become priority now, more than glamour of any sport. Titles and championships matter.

With coach Arvind Savur, who is also his mentor and guide.-K. GOPINATHAN

In view of the long list of Indians excelling at cuesport in world competitions (yourself, Geet Sethi, Michael Ferreira, the late Om Agrawal, Subhash Agrawal, the late Wilson Jones) do you feel more Indians should take up the cue?

Yes I do. This is the sport which has won India 18 world titles (most in any sport) and the trend of world champions continues. I don't see why more Indians should not take up the cue. However, more money should be pumped into the game to make it more lucrative for the floaters.