A remarkable triumph

FOR most Indian sports fans, a perfect Diwali gift would be a Sachin Tendulkar century, preferably against world champion Australia.

FOR most Indian sports fans, a perfect Diwali gift would be a Sachin Tendulkar century, preferably against world champion Australia. For many others, it might be a hockey match victory over arch-rival Pakistan in a thrill-a-minute contest. Although both these events did come to pass a few days after Diwali last fortnight, for a select breed of sportslovers who adore the green baize game, both these events would have paled in comparison with what a toothpick of a teenager from Bangalore accomplished in Jiangmen, China.

With his defeat of Mohammed Saleh of Pakistan in the final of the IBSF world snooker championship, Pankaj Advani brought up one of the finest moments in the history of cue sports in India. As talented as Advani is, and for all the promise his successes in India held vis a vis international glory, few might have expected the 18-year-old to win with such confidence and style against a string of higher rated opponents. Little wonder that dozens of cue sports lovers turned up at the airports in Mumbai and Bangalore to greet the young man.

Advani's was a spectacular success that earned the young man a place in history. At 18 years and 93 days, he became the youngest ever world snooker champion.

The gifted, enigmatic Jimmy White, who won the title when he was 18 years and 191 days, held the record before Advani's victory in the final in Jiangmen. It is hardly surprising that several former world champions and administrators in the sport have hailed the youngster's triumph as an epic feat.

From Michael Ferreira down to Geet Sethi — both The Sportstar columnists — everybody who has anything to do with billiards and snooker has sung Advani's praises, and deservingly so. Had the great Wilson Jones been alive — he passed away earlier this year — the father of the green baize game in India would surely have shed tears of joy.

That Advani's achievement should have come in the same year as the great man's demise is perhaps no more than a coincidence but it does prove that the great tradition established in this country by Jones is very much alive.

Jones started it all in 1958 when he won the first of his two world billiards titles — the other coming six years later. Inspired by his success, an up-and-coming cueist was sharpening his cue, so to say, in the 1960s and Michael Ferreira's first world title — he would win two more — came in 1977. But the most successful of them all was to follow Ferreira, their careers overlapping for some time too. It was the suave, brilliant Geet Sethi who raised the bar even higher.

The first hints that Sethi would surpass the deeds of both Jones and Ferreira came in Chennai in 1981 when the young man beat the reigning master — Ferreira had just returned from his second world title triumph — en route to the National title in the sweltering confines of the University Union indoor stadium. That was some arrival. And Sethi went on to win seven world billiards titles — professional and amateur — from 1985 to 2001. In between, the hard working Manoj Kothari succeeded at the highest level in 1990.

If this is an impressive list, then it must be noted that all these successes were in billiards. And snooker was, by far, the more competitive and more glamorous sport. In snooker, India's only previous success at the world level was brought up by the gifted, mercurial Om Agarwal in 1984. Fate dealt Ommie a poor hand and his promise was never kept. Alas, he is dead and gone. But Advani's triumph does rekindle memories of a remarkably skilled champion who could have gone very, very far.

In terms of his temperament, Advani is very different from Agarwal and it is because of this, lovers of the green baize sport would be confident that this young man will go on to become India's first great professional snooker player. For all the success Indians have had in billiards, nothing will be as big a boost to cue sports as much as an Indian presence at the highest levels of professional snooker. In the dizzy heights where Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry dominated a colourful, exciting sport, Advani surely does have a place if he can stay on course and fulfill his potential.

But it is not going to be easy. Professional snooker is 10 times — perhaps more — as competitive as billiards and it is going to be an arduous climb for the young man. He would also need the support of sponsors.

The best of snooker is played in England, not in this country. And Advani would need to train and play there if he is to realise his dream. This, of course, will cost a lot of money. But, then, if there is any 18-year-old in Indian sport today who is worthy of every paisa any sponsor may be willing to fork out, it is Pankaj Advani.