A Sheffield brand of snooker

Aditya Mehta, the winner of the National snooker championship.-R. RAGU

In Pankaj Advani, however, the sport finds its biggest champion. Still only 26, Advani has, as his Wikipedia page claims, probably ‘achieved more than anyone else at this age in his sport.' The Bangalore-based cueist strolled his way to the billiards title (his fifth on the national stage), and despite the format (150-up and 100-up frames instead of the time-format) encouraging upsets, never looked troubled. Over to Raakesh Natraj.

Aditya Mehta flew in from Sheffield (his base camp) a day before the knock-out rounds of the men's snooker event were scheduled, played eight matches in a matter of four days and claimed his maiden national title and flew out before it was light the next day.

While his victory at the Hash10 WorldSim Nationals may not have been an upset, or the conclusion foregone, it was certainly well-deserved. Aditya Mehta conceded just six frames through the tournament (in eight matches) despite running into three National champions along the way, ran up the only hundred-breaks of the tournament and to top it off, defeated Alok Kumar, one of the most experienced and versatile players in the country, in the final with relative comfort.

The final was, in fact, a study in contrasts. Adiya Mehta, 27, was in just the second final of his career (at the Nationals) and was up against Alok Kumar, a 13-time champion. While Aditya Mehta is one of the very few professional snooker players from India (Yasin Merchant's 65 is the highest spot that an Indian has managed to climb to in the professional ranking charts; Aditya Mehta is currently somewhere in the 90s and like Yasin plays just snooker), while Alok Kumar, 43, accumulated his titles across four formats — snooker, billiards, 8-ball and 9-ball pool — and is active in all of them. This is not to bring up the contrast in styles. Aditya Mehta (and also Pankaj Advani, for that matter) is the kind of player who can kill frames off with a solitary turn at the table. This mainly involves throwing the knock-out punch of a huge break, an exercise in concentration and control.

Pankaj Advani... his fifth National billiards title.-R. RAGU

Alok Kumar is a more canny presence at the table. His bread and butter shot is what is called a ‘safety'— when the cue ball returns to the baulk cushion, behind the colours, and away from the valued real estate at the other end. To break free, the opponent is either required to pot a long red (to open up a break) or reply in kind — neither is what one would call percentage play. If there is an inadvertent deflection or if the shot is over/under cooked, the initiative is handed to the opponent.

It is not really a defensive tactic, as Alok Kumar himself explained at the end of the championship. “You can't go for a shot unless you are sure about it, or if you feel you are not in good form. It will just open up the board otherwise.” Not defensive, perhaps, but cautious.

Pankaj Advani, who was breaking big and hadn't lost a frame until he ran into Alok Kumar in the quarters (a match in which Alok Kumar admitted to have been at his best), would certainly attest to it. The veteran never really let Advani get into any kind of rhythm, as he ground out to a 5-2 win. That Aditya Mehta was never really bogged down by a style that could have proved inhibitory to his own, and wasn't quite stretched in his 6-2 win in the final, was creditable (despite Alok Kumar being visibly tired towards the end of the match, having played fairly non-stop since the billiards main draw began almost a fortnight back).

Vidya Pillai... the snooker queen.-R. RAGU

Maiden title winners are generally treated as signs that the sport is healthy — an indicator of the depth of the field. Whether it was so, still remains to be ascertained. In the junior or womens' divisions, for example, there appears to be little progress. Uma Devi, the winner of the senior womens' billiards crown, claimed her third crown, and Vidya Pillai (winner in the snooker division), her sixth. The junior and sub-junior categories in the girls' category, drew an identical list of participants, a total of seven. That number was further reduced with pull-outs. Varsha Sanjeev picked up three titles in the first fortnight of the Nationals, which can be put down to skill as much as an extremely diluted field.

Not all signs are dampening however. Mizoram's Lalrina Renthlei, who claimed the boys' junior snooker title, is proof that the sport is taking root in places that are not traditionally considered to be its strongholds.

Lalrina's story, in equal measure, is also indicative of the troubles cuesports face in dispelling certain notions about itself and how easy it can be for its practitioners to abandon their pursuit. During a five-year period in which all pool clubs (where most people make their first acquaintance with cuesports) in the state were shut down because they were seen as a ‘bad influence' on the youth, Lalrina gave up snooker and played basketball instead. He became the youngest player at the basketball senior nationals in Pondicherry, and had it not been for a series of ankle injuries, he would have probably given up snooker completely.

Uma Devi... the women's billiards winner.-K. PICHUMANI

In Advani, however, the sport finds its biggest champion. Still only 26, Advani has, as his Wikipedia page claims, probably ‘achieved more than anyone else at this age in his sport.' The Bangalore-based cueist strolled his way to the billiards title (his fifth on the national stage), and despite the format (150-up and 100-up frames instead of the time-format) encouraging upsets, never looked troubled.

Whether Advani will continue in his practice of all formats of the game or would feel a responsibility to do so, considering he is pretty much the face of the sport in the country, is still not sure. While for practitioners from the previous era, like Alok Kumar, versatility might have been a question of financial sustenance (“If there are two billiards tournaments organised in a month, there will be around 10 snooker tournaments in the same period.

So you have little choice.” said a junior player this tournament, and one can only imagine what things were like a couple of decades back) and of course skill. But like Alok Kumar himself admits it is a decision they have to continue making before/after each tournament. “I was in two minds. I was wondering if I should skip the snooker tournament this nationals but went ahead with it. The final was a perfect example of what will happen if you indulge yourself in all categories” he said.

THE RESULTS

Men — Snooker: 1. Aditya Mehta, 2. Alok Kumar. Billiards: 1. Pankaj Advani,

2. B. Bhaskar.

Junior Boys — Snooker: 1. Lalrina Renthlei, 2. Himanshu Jain. Billiards: 1. Dhvaj Haria,

2. Ustav Ramani.

Sub-junior boys — Snooker: 1. Ashutosh Padhy, 2. Dhvaj Haria. Billiards: 1. Dhvaj Haria,

2. Jaiveer Dhingra.

Women — Snooker: 1. Vidya Pillai, 2. Aranxta Sanchis. Billiards: 1. Uma Devi,

2. Meenal Thakur.

Junior Girls — Snooker: 1. Lahiri, 2. Sania Arif. Billiards: 1. Varsha Sanjeev,

2. Keerath Bhandaal.

Sub-junior girls — Snooker: 1. Varsha Sanjeev, 2. Sania Arif. Billiards: 1. Varsha Sanjeev,

2. Keerath Bhandaal.