A truly indigenous product

Pankaj Advani with the IBSF World trophy he won at Jiangmen. — Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

Pankaj Advani has emulated Om Agrawal and there is a buzz about India's second World-beater, who spoke to NANDAKUMAR MARAR after being named as The Sportstar's Sportsperson of the Year.

EVERY generation needs achievers to light up the path, to inspire youth into thinking big and in the process lift the spirits of an entire nation. Pankaj Advani may have arrived, as if on cue, to become that face in the crowd in 2003 by winning the International Billiards and Snooker Federation's World Amateur Snooker Championship at Jiangmen, China. He emulated the late Om Agrawal's 1984 achievement, though there is a buzz about India's second World beater because not only is he 18 and successful, but also capable of making a dramatic impact on the world stage. "So many achievers have done so much. I have a long way to go,'' said the champion, the humility coming through even when talking about his astounding achievement.

Already hailed as a `prodigy' by peers for winning the 2002 senior National snooker title at 17, Advani is only justifying the promise displayed in the 2001 World under-21 snooker at Latvia when he finished third. Snooker is a high stakes, high profile sport in the pro ranks, tailored for television and offering enough scope for exciting young achievers. "The World title has made my attitude more focussed. Now I have to look at bigger things from here on, at the same time look at the tournaments that have to be won,'' said Advani, in a chat during an invitation doubles snooker event at the Bombay Gymkhana.

Snooker's youngest amateur sensation already has the professional World crown in his sights, looking at it as a long-term goal and is already prepared to work towards a cherished dream, starting with a stint at the London-based International Snooker Academy. Coached by former World number four Arvind Savur for almost a decade at Bangalore, the B.Com student of Jain College made his mentor proud with forceful, ruthless play at the 2003 Worlds, culminating in a 11-6 victory over Saleh Mohammed of Pakistan for the title, becoming India's only World champion in this eventful year. Excerpts from an interview with The Sportstar Sportsperson of 2003:

Question: In this age of imported psychologists, physical trainers and coaches for our leading sportspersons, you are a `Made in India' World snooker champion. Did this occur to you at any time?

Answer: First of all you have to make up your mind. Mental makeup is important in any sport. Those who have strong minds are successful, become champions. Having said that, I would like to point out that it is not true that English players alone are mentally strong, even Indian players can do it. Winning at the world level boils down to how much pressure you can handle at that moment. The stuff you produce in the heat of the moment is what counts. Some of us have done it. We have many `Made in India' champions. I am just another addition to the list.

* How have so many Indian cueists attained world levels? What is it about our nation that makes us so good at billiards and now snooker? Any genetic advantages? Or any other reason?

I think it is the endurance power. I have played with a lot of white players who are very good, talented and confident, but when it comes to being tested, it comes to testing their patience, they may lack a little bit. We Indians have an edge over them, we have more endurance, more patience. We can wait for our opportunities, play safe maybe 10, 20 times and when the chance comes, we are on it.

The reason is that the English practice the game everyday, we have other things to do, apart from playing. They play full-time, so they will get results, they become anxious. Since we are not training that much, we need mental strength to cover up for lack of hours at the table. Though now, even Indian cueists reaching a certain level devote a lot of time.

* Generations of young Indians, talented and hungry like you from diverse fields, can benefit from your experience of achieving so much at such a young age. What does it take for a young Indian to achieve world standards?

You have to dream to achieve world levels, otherwise you don't get there. Maybe it sounds silly, about thinking of becoming a world champion at 14 or 15, but at least you have thought about it, you are geared up for it, so that when competing in the World Championship the situation is not entirely new. It is all in the mind.

The World champion talks about his exploits in China. — Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

* When did you start dreaming of becoming a world beater?

I started dreaming of a World Championship at 15. When playing the World U-21 at 16 and having reached the semi-finals, I thought why not a World title if I can take one step further. Of course, I didn't expect to win this one, it is just part of destiny.

* Sport is supposed to teach you to face failure at a young age. Did competitive snooker/billiards help you in any way, preparing you to accept defeat and develop the hunger to fight back?

Failure is a part of life. You have to look forward to the good moments and they will come one day. I want to stress that when you lose, be a graceful loser. Never make a fuss about it, even if your opponent has been very lucky, because it is all part of the game. Remember one day you are going to get the same luck and win, just like I did at the 2003 World Championship. I didn't have the luck for the last five Worlds but it came finally. You have to wait for your time, it will happen.

* Nations take pride in sporting achievements. The Australians for example want to win every sporting contest, every sporting honour. Do you think Indians are proud of their champions like you, proud enough to allow children to be exposed to sport and follow your example?

From the parents' point of view, they love their children to go into any sport and take it up as a profession. Regarding the first part of the question, appreciation has been there from the States and Centre, but there has been no encouragement, very sorry to say this, for a world champion. I wish they come forward and support us financially, because we are getting results. We are producing champions every three years in billiards/snooker, chess or badminton you name it.

* Has your achievement made a difference to people in constant touch with you, maybe inspire close friends/relatives of your generation to take up snooker?

I hope more Indians pick up snooker. It is a lovely game, full of concentration. I don't have many relatives who play snooker, only my elder brother does. The moment he heard about my Jiangmen victory, I found out that he was surprised because he had not expected me to get there so soon. At the moment, my family is pretty calm about it, they don't want to put too much pressure on me. All they want me is to just flow. As far as friends are concerned, they say we can't look at you as a `world champion', you are very much the same.

* Pool is supposed to be an easy starting point for cue sports. Have you been involved in any effort or have any plan to attract pool players to try their hand at snooker/billiards?

Pool is an entirely different game. I don't know whether my success will influence people to take up pool. However, it is a good starting game, it is easier to pick up than billiards or snooker, if you get good you can always shift to billiards/snooker.

* When you went for the World championship, you were standing at the bottom of a mountain, looking towards the summit. Now that you have reached the top, do you have any more mountains to climb?

Lots more to climb. First of all, this is the amateur World snooker title I won in China. The next one is the world professional title I am looking at, but not so soon. It will take a lot of time, lot of hard work and trips to England to get the training that is needed to get there. I had been to London, to the International Snooker Academy for professional coaching under Chris Hendry, a Belgian who is also Peter Ebdon's coach, so we get to play with him as well. The Thailand and Chinese cueists are in the same academy.

* Do you still train under Arvind Savur back home?

He is my coach. He taught me snooker, gave me the idea. From here the game is about the errors we make in our technique and shot selection that one can point out. I have played for the last seven to eight years, after that snooker is all about technique and discipline.

Coach Arvind Savur greets his ward on arrival in Bangalore. — Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

* You are part of a rich legacy of Indian cue sports champions — Wilson Jones, Michael Ferreira, Om Agrawal, Subhash Agrawal, Geet Sethi, Yasin Merchant, Alok Kumar, Ashok Shandilya, Devendra Joshi... Given a choice, what qualities about them would you wish to have?

If there is one quality I would like to imbibe from all of them, it is discipline, to add to whatever I have in my game so far.

* Did any thought flash in your mind at Jiangmen when the realisation of becoming World champion sunk in?

It took about two weeks to sink in, because I never expected to win. However, I knew the moment frame scores reached 10-6 against Saleh Mohammed, needed one more frame. I thought the title is in sight if I keep myself composed. I remember a nice clearance of 70 in the 16th, 9-6 in my favour and he was leading 67-0. I needed a 70 with six reds to go, from absolutely nowhere I managed to make that. The best break of my match, the best break of my life. There was a lot of pressure involved, in a World Championship final and down a frame by 67 points it is very difficult to come back. The way I handled that frame was very nice, a memory still clear in my mind.

* Coming back as World amateur snooker champion, has the experience and pressure, the joy of victory and expectations changed your life in anyway? Any change in you as a person?

Expectations have gone up, but I have got to play and enjoy it. At the end of the day, we are doing it because we enjoy, not because we have to win or have to make a living out of it. So as long as I enjoy the game, love the game I will play snooker at the high levels and try to improve. On a personal level, the World title has made my attitude more focussed, more motivated. Now I have to look at bigger things from here. At the same time, look at tournaments that have to be won.

* Media is a permanent part of sport now, giving fans an opportunity to enjoy action on television, keep themselves informed and entertained through newspapers, radio and now the internet. As a performer, do you view the media as a friend or a critic?

Media is a friend because it promotes the sport. At the end of the day when a Michael Ferreira/Geet Sethi/ Pankaj Advani wins a World Championship, it is the sport that is being promoted more than the personalities involved. That is what we are happy about. We are ambassadors of the game, we represent our country so a certain amount of responsibility is involved and we have got to fulfil that. It is our job to promote the game as much as possible and it is thanks to the media we are doing that. The media has done a good job over the last two years.

* Cricket versus the rest is a permanent debate in Indian sport. Do you feel the imbalance in terms of public interest/media exposure/sponsors involvement? Why is it happening?

If imbalance is the word being used, I think it is an understatement. The gap (between cricket and rest) is huge. I don't know why, but you can't change the popularity of any sport when compared to cricket. What the media can do is cover the sport in a better way, report all events in any sport played, besides cricket.

In terms of sponsorship, if we have Indians becoming World champions every few months, sometimes in badminton, chess and snooker, I don't know why corporate houses don't come forward and sponsor tournaments at least. When it comes to cricket, it pinches me again to see a 17-year-old or an 18-year-old making it to the team, not playing a single game in the World Cup and coming back with lakhs.

* Instead of grumbling about the exposure given to Indian cricket, do you feel other sports, especially the Olympic disciplines with huge following, should give a thought to positive points about Indian cricket administration?

I feel the federations should do their job in terms of promoting a sport. They should go to the corporates and communicate what is being done by them for the game, the calendar of events and ask whether sponsorship is possible for whatever terms and conditions. When it comes to cricket, actually it is corporate initiative that makes things happen.

* What does it mean to be judged The Sportstar's Sportsperson of 2003? A distinction which places you alongside the likes of Indian sporting icons like V. Anand, Sachin Tendulkar, Leander Paes... Do any of them figure in your list as someone whose feats are inspiring?

This is the first time something like this has taken place for me. It is going to motivate me to do better. These are the awards which keep me going. If my efforts are recognised, appreciated and external motivation happens, it is easy to take in. Self-motivation is definitely tougher. (Viswanathan) Anand, Sachin (Tendulkar) are great players, great achievers in their respective sports. For me a person like Geet Sethi or Michael Ferreira is someone I personally look up to, because I have seen them play, have interacted with them, got to know so many things about them. So I look up to them for inspiration.