Alok Kumar bags third cue crown

KIRTI PATIL

POOL is like a bottle of olives, get the first one and the rest comes easy. It is also one of the few sports in which luck counts as much as your skill.

-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Alok Kumar, the three time national champion in two versions of the green baize sport - snooker and billiards - added the third cue crown to his collection. The only prize missing from his cabinet is of carombole, the game sans pots.

Delhi has been a happy hunting ground for Punjab's Alok Kumar. His most precious collection, the billiards trophy, was won in the capital when he defeated the Asian Games gold medallist Ashok Shandilya, in 1999.

Here, Alok rose like a phoenix. He upset some of the promising pool players before making it to the final. In the title clash, Alok defeated Railways' Venkatesham 15-5, in what turned out to be a no-contest. A methodical Venkatesham was expected to provide some resistance, but Alok rode on his luck, used his snooker potting skills to the maximum, and never allowed his concentration to dither.

Venkatesham, who was craving for his first major in 16 years, scored many a memorable win on way to the final. His penchant to fight back from the state of brink was remarkable. He accounted for the current billiards national champion Devender Joshi, 7-6 in the pre-quarterfinals, and Maharashtra's Amit Khansaheb, 11-10 in the semifinals. In both the contests, Venkatesham was down by the distance. But, he kept his cool and scored memorable victories.

Even as the championship has tossed up Alok as the champion, Venkatesham as runner-up and Delhi's Mukesh Rehani the third best, it did provide ample proof of the talent available. Among those who promised were Amit Khansaheb and Prem Prakash. They finished fourth and fifth respectively, but the onus will be on the Billiards and Snooker Federation of India (BSFI) to provide them the right exposure ahead of the Asian Games.

The progress of Amit in Delhi had been spectacular. After topping his league group, Amit faced Tamil Nadu's gifted cueist Rafat Habib. A 7-5 win against Habib placed him in a curious match with the defending champion Manan Chandra.

Amit, who is a lawyer by profession for the Dabhol Power Corporation (DPC), surprised his opponent and the organisers, the Delhi Billiards and Snooker Association (DBSA), which was pitching for Manan's second straight title win. Amit beat Manan 7-4 in the pre-quarterfinals and then accounted for Prem Prakash, 9-7 in the quarters.

His show has assured him a place in the probables for next year's Asian Games preparatory camps. While the other qualifiers would be eagerly waiting for it, Amit was skeptical owing to his tight schedule at the embattled DPC.

Pool, the Americanised snooker, came to India only as an entertainment sport. It has been a huge success with scores of pool parlours spread across all the major cities which prompted the BSFI to recognise the potential of it as a medal sport in the continental games. And, after Bangalore hosted the inaugural event, it was Delhi's turn to chip in. At the second nine-ball National pool championship, there were 84 entries, though a few dropped out at the eleventh hour.

The cue sport is one of the few disciplines in which India can win medals in the 2002 Asian Games in Pusan. The country had won two gold medals, in billiards, in the 1998 Bangkok Games. The growing interest in pool should further enhance the chances of winning medals. For it to happen, the BSFI should straighten its strings and be firm.

Also, our sportsmen should learn to fight it out on the playing field and not resort to pressure tactics and force fixture changes to accommodate 'friends'. It was not a great sight to see the BSFI technical bench succumb to the demands of the majority of players.

The fixture prepared by the BSFI before the start of the championship allowed each top finisher from 16 groups qualify for the pre-quarterfinal stage. As luck would have it, a few top seeded players were on their way out in the league phase itself.

So, one player spread the word around that the fixture was not communicated to them properly and hence the top two players from each group be allowed in the knock-out stage. All the border-line cases joined in and the players submitted a memorandum to that effect.

Alok would not like to remember this incident. He was on his way out after losing to Antim Singhi of Tamil Nadu, in his final league match. But for the fact that two players were given berth in the knock-out stage, an altogether different winner would have been crowned here.

The Punjab cueist got the chance and he never let go. First he edged past S. A. Saleem of Tamil Nadu, 7-6, decimated the talented Delhi player Siddharth Anand, and then crushed Sundeep Duggal, the one who was responsible for mobilising players to take such an unprecedented step. Alok won 9-3.

In the semifinals, Alok faced Mukesh Rehani, but the contest never rose to the expected heights. Alok made it look so simple that Rehani was left to watch from the sidelines, bewildered. In a race through 11 racks, Alok won 11-3 to somewhat justify his billing.

Following an improved performance by majority of the players, there was a mood in the BSFI to get six players sanctioned for the Pusan Asian Games. "There is no doubt that India has the potential to win medals in pool this time around," says the BSFI Vice-President, Mr. Ravi K. Tandon. The Government has already sanctioned four coaching camps and has also cleared the visit by Japanese coach, Kazuo Fugima, who is the Director (Sports) at the Asian Pocketball Union.

The Sports Authority of India (SAI), under the scheme of 75:25 sharing of cost to buy equipment, has already paid the BSFI's share of importing four pool tables. The camps will start sometime in March, after the Asian billiards championship.

The results:

Final: Alok Kumar (Pun) bt Venkatesham (Rlys) 15-5.

Third place play-off: Mukesh Rehani (Del) bt Amit Khansaheb (Mah) 7-6. Semifinals: Alok Kumar bt Mukesh Rehani 11-3; Venkatesham bt Amit Khansaheb 11-10. Quarterfinals: Amit Khansaheb bt Prem Prakash (TN) 9-7; Mukesh Rehani bt Dharminder Lilly (Pun) 9-8; Venkatesham bt Ravi Shanker (AP) 9-3; Alok Kumar bt Sundeep Duggal (Chg) 9-3.

Play-off for 5-8 placings: Lilly bt Duggal 5-1; Prem Prakash bt Ravi Shanker 5-1; Prem Prakash bt Lilly 5-3; Duggal bt Ravi Shanker 5-3.

Final placings: 1. Alok Kumar, 2. Venkatesham, 3. Mukesh Rehani, 4. Amit Khansaheb, 5. Prem Prakash, 6. Dharminder Lilly, 7. Sundeep Duggal, 8. Ravi Shanker.