Alok Kumar claims third title

KIRTI PATIL

A DIFFERENT Alok Kumar was on show. Though an excellent break-maker, he always shied from gutsy and innovative play.

Alok Kumar proudly displays the three-headed lion snooker trophy. He was the billiards runner-up too.-PARAS SHAH

His every shot involved a lengthy thought process. He always judged various angles and options, at length, before cueing the ball.

Alok shed all that. As if he wanted to break free from what the critics call orthodox, Alok revealed the other side of his style. It was the kind of stuff none expected to come off from Alok's cue.

Precision was the name of his game. And, guts was something that he added overnight, transforming himself into a lively performer.

Thus, twice champion Alok added a third snooker National title to his ever-growing collection. In the final of the 68th National championship, Alok taught a few lessons to the promising youngster Manan Chandra, and won unchallenged. Alok's 71-37, 105-0, 1-66, 75-4, 81-0, 42-54, 69-18, 79-6, 84-0 win speaks volumes of how he held sway. The two frames he lost to Manan, particularly the third of the match, also conveys the promise that Manan carries into the future.

"A most satisfying win ever," Alok described his triumph in lesser words than the frames he played. And, why not. Although Alok had claimed the three-headed-lion trophy in 1992 and 1994, he was never known to play the game in a beautiful way. Dull and rudimentary basics remained his trump cards.

"I was desperate to play well and win. I showed guts and it was the only way to beat him," said Alok of Manan, who at 20 became the youngest finalist. The win also helped Alok square up his score in the snooker final. He had been there six times, with a win-loss ratio of 3:3.

National fame nevertheless, Alok's CV lacks international titles. For a player of his calibre and the fact that he has been on the circuit for more than a decade, the blot is something that needs to be erased.

"I have not done anything great internationally. That is something that I want to get rid off," was his spontaneous answer to a query on what he intended to do in future. "Time is running out for me". The 32-year-old Punjab cueist has already hinted of his phased retirement from the game.

"Already Manan and Pankaj (Advani) are knocking at the doors. They have talent and I think we have to recognise that," Alok was gracious enough to acknowledge. "Maybe for a couple of years I may continue, but my eyesight is failing to cope with the strain, a major competition as this requires," he says.

Gruelling, yes it was. In a 47-player main draw played in eight league groups, one had to finish among the top two to qualify for the knockout stage. All the big guns did well to satisfy the billing.

Defending champion Yasin Merchant made it, as did Ashok Shandilya. Even as Alok and Manan remained 'The Untouchables', easing through their respective encounters with dominating performance, the finest match of the championship though was staged by Merchant and Shandilya.

In what was billed as clash of two contrasting talents, Shandilya was unrelenting till the black was potted. Shandilya, an excellent strategist, and Merchant, the crafty potter, took their meeting to great heights.

What transpired during more than two-hour-long encounter was a thing to relish. In the best-of-nine-frame quarterfinal, Shandilya kept slight edge throughout but when the match entered the final frame it looked as if Merchant had finally taken control. He had a 50-2 lead.

But, Shandilya had not given up. He started the repair work to build on the score nicely. Since limited red balls remained on the table, he had to do quick sums to guarantee him enough points to overtake Merchant. Shandilya cleaned up the table right till the last black for a 72-39, 62-56, 9-71, 21-58, 64-48, 40-95, 61-34, 46-71, 54-50 scoreline.

The match against Merchant certainly drained Shandilya. Next morning he looked upbeat but could not repeat the same kind of performance against Manan. Everything came good for the Delhi youngster. He potted with confidence and in a jiffy blew apart Shandilya 6-1.

From the bottom half, Alok had made a steady progress. He defeated Tamil Nadu's S. A. Saleem in the quarters and set up a semifinal meeting with the giant-killer Antim Singhi.

Even as Alok walked away with the trophy, Singhi was the success story of the Nationals. After qualifying for the main draw, Singhi deservedly made it through to the knock-out phase, from the same group as Shandilya.

At 32, Singhi was not actually a find. When at his peak, Singhi gave up cueing in search of peace. He joined Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry and worked there for almost three years.

Sometime in 2001, he decided to make a comeback. Singhi picked up his cue and started practising.

For a player who had the opportunity to spend exclusive time practising with Geet Sethi, and by far the best Indian in snooker, Sonic Multani, it didn't take much time to regain the touch.

In 1994, Singhi had attained number three ranking in India after losing in the semis to Multani, the eventual winner at the Chennai Nationals. He came to Ahmedabad and took temporary membership of the Sports Club of Gujarat and practised with Sethi and Multani.

Something prompted him to leave everything behind and join the ashram. "Last year I just felt like playing and wanted to do something for the country," Singhi explained about his decision to return.

After having done fairly well in the National pool championship last December in Delhi, Singhi came through gruelling qualifiers into the main draw. In billiards too, Singhi's resolve took him into the main draw.

Singhi showed his class when he bamboozled the third seed Rupesh Shah of Gujarat, in the pre-quarterfinals. He then outsmarted big-potter Dharminder Lilly of Punjab and made it to the semifinals. Alok was a different customer altogether.

Still, making it to the semis has helped Singhi achieve one of his long-standing dreams. A promise to be part of Indian team for the Asian Games in Pusan. Even though Merchant lost in the quarterfinals, he will undoubtedly be part of the team. Yet, the kind of form with which he performed, Singhi deserves the break.

"My whole focus was on making it to the Indian team and winning a medal in the Asian Games. I played the Nationals to get noticed and qualify," said Singhi.

The promise Singhi carries augurs well for India's chances in this year's Asian Games. In fact with the kind of talent that was on display at the Nationals, India could well better its cue sport medal tally. It had won two gold, one silver and a bronze medal in the 1998 Games.

With Alok, Manan, Singhi and Shandilya, and of course not to forget Asian champion Merchant, India can be a serious contender in snooker too.

The results:

Final: Alok Kumar (Pun) bt Manan Chandra (Del) 71-37, 105-0, 1-66, 75-4, 81-0, 42-54, 69-18, 79-6, 84-0.

Third place: Ashok Shandilya (Rly) bt Antim Singhi (Rly) 68-22, 75-36, 57-49, 73-13.

Semifinals: Manan bt Shandilya 90-19, 31-61, 53-46, 54-9, 87-32, 58-32, 60-43; Alok bt Singhi 73-66, 30-77, 79-19, 61-12, 45-57, 81-1, 78-38, 81-0.

For 5-8 positions: Yasin Merchant (Mah) bt Amit Saboo (Mah) 82-29, 82-45; Dharminder Lilly (Pun) bt S. A. Saleem (TN) 74-45, 36-50, 63-50; Lilly bt Merchant 56-43, 44-79, 57-52; Saboo bt Saleem 71-40, 52-59, 57-52.

Quarterfinals: Shandilya bt Merchant 72-39, 62-56, 9-71, 21-58, 64-48, 40-95, 61-34, 46-71, 54-50; Manan bt Saboo 78-17, 65-43, 54-42, 66-22, 54-69, 26-82, 71-34; Singhi bt Lilly 12-90, 76-13, 75-17, 93-31, 57-11, 72-54; Alok bt Saleem 54-51, 30-79, 78-7, 51-70, 43-72, 79-11, 81-26, 66-47.

Final placings: 1. Alok, 2. Manan, 3. Shandilya, 4. Singhi, 5. Lilly, 6. Merchant, 7. Saboo, 8. Saleem.

Highest break: Yasin Merchant 121.