Alok Kumar shows his class

JUST before our snooker team went to Aqaba (Jordan), for the 2004 Asian Snooker Championship, I was asked whether there was any clear favourite for the title.

MICHAEL FERREIRA

Alok Kumar pulled off a sensational title triumph in Aqaba, Jordan. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

JUST before our snooker team went to Aqaba (Jordan), for the 2004 Asian Snooker Championship, I was asked whether there was any clear favourite for the title. I said `no' but because sticking my neck out holds a fatal attraction for me, I added that an Indian had a better than even chance of winning. With reigning world champion Pankaj Advani in the fray and former Asian champion Yasin Merchant playing as well as he ever has, I thought that 60-40 in favour of India copping the title were reasonable odds. Never in my wildest dreams, however, did I realise what was to follow.

Not only did national champion Alok Kumar, the third member of the team, defy pre-tournament assessments by pulling off a sensational win, but India was twice blessed, as his opponent in the final was none other than Pankaj Advani. Though our billiards lads have done it in the past, the double whammy in the 22-ball game was unprecedented in Indian snooker history.

As coach of the three-man contingent, I have to concede that the national champion was not on the radar before the championship began. This was not because I have any doubts about his ability — on the contrary, I have long admired his grit, superb break-building and iron will to win — but because Alok had been playing 9-ball pool (with considerable distinction, I might add), on the San Miguel Asian tour for the previous two-and-a-half months. Pool might be the fastest growing cuesport in the world, but the wild cowboy style that players are forced to utilise, especially for the opening or `break' shot, is the very antithesis of good snooker technique and certainly not the ideal way to prepare for a major snooker event. That I feared big-time for Alok was thus hardly surprising.

I have often gently chided Alok about the gap in his CV. For all his impressive domestic results, he had failed to make a significant mark in the international arena despite playing in a number of world and Asian events at the senior level for the last 12 years. In the 1992 and 1995 versions of this very event, he managed to reach the quarterfinals, an unacceptable strike rate for someone of his quality. The man himself must have realised that at 35, the sands of time, if not fully run out, were certainly receding for him. He was also keenly aware that in the absence of the formidable Chinese contingent, and to a lesser extent the UAE players, 2004 represented his best chance of winning this prestigious title.

Pankaj Advani faltered at the last hurdle in his bid to hold both the World and Asian crowns. -- Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

A success at Aqaba by either Alok or Yasin Merchant also had other attractive, indeed vital, spin-offs for India inasmuch as the winner was guaranteed a place in the IBSF World Championship in November. With Pankaj being given a direct entry as the defending champion and the Asian winner guaranteed a slot, this meant that the restriction of two players from each country to the world championship, could well increase to four, a huge privilege. This in turn could spell just the lucky break for some young player on the fringes of recognition.

Each succeeding match in the tournament saw Alok respond like a wilted flower being watered. Thanks to his 9-ball pool odyssey, the rust was much in evidence in his first match against Omar Koga, but he pressed the recall button to register a 4-1 win. Now more in the groove, he turned on the heat against the hapless Nayef Abdulafu of the host country, a brilliant 117 clearance being the centrepiece of his 4-0 victory, and held the dangerous looking Chi-Wei Ku (Chinese Taipei) firmly in check with a 4-1 victory. B. Batsukh (Mongolia) his last opponent in the league, managed to take two frames off the bespectacled Indian chiefly because of a stunning if unexpected, 84 clearance, but the final result was never in doubt.

Record improved

Alok was a trifle apprehensive when he drew Issara Kachaiwong, the Thai No. 2 in the last 16 of the knockout phase. "I have beaten a Thai only once before" he gloomily said to me the night before the match. But he improved that record by resolutely sticking to the game plan, which was to keep the restless Thai off the table as much as possible. It worked like a charm. Issara's 1-4 rout was achieved with an amalgam of fierce concentration and determination and one almost felt sorry for the hapless Thai as he groped in vain to find an answer to the incisive questions posed by his opponent. In the quarters, he streaked past Alex Puan (Singapore) 5-2 before taking on Habib Subah Mohammed (Bahrain). The latter was on a roll after thrashing Yasin Merchant 5-2 in the previous round, but against Alok he succumbed 0-5, a shell-shocked victim of the Indian's brand of "considered snooker" a phrase made famous by Steve Davis. "He thinks a lot on every shot," the bemused Arab wryly commented after it was all over.

Meanwhile the Indian contingent was over the moon when Pankaj, placed in the bottom half of the draw, reached the final after accounting for Ibrahim Aqel (Jordan) 4-0, Keith Boon Ee (Singapore) 5-3 and Kwok Wai Fung (Hong Kong) 5-2. India vs. Pakistan in Sharjah has its own attractions, but India vs. India in Aqaba was almost too good to be true!

With Alok determined to notch up his first international success and Pankaj anxious to be the first player ever to hold both the world and Asian titles simultaneously, the final was of fundamental importance to both. Many felt that younger man, certainly by far the more fluent of the two, was the marginal favourite in the best-of-eleven-frames contest. For that to happen of course, Pankaj had to be able to switch off whenever Alok decided to drop anchor, which was going to be often. While I was confident that Pankaj could hold his own against anyone else in the field, I had niggling doubts if he was sufficiently prepared to absorb the punishment meted out by the Ku<147,3,1>mar grinding machine.

The record reveals that Pankaj was severely tried and found wanting in the patience department and Alok, unerringly zeroing in on the chink in the world champion's armour, emerged a 6-2 winner. It was a triumph of a flinty resolve to win at all costs, over youthful exuberance and flair. The new champion is a walking example of the quote made famous by American football coach Vince Lombardi: "Winning is not everything, it is the only thing". Alok is prepared to trade blows all night if need be and to add to his inexhaustible supply of endurance is the fact that long bouts of nothingness on the table in no way affect his instant ability to cash in on mistakes made by a weary opponent. He does not play necessarily to entertain, though he can and does do that sometimes: he plays to win, and if in the process the game as a spectacle suffers, well, so be it.

Yasin Merchant, a former Asian champion, had a good run till the quarterfinal and also recorded one of the three century breaks of the tournament. -- Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

The first two frames, split by the rivals, were the only ones that bore the stamp of class. After that, there were no flashes of the brilliance one is entitled to expect at this level. Pankaj's frustration as his stony faced opponent picked his way through one ball here and a couple of balls there, was plain to see and when the first session ended with Alok 3-1 in the lead, the Bangalore lad was just short of calling it a day.

Initial lead

The opening frame of the final session virtually decided the match. Unmindful of the spectators, Alok promptly dropped anchor, crawling to an initial lead that wended its tired way in stages to 22-2, 26-2, 27-2, 27-4, 27-6 and 27-12. Somewhere in between, Pankaj had one opportunity but by then his natural fluency and rhythm had been shattered and his contribution terminated at 15. A colours clearance by Alok finally brought the frame to an end after 53 numbing minutes. Down 2-5, Pankaj's self-respect flickered briefly into life as he fluently won the eighth, but it was a case of far too little, far too late.

For the third Indian Yasin Merchant, the signs all pointed to a realistic shot at the title. He had briefly come to terms with the conflicting demands of his family business and the game, and was in fine touch. His performance in the league, which he won without dropping a frame, led to his being re-seeded number one. The downside was that he was projected to meet Alok in the semi-finals, great from the country's standpoint, as it meant that at least one Indian would be in the final, but not so good for the players concerned. In the event, he failed to keep his tryst with destiny, and the only crumb of comfort he derived from his 2-5 quarterfinal loss to Habib Subah Mohammed was a wonderfully fluent 115 clearance to stay in the match at 2-3. Unfortunately, even a 147 break wins you only one frame and hopes that he could somehow claw his way back were belied when a series of errors allowed Habib to seal the match with two frames on the trot.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the failure of pre-tournament favourite Supoj Saenla and Issara Kachaiwong to progress beyond the last 16. Supoj, the Thai No. 1, lost 1-4 in the pre-quarterfinal to Alex Puan, a jaunty Singapore flight attendant who practises only to the extent his job allows, while Issara, as mentioned earlier, bowed out to Alok Kumar. It marked the first time that Thailand finished so low and I am sure they will have to face awkward questions from the Thai officials, who pull out all the stops to help their players.

Chinese absent

The event was significantly impoverished by the absence of the lethal Chinese players. Their best player, the teenaged Ding Jun Hui, is now making waves in the pro ranks, but China has a phalanx of players any one of whom could have been a serious contender. Security was cited as the official reason, but behind-the-hand-whispers suggest that there is an internal rift in the country, with the man who has brought up the likes of Ding, Jin Long and Liang Wenbo being sidelined for reasons that are unclear. The UAE players abstained from the event as a protest against their Association's supposed failure to promote the game in the region. This was a crying shame, as players of their proven ability would have added substance and colour to the tournament. But the inclusion of 13-year-old Amir Sarkhosh of Iran was a first in the event, the lad's innocent choirboy looks lulling one into a false sense of security till he slammed in long pots or screwed the cue ball viciously across the table. Though he lost 4-0 to Pankaj, two of the frames went to the black ball. And he had a 4-1 win too, albeit against minnow Le Trong Ngoc (Vietnam).

The overall standard of play was lower than in the past, with only three century breaks recorded. Alok's 117 clearance won the high break prize, Yasin's 115 clearance was next best while Keith Boon Ee (Singapore) had a 108 clearance. The playing conditions were superb, though snooker etiquette is virtually unknown in Jordan. The players never realised the size of the population and the number of cell-phones in the country till they put cue to ball, at which point spectators tended to burst into animated conversation on their phones or stroll across the line of aim. If Jordan wants to get the world championship, which they are aiming for, crowd behaviour and the standard of their referees will have to be improved pronto!