An incredible ODYSSEY

This remarkable performance is the start of many good things for Pankaj Advani.

MICHAEL FERREIRA

THE 2003 China Mobile IBSF World snooker championship proved to be an incredible odyssey for 18-year-old National champion Pankaj Advani. As coach of the three-man Indian team, I said that between them a semi-final place was eminently achievable and anything beyond that would be a huge bonus. I little dreamed that young Punks, as I affectionately call him, was about to present the nation with a Diwali bonus beyond our wildest expectations. The teenager made it a real festival of lights by comprehensively beating Pakistan's Saleh Mohammed 11-6 in the final with a display highlighted by water-tight safety play, great heart and an inflexible will to win. That this was achieved in his very first appearance in the senior version of the world championship makes the feat even more noteworthy.

Pankaj Advani poses with the trophy along with Indian coach Michael Ferreira on his arrival in Mumbai from Jiangmen, China. — Pic. PTI-

Pankaj was placed in a tough group featuring such players as former Asian runner-up Jin Long, a very real contender for the title, Mario Wehrmann (Netherlands), Declan Lavery (N. Ireland), Martin McCrudden (Rep. of Ireland) and the vastly improved Mohammed Shehab (UAE).

However, with the confidence he gained after his superb show in the Nationals and the Indian qualifying events held earlier in the year and his three-week stint in England where he had the advantage of practising against some of the best professionals in the world, I expected him to qualify with a degree of comfort. At the same time, I felt that it would be difficult for him, or any player for that matter, to keep a clean slate over the hard grind of a 10-match league. Ironically, both Phaithoon Phonbun (Thailand) and Saleh Mohammed, the only players to win all their group matches, were thrashed by Pankaj in the quarters and final respectively.

I was concerned that he had an early morning opening match after a particularly exhausting journey that left all of us a trifle bleary-eyed, but he found his touch immediately to dispatch the dangerous Marion Wehrmann (Netherlands) 4-0 with an 83 clearance in the final frame. It was a great start to his campaign. A 4-0 defeat of Dorjbat Bekhbat (Mongolia) provided useful practice for the stern test against Jin Long. The Chinese number one, who had also been in England, practising with Pankaj and Yasin, was in lethal form, but Pankaj clinically took him apart with runs of 72, 90 and 60 for a sensational 4-1 victory.

Pankaj continued the good work against Mohammed Shehab with a first frame effort of 60 and was on course to make it 2-0 when he led 65-43 on the green with his opponent's cue-ball tight on the cushion. But in a display of exemplary cueing, the UAE champion consumed the colours to snatch the frame 68-63 and followed up by capturing the next three for a well-deserved 4-1 victory. Pankaj recovered from this setback with 4-0 wins against Leon Kuok Kei and Martin McCrudden and was expected to breeze through South African Hitesh Naran before meeting Declan Lavery, his last significant opponent in the group. But the glorious uncertainty of sport saw Naran play out of his skin to post a massive 4-3 upset. As a result, the match against Lavery, which was supposed merely to determine the group placings suddenly changed to a nerve-tingling fight for survival. The crisis, however, brought out the best in the Indian youngster, whose exceptional safety play and crisp potting saw the bemused Irishman plummet to a 0-4 defeat. With three easy encounters against Sri Lanka, Fiji and France left, Pankaj was assured of qualifying as the number three in the group, behind Jin and Shehab.

The last-32 draw pitched Pankaj against 20-year-old Mei Xiwen, the Chinese player, who sprang out of nowhere to record a 141, the highest of the championship and three other centuries in the league. Things looked decidedly bleak when, at 1-1, Mei unleashed a 66 clearance and 103 en route to a 4-1 lead. A quick pep-talk later, Pankaj squeaked through the sixth on the black and then, eliminating his unforced errors, won three in a row for a last gasp 5-4 win. The victory was an indication of his qualities of heart and mind.

I expected the pre-quarterfinal match against Elfred Evans to be much easier but the genial Welshman did an Advani with some brilliant safety play to move 3-0 ahead. Somehow Pankaj hauled himself to 3-3, only for Evans to stand on the brink of victory after winning the seventh 102-0. My own knuckles were turning white under the strain, but it was important not only to mask my anxiety but also make Pankaj remember the magic formula of jettisoning thoughts of the past and apprehensions of the future and living only in the present. The formula worked as he sped through the next two frames to set up a quarter-final shootout against Phaithoon Phonbun. Like Pankaj, the Thai had displayed nerves of steel after recording a 5-4 win from 0-4 down against Englishman Jamie O'Neill.

Phaithoon's performance in the league prompted Yasin Merchant to classify him as the dark horse of the tournament. Watched keenly by Thailand's snooker boss Sindhu Pulsirivong, Pankaj responded to his team-mate's assessment by weighing in with an 83 in the first frame and taking five of the next seven for a stunning 6-2 victory. The first part of the Indian mission was now accomplished. Could the Indian national champion keep the momentum going against group topper Brendan O'Donoghue (Ireland) in the semi-final?

The players from Great Britain are accustomed to their opponents going for everything and tend to grope for the right answers when someone intersperses aggression with tight safety play. Against O'Donoghue, this judicious mix saw Pankaj build up a 4-2 lead, but a black ball win in the seventh saw the Irishman contain his deficit to a manageable 3-4 at the end of the first session. Realising that it was important for him to establish an early dominance in the final session, Pankaj kept things really tight, winning the eighth 68-1 and the ninth on the black to move 6-3 ahead. Trying to find solace in staring at his fingernails as Pankaj relentlessly kept tying him up in knots, it came as no surprise when the Indian took frames 10 and 11 for an 8-3 win. For me as coach, it was a source of great satisfaction to realise that after 19 long years, India was once again in the final. But the fairy tale ending was yet to come.

With Saleh securing his place in the final at the expense of N. Ireland's Mark Allen, it was time for another classic India vs. Pakistan encounter ("Sharjah in China" as I told our Pakistani friends). They were as jubilant as we were and said that for them the tension of the championship was now over. Strangely, we felt exactly the same. Politicians could learn from the way the Indian and Pakistani contingents took genuine pleasure in the success of both players.

Pankaj's extraordinary will to win were demonstrated in his back-to-the-wall victories over Xiwen and Evans. His efficient dismissal of the challenges from Phaithoon and O'Donoghue gave further proof that steely determination was not his only asset. Could the veteran Saleh, who was playing his best snooker in a long time, bring the young man's dream run to an abrupt end? Saleh was quietly confident he could do it; the Chinese crowd though very much in Pankaj's favour, might not have found his confidence misplaced; the English coach of the Qatar team, who had arrogantly predicted an all-Irish final, would most certainly have concurred. But Punks had other ideas.

Saleh started the best-of-21-frames final by consuming the first two frames but this initial burst did not affect the Indian champion's composure. Resorting to the water-tight safety that had stood him in good stead in the earlier rounds, he frustrated his impatient foe to such an extent that he was able to wipe out the lead and surge 5-3 ahead. The talented Pathan's temperament has been suspect over the years, but he showed unusual character by rifling in an 83 in the ninth and a series of small efforts in the 10th to finish the session all square at 5-5.

Sticking to his game plan, Pankaj took the opening two frames of the final session to lead 7-5, but a disastrous missed pink cost him the 13th. At 7-6, Saleh was back in the match but Pankaj was ready and waiting. Latching on to a long red after Saleh's opening shot, he smacked it into the green pocket, dropped perfectly on the black and proceeded to carve out a terrific 135 clearance. The diminutive Indian kept up the pressure by winning the next frame to move 9-6 ahead. Pankaj's finest moment came when Saleh desperately hung in there with a 67-0 lead in the 16th. With six reds remaining, he calmly strung together a magnificent 70 clearance to snatch the frame from Saleh's despairing grasp. Unsurprisingly, the 17th was a mere formality — after the 135 and the killer 70 clearance it could not have been otherwise.

This remarkable performance is the start of many good things for Pankaj Advani. But the young man must realise that what he has done carries in its wake enormous responsibility on and off the table. He is a well-brought up lad and is savvy enough to absorb the good he sees from all those who have helped him thus far and to ruthlessly reject the bad. I hope for his sake that the former outweighs the latter.