Ashok Shandilya's perseverance pays

KIRTI PATIL

A WORLD champion, an Asian Games double gold medallist, an unpredictable but in-form snooker titlist, and a host of former champions. This starcast field on view at the 68th National billiards championship at the Sports Club of Gujarat offered an ideal ending to a 28-day cue sport fest in Ahmedabad.

Ashok Shandilya kisses the National billiards trophy.-PARAS SHAH

Ashok Shandilya, won the National title with a commanding performance. Yet, the expected electrifying finish was missed in the final.

Blame it on Geet Sethi, the World champion. He was the one who conquered the best of the globe's billiards talent. He was the one who did it seven times in his glorious career. Sethi was expected to be in the final. How can he lose to the 'upstarts'!

Had Geet been in the summit clash, the discerning audience would have heard a different music.

Well, he is a human too. And, to expect that he should win all the encounters, was a little too much to ask for. In fact, what he and his friends in the Gujarat State Billiards Association did in the neat organisation of the Nationals was something others could follow suit. His taking part in the tournament itself was an icing on the cake.

There was no denying about his ability to rule the three balls, the table and the fabric. He lost in the semifinals because his opponent, Alok Kumar, was on a roll, and Geet found his form a little too late.

But, before that match, Sethi was drawn into such an engrossing and draining contest that it took the breath off. In the encounter between Geet Sethi and Railways' Dhruv Sitwala, just four points separated them at the end of the three-hour-long duel.This was the classiest contest of the championship.

Sethi won 643-639 in one of the closest result ever witnessed. The scores swayed between the two players throughout the match, but 30 minutes from the final was when the real drama was enacted.

"He is the greatest no doubt. Only Geet can play the kind of shot he attempted during such a tense moment," Sitwala said of the heart-stopping moment - while minutes ticked away and balls in a non-scoring formation, Sethi did what others would not dare.

What do you do when the match enters the last minute? Moreover, when there was just an outside chance of scoring even as the opponent was just within striking distance?

You bust it with a canon. That's what the kings do. Sethi did just that.

Having lived dangerously throughout the match, a magical three-cushion canon from behind the baulk line silenced his critics. And, for Sitwala he became an enigma that one can only appreciate.

Never mind the result. The way Sitwala played it showed that for a long time to come Indians will remain a threat at the world level too. Sitwala is one of the few professionals who are regular on the international circuit and if his quarterfinal showing in the 2001 Christchruch World Championship was the high point, his best came out against Sethi.

Joining the breed of the endurance players, was Pankaj Advani of Karnataka. Advani is just 16 and he was the one who exerted the most. He was involved in four events - won two of them and did remarkably well in the seniors too.

Billiards is the craft Advani revels in. Unlike some of the seasoned cueists, he makes fast decisions and his ability to stay calm is an element of fancy. In the league stage, Advani warmed himself by notching up a break of 271, against S. Mumtaz Ali of Bihar, and that score remained the top break of the tournament.

Though Advani finished seventh after failing to get past Alok in the quarterfinals, he should take pride in having summarily beaten former World champion Manoj Kothari. In the final league match for the group positions, Advani was unstoppable and Kothari could not but, praise the emerging talent.

For some years now, Devendra Joshi and Ashok Shandilya have been ruling the billiards scene in India. After an one-off title win by Alok Kumar in the 1999 Delhi Nationals, the two have shared the next two titles.

This time around, Sethi's presence had changed the scenario. Sethi had been appearing in the Nationals after a gap of three years and he being the World champion, the Billiards and Snooker Federation of India (BSFI) seeded him number one. The draw hence threw down the prospect of a semifinal showdown between the defending champion Joshi and the four-time winner, Shandilya.

Joshi remained a contender by winning his group matches with ease, and pre-quarters and quarters without much effort. As did Shandilya. Nobody could ever come close to the level he played. Shandilya emerged as the top century maker. On his way to the fifth National title, Shandilya scored 18 century breaks. He was followed by Joshi (15), Sethi had 14 while Alok Kumar and Advani compiled eight each.

There was very little to choose between Shandilya and Joshi. The Railways pro raced ahead with four century breaks as against two by Joshi. His consistency carried him through to the final but, there was an intriguing story behind Joshi's caution.

In his earlier matches, irregular air-conditioning system had put him in trouble. "I got six or seven kicks," Joshi confided. The ball kicks when the halogen lights are strong and air-conditioning poor. "Twice I missed cross-losers, the simplest shots in billiards, due to kicks," Joshi said.

As for Alok Kumar, being in the final was a bonus. After winning the snooker title, he said: "I am not expected to win in billiards. But, nobody should write me off. I firmly believe that one has to be destined to win."

Alok's belief was almost prophetic. He remained to the task and topped his group with an all-win record. Alok defied the odds and dispatched billiards pro Nalin Patel, in the pre-quarters, stopped the brilliant run of Advani, in the quarters, and shocked one and all when he defeated Geet Sethi, in the semifinals.

With his win against Sethi, Alok yet again proved that he had the stuff to beat the best. His only other win against Sethi was in mid-nineties, in a two-hour-format match at the U.K. Open. Pitifully, the final flopped. While Alok was overawed with the prospect of achieving a double, Shandilya became slightly conscious about Alok's ability to cause an upset.

"We both were under tremendous pressure. That was reflected in the way we played. I had become unnecessarily conscious that Alok had beaten Geet," Shandilya said.

An early lead of 300 points for Shandilya proved much more than a cushion. The kind of form Alok was in, he could have made a match of it. But, at last Alok lost his only match, in three weeks.

For Shandilya, the strategist-par-excellence, winning the title was his way of telling the administrators of the game that he was ready to defend his Asian Games title. Whether Sethi will allow him to do that, in Pusan, only time will tell.

The results:

Final: Ashok Shandilya (Rly) bt Alok Kumar (Pun) 1149-899.

Third place: Devendra Joshi (Mah) bt Geet Sethi (Guj) 735-698.

Semifinals: Alok bt Sethi 1060-1020; Shandilya bt Joshi 1348-1034.

For 5-8 positions: Dhruv Sitwala (Rly) bt Pankaj Advani (Kar) 279-244; Rafat Habib (Rly) bt Mukesh Rehani (Del) 313-210; Sitwala bt Habib 299-263; Advani bt Rehani 403-299.

Quarterfinals: Sethi bt Sitwala 643-639; Alok bt Advani 887-738; Shandilya bt Rehani 1385-542; Joshi bt Habib 1071-749.

Final placings: 1.Shandilya; 2. Alok; 3. Joshi; 4. Sethi; 5. Sitwala; 6. Habib; 7. Advani; 8. Rehani.

Highest break: Pankaj Advani 271.