Destiny, his cue ball

Pankaj Advani is not all about billiards and snooker. He has a special interest in break-dancing and folk-style western dance, and tells Karthik Krishnaswamy that he intends to plunge headlong into them one day.

There are no points for style in billiards and snooker. Effortless ease, however, can eat into an opponent’s psyche, and make a point deficit seem far greater.

It isn’t just Pankaj Advani’s precocious collection of world titles that makes his adversaries feel inadequate, but also his unearthly poise at the table. Where concentration contorts other faces, it merely intensifies the glow of the two dark spots beneath his pronounced eyebrows, the rest of his face inscrutable. Left wrist pliant, his hand settles softly on the baize and fingers melt, like an Odissi dancer switching between mudras, into a groove for the cue to slide over and roll a ball apologetically into a pocket; he hardly ever thumps the ‘jaws’. Leaning over the table for mechanical-bridge-aided shots, his counterbalancing left leg rises behind him as if executing the arabesque position of classical ballet.

Pankaj Advani validates such dance metaphors; away from the table, he’s into break-dancing and folk-style western dance, and says that he intends to plunge headlong into them one day.

“I want to take it up seriously when I get time off the game. I don’t have the time now, but definitely, I want to do something with my talent, because I believe a lot of us have got so many different talents, and we need to make use of whatever little gifts we get from someone above,” said the recently-crowned IBSF World Billiards Champion, while in Chennai for two back-to-back snooker events: a qualifying tournament for the World Championships, to be held in Austria from late October, and the ASCA invitation tournament. Needless to say, he didn’t lose a game on way to wrapping up both. Excerpts from an interview:

Question: Over the last month or so, you’ve played both formats of the billiards world championship, and then the snooker world championship qualifiers, and now this (the ASCA tournament). How tiring has it all been?

Answer: It’s been extremely tiring. Especially when you’re doing well, you’re on a winning streak, there are so many things to do. After the (billiards) world championships, there were so many events, so many appearances; everyone wants a piece of you. It does become a bit tiring at the end of the day. But I’m happy playing the game. I’m enjoying it at the moment…

You say you’re enjoying the game, but do you see, somewhere down the line, a phase where you might have to slow down a bit?

In fact, as soon as this tournament gets over, I’m taking a big break; I don’t want to see the billiards table for 2-3 weeks. I prepare for the world snooker championships after that. That’s in late October, so I can afford to take some time off the game. But I just feel that it’s a good sign there are so many tournaments being held in the country. Before, players used to say that there aren’t many opportunities for them to showcase their talent, people don’t stay in touch with the game. But now I feel that it’s a very good scenario we have.

You’ve spoken in the past of using visualisation techniques to help you with the mental side of the game. Could you describe the process you go through?

Well, basically I do it before my match, (for) about half an hour, 45 minutes. It’s not a conscious effort, it’s not something that I have to do before a match, or I won’t do well, but it’s just… certain pictures are formed in my mind, of me playing well, the table I’m playing on, what I’m wearing, the way I’m cueing, my action, the kind of breaks I’m making — all those things.

And during the game, your mind stays as blank as possible?

I try to keep it as blank as possible, although a thousand thoughts go through your mind when you’re playing… Sometimes, it can be a very silly thought; you know, when you’re playing a game you may be thinking, ‘what will I have for dinner later on, where will I be going out, or what will I be doing after the match…’ But as a result of playing over the years and playing so many events, your mind gets tuned to playing matches and being patient.

And when you’re subconsciously thinking of dinner, you try not to consciously shut that out?

‘After the (billiards) world championships, there were so many events, so many appearances; everyone wants a piece of you. It does become a bit tiring at the end of the day’.-S. R. RAGHUNATHAN

Absolutely not. If you try and shut out thoughts, I feel more silly thoughts will come into your mind; as a result your concentration will be disturbed. We think so many thoughts in a day, maybe ten-thousand thoughts in a day, but they just come and go. So I just treat these thoughts as short term visitors who come to my mind and go back.

Do you believe in destiny? You began playing the game after accompanying your brother to a snooker parlour. After that, the KSBA (Karnataka State Billiards Association) offered you excellent facilities, very reasonable membership, and so on. And then your coach, Arvind Savur…

My coach Arvind Savur, the school that I studied in, Frank Anthony Public School, the college that I studied in later on, Mahaveer Jain College, everything was just perfect, everything just fell into place. I’m sure that it has got something to do with destiny. The fact that in most tournaments, there have always been tense moments, there have been times when I’ve been down in a match, almost down and out, on the brink of defeat, and then suddenly something happens, maybe a stroke of luck, or some inspiration, and I’m back into the game, and I finally snatch victory from there. So I’m a firm believer in destiny.

You spoke about strokes of luck in big tournaments. Could you give an example?

The classic example was when I won my first world snooker championship, in China in 2003. I was obviously not expected to win because it was my debut. This was in the round of 32, when I was down 4-1 and it was a best of nine, so had I lost one more frame I would have been knocked out. I was almost losing 5-1, when my opponent snooked me, so I had no way out. I just hit the ball hard; luckily it made contact, off one cushion, and I got the red into the corner pocket by fluke. From there I cleared; I made a 33 or 34 to win the frame. From there I won 5-4, and then I went on to win the world championships. So after that I totally believed in destiny. But I also believe you’re in control of your actions, but the result is not in your hands.

You said in a Sportstar interview in 2005, that India is getting out of its one-sport culture, when asked about corporates lining up Sania Mirza and Narain Karthikeyan for endorsements. But don’t you think it helps that their sports, tennis and Formula One, have a large TV audience?

Correct.

And where does that put billiards and snooker?

‘I’d love to win a gold for the country, there’s no doubt about that. But I also feel that, while the Olympics is the biggest sporting extravaganza on earth, undue importance is being given to it.’-K. MURALI KUMAR

I definitely feel that television coverage can improve for the sport. I know many people say that it gets boring at times, it becomes long. But if you see the latest forms of the game — which I hope will be official soon — for example: in snooker, you have six-red snooker, which is played just over six reds, instead of 15 reds; it’s just like Twenty20 in cricket. In billiards you have the point format; instead of 150 points you can bring it down to 100, to make it really fast and exciting, and slick. So these things can be done to make the game faster, more television-friendly, and to attract more spectators.

The other big thing apart from the TV audience is an Olympic medal. Having seen the buzz created around Abhinav Bindra and Vijender Singh — their events aren’t TV sports — do you wish billiards and snooker become part of the Olympics?

Absolutely. I’d love to win a gold for the country, there’s no doubt about that. But I also feel that, while the Olympics is the biggest sporting extravaganza on earth, undue importance is being given to it. For example, when Abhinav Bindra was asked which one was tougher — the Olympics or the World Championship that he won — he said that the World Championship was more competitive… I think we have to slowly break out of this Olympic Movement, as we call it, and stop treating the Olympics as the only sporting event that we’re looking forward to. Let’s recognise achievers… let’s recognise World champions… let’s recognise Asian champions… and then automatically it will lead to the Olympic tally going higher. Why are we just thinking about the Olympics six months before it starts, and then just three months after it ends, these guys are hyped, made heroes, made stars, and after that I’m sure they’re forgotten. I think this whole perception needs to change.

Having said that, how different was winning the Asian Games gold compared to all the world championships?

See, it is definitely different, there’s a lot of emotion attached to your victory at the Asian Games or an Olympics. For example, I was extremely thrilled because I’d done something great for the country, I felt, at that time, when I won the gold medal at the Asian Games in 2006 in Doha. But, at the same time, when we’re playing the Asian championships or the World championships we’re representatives of the country. We’re obviously playing for ourselves, and we’re enjoying the game, but ultimately, it’s the country’s name that also is glorified. I just feel that every international tournament in which a sportsperson is representing his country should be given recognition, not just the Olympics, not just the Asian Games. And because there’s so much pressure faced by athletes in the Olympics, they feel that, if they don’t do well here, then they won’t be considered performers. I don’t think that should be the case.