From famine to plenty

AT one time, it was the proud boast of Mumbai that there was a billiards or snooker tournament running in the city for twelve months of the year.


AT one time, it was the proud boast of Mumbai that there was a billiards or snooker tournament running in the city for twelve months of the year. There were also a number of attractive tournaments in other States, making year-round practice not only a pleasure but a necessity. Unfortunately, the economic downturn over the past couple of years combined with most prospective sponsors pouring their resources into one sport, led to an alarming reduction of the number of events available for the players to display their skills and to use as vital preparation for major international championships.

Ashok Shandilya has a good track record in billiards and has been an Asian champion. — Pic. PARAS SHAH-

As national coach, it was my mortifying experience to hear players say, "Why should we work hard when there is not much to play for?" whenever I called up to ask how things were going. This is understandable, as in this day and age it is unrealistic to expect players in any sport to adopt the "pure" approach, in other words, to play the game for the sheer love of it, as was the case in the years gone by. Players sacrifice the best years of their life in perfecting their skills, years in which they could have prepared themselves for a career outside of sports, and are entitled to expect a reasonable reward for their efforts.

The good news is that the worst seems over and we seem to have moved from famine to plenty. After the Nationals in January, we had a selection tournament for the Asian Billiards and Snooker championships in March, two keenly contested affairs with a fair amount of prize money. In the billiards event, with Ashok Shandilya being the defending Asian champion, there were two other spots available for India, and these were grabbed by Devendra Joshi and Bhalachandra Bhaskar. Joshi went on to win the Asian title and notch up his first international success. Unfortunately, the SARS scare led to the cancellation of the Asian Snooker Championship, which was to have been held in Kolkata, and deprived newly-crowned national champion Pankaj Advani and Yasin Merchant from strutting their stuff before the home crowds and possibly bringing India a third Asian snooker championship.

The magnificent all-India NSCI Invitation Snooker Championship took place in Mumbai soon after with an unprecedented prize fund of over Rs. 5 lakhs, (inclusive of Rs. 7,500 guarantee to each player in the 32-man field) plus free accommodation for visiting players. The All-India Invitation Snooker and Pool Championship in Jalandhar was next in line, with prize money of over Rs. 2 lakhs and free accommodation. Snooker fanatic Ravindra Gupta of S. Chand and Company added a fourth hugely successful tournament to the ones he held in consecutive years from 2000, pouring in prize money of Rs. 3.8 lakhs and a special high break prize of Rs. 51,000, spontaneously announced when Yasin Merchant uncorked the event's highest effort of 139. In a generous gesture, Gupta also announced a donation of Rs. 51,000 to ailing former world billiards champion Wilson Jones.

As I write this, the CCI is on the verge of kicking off a championship for men and women with prize money of Rs. 2 lakhs for each event (no gender discrimination here!). Three lady professionals (including current world champion and world number one Kelly Fisher and world number two Wendy Jans) will be in the fray. An interesting innovation will see the finalists in the women's event competing against the men, and, given the skill of Fisher (I have not seen Jans as yet, but I am sure she is pretty good) there could be some sweaty masculine palms on the CCI tables in the near future!

All these tournaments add up to approximately Rs. 13.75 lakhs in prize money over the last five and a half months, which, any way you slice it, is pretty good going. The story of 2003 does not end here as the Hindu Gymkhana and Khar Gymkhana billiards and snooker tournaments will be held in September and October, followed by what promises to be the mother of all world billiards championships in Hyderabad in November. The winner of the last-mentioned tournament, in addition to the prize money which is yet to be decided, could end up with a bonus which could extend to Rs. 20 lakhs from the Government. It is now for the players to come up with performances commensurate with what is at stake, especially in snooker, where the overall standard does not exactly set the Ganges on fire.