He changed the sombre mind-set

Pankaj Advani recounting his magnificent odyssey. -- Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

Having gained the first step towards a professional ranking, Pankaj Advani wants to test himself in the shark-infested waters of the pro circuit. It is to be seen whether he has what it takes to succeed in that hostile atmosphere, writes MICHAEL FERREIRA.

THE 2003 China Mobile IBSF World snooker championship proved to be a boost to Indian snooker to an extent that can scarcely be imagined. After O. B. Agrawal's pioneering effort in winning the IBSF World title in 1984, our players, despite being endowed with enough talent, were struggling to strike a telling blow at the international level, often failing to qualify for the knock-out phases of the Asian or the World championships. Yasin Merchant winning the Asian title in 2001 was the sole harbinger of hope in an otherwise depressing string of results in the 22-ball game.

In one fell swoop18-year-old Pankaj Arjan Advani changed the sombre mind-set of the snooker establishment with a stunning 11-6 defeat of Pakistan's Saleh Mohammed in the final of World championship in Jiangmen, China. It was an awesome debut for the lad from Bangalore who happens to be the second youngest player ever (after Ian Preece of Wales who won the 2000 title in Papua New Guinea) to wrap his arms around the handsome M. M. Begg trophy donated by the Billiards and Snooker Federation of India.

International opinion tends to classify Indian sportspersons as wimps, a humiliating tag that has annoyed me immensely for as many years as I can remember. Recounting some of the details of the youngster's magnificent odyssey and the way the golden fleece came back to India will go a long way towards dispelling that contemptuous assessment.

Pankaj was placed in a tough group featuring genuine contenders, Jin Long of China and Mohammed Shehab of the UAE. Playing someone like Long in his own back garden is akin to playing Test cricket against Australia in Australia. The 22-year-old Chinese was in lethal form, but Pankaj clinically took him apart for a sensational 4-1 victory. But he immediately received a couple of reality checks when Mohammed Shehab and the unheralded Hitesh Naran (South Africa) beat him. Glorious uncertainties of sport apart, the two losses meant that Pankaj's match against Declan Lavery (N. Ireland), which was supposed merely to determine the group placings, exploded into a nerve-tingling fight for survival. The crisis however, brought out the best in the Indian youngster, whose exceptional safety play was the highlight of a terrific 4-0 win.

Pankaj Advani showcased his talent in the World meet in China. — Pic. V. GANESAN-

In the last 32, Pankaj drew 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 Mei powered in a flurry of breaks to streak to 4-1, just one frame away from a sensational victory. But fate ruled otherwise as Pankaj fluked a red to win the sixth on the black with a nerveless 32 clearance, and then consumed the next three for a last gasp 5-4 win.

In the quarter-finals, Welshman Elfred Evans did an Advani by outwitting the Indian with superb safety play and, at 4-3, teetered on the brink of a huge upset. As in his match against Mei, Pankaj showed remarkable composure to win two on the trot and set up a quarter-final shoot-out against Phaithoon Phonbun, who had not lost a single match in the championship. The Thai's performance up to that point allied to the reputation that preceded him prompted Yasin Merchant to label him as the dark horse of the championship. Pankaj must not have heard the gloomy assessment of his team-mate because he carved the Thai into little pieces with a 6-2 victory and set up a semi-final encounter against the menacing Irishman Brendan O'Donoghue.

O'Donoghue was the latest in the long line of players from the British Isles who traditionally have been in the forefront for top honours at the World championship. But Pankaj astonished everyone, including the self-styled pundits from the UK, with an astonishingly easy 8-3 win to set up, in the context of the situation in the sub-continent, a fairy-tale final against Saleh. The young Indian's superb temperament and self-belief were showcased when the best-of 21- frame match was delicately poised at 7-6. A breathtaking clearance of 135 was the centrepiece of Pankaj's surge to 9-6, but his finest moment came when his desperate opponent led 67-0 in the sixteenth. With six reds remaining, Pankaj calmly strung together a magnificent 70 clearance to snatch the frame from Saleh's despairing grasp. The shattered Pakistani did not recover and not surprisingly the next, and final, frame was a mere formality

As IBSF World champion, Pankaj gained an entry into the Challenge Tour, the first step towards a professional ranking. He is now at the crossroads — having tasted blood in China, he understandably wants to test himself in the shark-infested waters of the professional circuit. A sober assessment of whether he has what it takes to succeed in that hostile atmosphere is now called for.

It must be borne in mind that the pro circuit is a whole new ball game. There have been IBSF World champions — Jimmy White, Darren Morgan, James Wattana, Ken Doherty, Ronnie O'Sullivan and Marco Fu among them — who succeeded in establishing themselves as top professionals. Four of the six are based in the UK, which gives them an immediate advantage in terms of costs, logistics and opportunities. Wattana and Fu, the former in particular, have received huge support from their national associations and from forward-thinking sponsors, so important in the every-man-for-himself-and-the-devil-take-the-hindmost professional environment. On the other hand, there are others like Noppadorn Noppachorn and Tai Pichit, both from Thailand, Steve Mifsud (Australia), Luke Simmonds (England) and Ian Preece (Wales), to name only a few, who have fallen by the wayside. Can Pankaj succeed where these have failed?

The positives are his will to win, composure under pressure, self-belief and safety play, which are all exceptional, plus a burning desire which itself can move mountains. On the other hand, logistics, the huge expense of playing and surviving on the Challenge Tour (the only way of getting into the Main Tour of the pro circuit) and long absences from home are daunting obstacles. A player like Ding Jun-hui, the teenaged sensation from China, is now based in England and is doing quite well because of that fact. By common consent, Ding is one of the best, if not THE best player to emerge from the Asian region. If I am constrained to say that he is doing only "quite well", I shudder to think of the fate of players who are not as extravagantly gifted and who are not prepared to make the same sacrifices that the Chinese lad has done.

One serious observation I have saved for the last. Pankaj, who will most probably read this piece, knows that I have his best interests at heart. He is a positive lad and I am sure that he will take constructive criticism positively. He has a technical fault which we have discussed that has to be ruthlessly eliminated if he is to reach the rarefied heights of, say, the top 32 ranked professionals. He has the unfortunate tendency of moving his head and part of his body on power shots, a defect that should have been addressed in his formative years but obviously was not. That will find him out under pressure as a professional when one mistake in a frame spells the loss of that frame if not the match. Thankfully he is working on it and I hope for his sake and India's that he can root it out of his system.

In sum, whether he can make it to the top of the professional ranks is a moot point. But I have no doubt in my mind that he has to take the plunge now and stick to it for at least three years to give himself a fair chance. Go for it young Punks and good luck to you! Pankaj's extraordinary will to win was 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.

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