Lee Lagan gives no leeway to Geet Sethi

FOR someone who was rarely in focus throughout the championship till that momentous final in the 34th IBSF World billiards event, the 23-year-old Lee Lagan stunned the critics with a vintage display.

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Lee Lagan's mastery of the top table game was a revelation in the championship. -- Pic. H. SATISH-

FOR someone who was rarely in focus throughout the championship till that momentous final in the 34th IBSF World billiards event, the 23-year-old Lee Lagan stunned the critics with a vintage display to get the better of seven-time World champion and favourite, Geet Sethi, in a cliff-hanger of an encounter 65-151, 21-152, 150-16, 151-19, 150-142, 150-12, 149-150, 150-21, 77-150, 62-150, 150-32. The final had all the ingredients the billiards fans could have looked for.

By his own confession, Lee Lagan was under intense pressure in front of a crowd which was clearly longing for one of its greatest sporting sons to win the title. Yet, Lagan came up with a truly outstanding performance on the day when it mattered most. His mastery in the top table game was something of a revelation for the young enthusiasts could have learnt some finer aspects in the art of scoring when under pressure. Once he ensured that the desired ball control was there on top table, rarely did Lagan cross the baulkline, the Line of Control and kept pegging away with useful points to run up huge breaks to the disappointment of his opponent. A risk-free game with emphasis more on consistency and less on flamboyance saw Lagan surprise the capacity crowd. He remarked later: "Under pressure, if you are a good cueist, everything will take a backseat."

On the other hand, Geet Sethi had his moments of joy when he wrapped up the first two games with his usual touch of class displaying all the aspects of the sport and even playing his now-famous `screw-back' shots. Clearly, he was one of those very few in the fray not to confine to top of the table game alone to score points. No doubt, the start was truly perfect for the Indian maestro in pursuit of his ninth title. But, the 42-year-old had to pay a heavy price for a blunder on his second visit in the fifth frame with the score reading 137-0. He in fact lost the `strike' after missing the `red' and worse on his second visit too repeated the mistake and this time the red was in the centre. A chance which was truly pounced upon by his opponent who came up with a stunning unfinished break of 150. In the ultimate analysis that proved to be the turning point of the game. It gave the Englishman the chance to snatch the important, psychological 3-2 lead in the best of 11-game final at the break.

And, in the second session, it was pretty clear that it was Geet who was under pressure. For, he quickly seemed to have realised that he was up against a Lee Lagan, who was in no mood to give any leeway. More importantly, Geet's romance in potting the red often ended on a sour note. There were quite a few occasions when for some inexplicable reasons he faltered and often had the `red' in the `jaws'. A rare sight for a champion performer. Still, Geet did have a chance to bounce back in the seventh frame when Lee Lagan's game was equally erratic to start with. But to his delight, the Indian was not equal to the task. What compounded Geet's woes was Lee Lagan's ability to convert useful starts into really big breaks. Lee is a safe player, often defensive and does not believe in taking chances. And no wonder, Lee Lagan had also bagged the Wilson Jones Trophy for recording the highest number of century-breaks in the championship. Yet another indication that he is made of real champion's stuff.

The final game was a simple reflection of the gap between the two in the moment of reckoning in terms of temperament and ball control. With scores tied five-all, tension was palpable in the hall. Once Geet fumbled with another in-off, Lagan came up with a huge break to wrap up the game and the title for the first time. Truly history was made when a relatively new champion was born on the biggest stage in the world of billiards. "I was always confident of winning as I have been improving with every match here," Lee Lagan told newsmen after the title win.

Earlier in the semi-finals, Lee Lagan downed another former World champion Ashok Shandilya of India with yet another classy display for a 150-46, 59-151, 153-46, 90-151, 2-151, 151-86, 151-15, 10-150, 152-0 win. And, this was one of those contests where nothing, literally, separated the winner from the loser.

Geet Sethi wondering what went wrong with his game in the final in which he faltered for some inexplicable reasons. -- Pic. H. SATISH-

Just consider this. If Lee recorded breaks of unfinished ones of 87 in the first game, then another 114 in the third, 72 in the sixth, 84 and 65 in the eighth and the grand, unfinished 152 in the final game, Ashok was not far behind with breaks of 72, 86 in the second, 101 in the fourth, 122 in the fifth and 143 in the eighth game.

What made the ultimate difference was the inability of Ashok Shandilya to fire a cannon in the decisive ninth game on his first visit after the scores were tied eight-all. Not one to let go any scoring chance, Lagan came up with his now-trademark century break of 150. Never troubling Ashok even to get up from his seat but only watch in admiration. "Well, one lapse in concentration cost me the match. He is a great player," complimented the Indian. Lagan also reminded that he was aware of the fighting qualities of Ashok and that was the reason why he was very keen to capitalise on the chance given to him and happy that the game clicked as well as he could have hoped for. This defeat for Ashok was particularly disheartening as earlier he sailed past U Kuaw Oo of Myanmar 93-150, 150-46, 103-152, 118-151, 151-2, 151-72, 150-34 in the quarter-final after demolishing the `dark horse' David Causier of England with a methodical 150-84, 150-106, 150-77, 10-150, 150-109 in the pre-quarter-finals and most surprisingly without any century breaks while Causier recorded 106 in the second and 150 in the fourth games.

On the same evening, Geet scripted one of his fairy-tale comebacks in the championship to move into the final with a creditable win over Paul Bennet 151-75, 152-40, 150-13, 142-154, 47-151, 150-0, 150-75. Here again, Geet was not ruthless in his display. In fact, he was brilliant once and brittle sometimes. And, everytime when there was suspense all-round at the table whether he would progress to the next phase, this genial cueist came up with something special to the delight of his fans. Earlier, in the quarter-finals, Geet got past the second-seeded Praput Chaithanasakun of Thailand for a 150-56, 150-48, 150-120, 95-152, 66-152, 152-0 victory.

Paul Bennet, who had a good run to the semi-finals, found a tough opponent in Geet Sethi. -- Pic. H. SATISH-

There was disappointment for the Indian fans when newly-crowned World snooker champion, Pankaj Advani, tripped in the pre-quarter-final against Busan Asian Games silver medallist U Kuaw Oo of Mynamar as the latter scored a 152-113, 151-115, 81-152, 152-77, 37-150, 109-150, 152-135 win. Kuaw earlier had almost shocked Geet Sethi in the round-robin phase. This was a sad exit for the 18-year-old Pankaj Advani as he looked in real good form as was evident by his facile win against the fifth-seeded Nalin Patel in the league phase when he came back from a two-game deficit. The other shock for the hosts was the exit of 1995 World professional championship runner-up Devendra Joshi who lost to Lee Lagan in the pre-quarter-final.

Arguably, one of the notable wins of the championship came from the 1998 Asian Games bronze medallist Loon Hong Moh of Malaysia who shocked fourth-seed Dhruv Sitwala and India No.2 in the round-robin. He won 150-65, 151-67, 121-151, 151-68, 150-110.

The most notable feature of the championship, apart from the wonderful organisational skills of Capt. P.V.K. Mohan, tournament director and president of APBSA, was the unobtrusive manner in which Thawat Sujarithurakaran of Thailand, Hoon Mong Ho and Praput marched on even while the focus was on other big names.

So was the case of the dogged customer Robby Foldvari who to his credit had the longest game in the championship when he lost to Paul Bennet of England 152-98, 54-150, 0-150, 153-44, 141-143, 150-143 in the quarter-finals that lasted close to six hours.

Ashok Shandilya is unable to hide his disappointment after missing a scoring chance against Lee Lagan in the semi-finals. -- Pic. H. SATISH-

The Pakistanis Khurram Hussain Agha and Muhammed Yousuf too were there but failed to make any big impact except for generating the usual excitement of the sportspersons coming from across the border. Thus, it was a fitting finale to a championship which had five former World champions in the fray and yet threw someone totally new in Lee Lagan whose best-ever show was a quarter-final appearance in the 2000 edition. May be, quite aptly, the championship which was once dubbed as the British Empire championship was won by an Englishman when most of the experts predicted otherwise. And when he remarked after the epic win that he dedicates the victory to himself, he was only trying to give a true picture of a fighting individual in a sport, in which Geet Sethi feels only an individual's complete harmony of various aspects help him emerge champion on a given day.

The Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, N.Chandrababu Naidu and Major Industries Minister, K.Vidyadhara Rao gave away the prizes.

The results: Final: Lee Lagan (Eng) bt Geet Sethi (Ind) 65-151, 21-152, 150-16, 151-19, 150-142, 150-12, 149-150, 150-21, 77-150, 62-150, 150-32.

Semi-finals: Geet Sethi (Ind) bt Paul Bennet (Eng) 151-75, 152-40, 150-13, 142-154, 47-151, 150-0, 150-75; Lee Lagan (Eng) bt Ashok Shandilya (Ind) 150-46, 59-151, 153-46, 90-151, 2-151, 151-86, 151-15, 10-150, 152-0.