Manan Chandra regains confidence

WITH a spate of events offering unprecedented amounts of prize money erupting after the National championship held in January, the snooker fraternity has not had it so good for a long time.

MICHAEL FERREIRA

Kelly Fisher and Manan Chandra, the winners of the CCI invitation snooker tournament. — Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

WITH a spate of events offering unprecedented amounts of prize money erupting after the National championship held in January, the snooker fraternity has not had it so good for a long time. The recently-concluded CCI Men's and Ladies Invitation Snooker Tournament provided yet another opportunity for them to showcase their skills. Equally important, it gave national champion Pankaj Advani and India number 2 Yasin Merchant, the chance to get further invaluable match practice before the trip to the World Snooker Championship to be held in China in October.

This year, the CCI event had an interesting twist in that the idea of holding a "convergence" tournament, in which the best women players in the world would compete against the best men in the country, found concrete expression. Accordingly, separate tournaments were held for men and women, with the winner and runner-up of the women's event getting a place in the main draw of the men's event.

The 24-man draw included the top names in Indian snooker, and even seven times world billiards champion Geet Sethi, now playing snooker mainly from memory, was persuaded to take part. One noticeable absentee was the doughty Alok Kumar, winner of the prestigious S. Chand Invitation Tournament in July and the third member of the Indian team to the World Championship, who was unable to play for personal reasons.

The tournament was won by the 22-year old Manan Chandra, who beat surprise finalist Rupesh Shah 6-3 in a final that really never touched great heights. But in a superb quarter-final, Manan had the satisfaction of inflicting a 5-4 defeat on Yasin Merchant after a three-frame burst catapulted him from a 2-4 deficit to a famous victory. The satisfaction must have been all the more sweet as Yasin, a two-time former Asian champion, had pipped him at the post in the selection tournament for choosing the team to the world championship. Manan followed up that performance by beating Pankaj 5-3 in the semi-final. That win was also significant, as the diminutive national champion has proved something of a bugbear for Manan in the recent past. Though he has missed out on this year's world championship, the capture of a major title after a long time should do a world of good for the Delhi lad's confidence, something that has deserted him for far too long.

For the very talented Pankaj Advani, the tournament provided yet another opportunity for sober reflection. He was on a high after winning, in quick succession, the Nationals and the Hyderabad selection event for the Asian Championship (he beat Yasin Merchant convincingly in the final of both tournaments). It would be unrealistic — indeed foolish — to expect him, or any other player for that matter, to win every tournament he plays in. However, with his proven maturity and enviable temperament, I believe he has reached the stage when one is mildly surprised if he does not make it to the last stages of most tournaments in the country.

True, he was in the final of the S. Chand tournament and reached the semi-final in the CCI. But he came a cropper in the Jalandhar and NSCI events much earlier than expected. At the international level, he lost in the quarter-final of the Under 21 World Championship, one stage earlier than last year, though it has to be said that his opponent Neil Robertson played a blinder against him and went on to win the title. On the brighter side, Pankaj's break-building (118, 88, 75 and several over the 60 mark) was of a high order and though Dharminder Lilly was the surprise winner of the high break prize with an effort of 124, only Yasin Merchant (105, 63 and five over 50), came close to matching the youthful national champion. Pankaj is one of the most responsible and committed players in India and I have no doubt that he would storm back to the world championship with all guns ready to blaze.

For Yasin Merchant, now approaching the veteran status, the tournament was a crushing disappointment. Fizzing like uncorked champagne after qualifying for the world championship, he went through his league matches like a hot knife through butter, raising hopes that he was on track to resume his winning ways. In the quarter-final, he was cruising against Manan after superb runs of 69, 58, 38 and 56 propelled him to a 4-2 lead. Needing only one more frame to secure his semi-final place, he lost the seventh on the black and then to the astonishment of all present, surrendered the eighth in a fit of disgust when he missed an easy red. Needing no second invitation, Manan took full advantage of his opponent's loss of self-control to wrap up the ninth and the match.

It is not the first time that frustration has got the better of Yasin. His problem is that he expects to perform at the same level as when he was in the top 64 in the pro circuit 10 years ago. The fact of the matter is that he is no longer working half as hard or offering the same commitment to the game as he did in his professional career. Unless he restores the work ethic and tunnel vision of old, he will continue to be subject to soul-destroying bouts of inconsistency. He has it in him to regain the reputation of being the best player in India. He knows it, I as his coach know it, but at the end of the day, only he can do anything about it.

Coming back to the distaff side, five times consecutive winner of the Ladies World Professional Championship Kelly Fisher was several cuts above the opposition. Breaks of 90, 72, 50 44 and 41 in the course of the women's championship were some evidence of her class. She steamrollered over former national champion Anuja Thakur 4-0 in the final, although the latter's sister Meenal deserves full praise for ousting Wendy Jans, the world number two from Belgium, in the quarterfinal before being beaten by Anuja. Jans had a break of 50 while the best by an Indian was a 39 by Anuja, who also had several over the 30 mark. Unfortunately, neither Kelly nor Anuja could progress in the men's event, falling to Dharminder Lilly and Devendra Joshi respectively.

From my perspective, the greatest cause for concern is the obvious decline in the overall standard of the game.

The brutal truth is that most of the players are just not putting in the required work. With the number of tournaments registering a dramatic increase in recent months, there is now no excuse for goofing off. From the larger perspective, it is hugely disappointing that Ashok Shandilya, who cheerfully admits to being a part-time snooker player who does not practice at the best of times, should have won the Jalandhar event and reached the semifinal of the CCI.

Sethi of course has impeccable billiards credentials and was a formidable snooker player, but that was more than several years ago. That he should have won all his league matches without dropping a frame in a group that included former national champion Devendra Joshi and the up-and-coming Siddharth Parekh speaks for itself.

I sincerely believe that it is time for most of the players to take stock of the situation and pull up their socks. Only then can we hope to emulate the late O. B. Agrawal who won India's first and only world championship.