Now, pressure cooker, snooker!

K. MURALI KUMAR

“The reason why I opted for professional snooker was because I was getting a little bored. The boredom was not about achieving, but I was getting bored of doing the same thing over and over again,” Pankaj Advani tells Amitabha Das Sharma in this interview.

Pankaj Advani, the eight-time World billiards and snooker champion, says he has decided to scale the heights of professional snooker. Having set many a record in a resplendent career, Advani told Sportstar about his future plans and also about how he plans to balance both the genres of the sport that he is so passionate about.

Question: Billiards and snooker require different approaches. Now that you have decided to pursue both at the highest level what changes are you contemplating in your methods?

Answer: I have always balanced billiards and snooker, but it is that I have not done them at the highest level. Only in the last year and a half have I realised that I can actually do it. Yes, it will take a lot out of me. There will be a lot of stress, anxiety, pressure, travelling, less of staying at home, but that’s what makes me happy. So, I am ready to deal with all those things.

I think the snooker circuit has helped me in terms of temperament. It has sort of made me more gracious in defeat and made me learn how to accept defeat and not moan about it. There are many life-lessons that I have learnt staying in England. These lessons are making me a better and stronger person, which eventually shows on the table.

How has the professional circuit been? Has it gone as per your expectations?

My rise has been pretty quick and that obviously convinces me that I have some potential. I am just looking to fulfil that potential in the UK. When I won the IBSF World (snooker) title in 2003 a lot of people thought that it would give me a direct entry into the professional circuit in England, but that did not happen. That was the only year they changed the rule, not because of me winning it, but as a policy.

And reflecting on it now I think it was destiny. I was destined to play billiards and it was then that I started honing my skills in the game and won a lot of titles. Though I continued playing snooker at the non-professional level, the focus was more on billiards. And now I have realised that I am bold and have taken the new challenge of playing snooker at the highest level.

You have won both billiards and snooker titles. Which one do you treasure the most?

IBSF Snooker has a special place in my heart as that was my first world title. I went to China (to play the tournament) as a teenager and as a virtual nobody. I just went there unannounced, quietly did my job, survived a few close matches and went into the final before I could realise it. I played the best snooker of my life in the final to win the title.

Aditya Mehta and Pankaj Advani... India's flag-bearers.-SANDEEP SAXENA

But the consistency with which I have won my billiards titles makes me very proud. It has also given me a lot of confidence as a person, not only on the table but off it as well. And it has given me the responsibility of being an ambassador of the game.

Who would you attribute your success to?

As a teenager I wanted to do well and make it big as I was very passionate about the sport. When you are passionate luck favours you and things fall into place. I met my coach Arvind Savur at an early age and that is the best thing that has happened to me as a player. He is the best coach I have ever had and he transformed my game in a matter of six months. I went to a school — Frank Anthony Public School — that was very supportive of my career as also Jain College where I did my graduation. My family has been very supportive, especially my mother (Kajal) and brother (Shree), and I really could not have asked more from them. I am grateful to such wonderful people in my life who take care of everything and allow me to just concentrate on my sport.

Did your success and Aditya Mehta’s in billiards and snooker prove that a lot can happen with individual merit and endeavour? Compared to China, India has little to offer in terms of facilities or financial support.

Yes, that tells a lot about our self-motivation and the fact that we have been able to put everything aside and not think about what people would say if we did not succeed in our venture. We have been able to shut ourselves from criticism that may have come from failure. We have shown that it is possible to beat all odds and do well in the fiercely competitive professional world.

Chinese players are picked at an early age and are taken sports schools, where they are given the best of facilities. The authorities there try to do everything to enhance their performance. In India we do not have such schools or academies. China has a well-structured system which leaves little chance of failure for their players. That’s why we see so many good players in cue sport coming from China. The government funding is very much there in China, which also helps the players participate in a lot of professional events. The game is widely followed in China and all the Chinese players are stars in their country.

You have won almost everything in cue sport and also earned the recognition for your efforts in terms of awards. What more is left for you to achieve?

Maybe, the best in professional snooker. The reason why I opted for professional snooker was because I was getting a little bored. The boredom was not about achieving, but I was getting bored of doing the same thing over and over again. I found that my game was getting a bit stagnant. Then I turned my focus on the pro circuit in England. I told myself, let me see what the fuss is about. People talk a lot about professional snooker and Aditya (Mehta) has been there for the last five or six years. I initially thought of coming back after a year but then I realised that I had done pretty well for myself in the first season. I never expected to reach the quarters and the semis and beat the great players in the circuit like (John) Higgins, Steve Davis, Jimmy White and Shaun Murphy among others. This convinced me about my potential and I am now looking to do my best there.

Will your success in professional snooker inspire the younger generation of players to dream big about the pro circuit?

For that you have to remain in UK and fulfil certain criteria to become a professional snooker player. We, as Indians, do not have as much success in snooker as we have had in billiards as the whole circuit is in England. Funding is very important for an Indian to do well in professional snooker. Aditya (Mehta) and I have some financial backup. ONGC is supporting me for the half of the season, and that is a decent amount. But looking at the other youngsters and the financial support that they may be getting, it appears very difficult for them to station themselves in England and do well in the circuit. That is why snooker remains untapped and it is a herculean task for the Indians and even the Asians to survive in the pro-circuit.

There has been some debate on the Bharat Ratna after Sachin Tendulkar’s name was announced. What is your take on that as a sportsperson who has attained the height of success and has won almost all the sports awards given by the Government of India?

It is great that they have given Sachin the Bharat Ratna, but I also feel that it should not end there. It should not be the first and the last Bharat Ratna given to an outstanding Indian sportsperson. As long as they consider giving the award to the elite athletes or the legends of sports in the country it is fine and acceptable. But if it stops at Sachin and they say, no more sportspersons, then that’s unfair. There are people like Viswanathan Anand, Leander Paes, Geet Sethi and Abhinav Bindra, who are all legends in their own disciplines and should be considered for the award. This also brings up the question as to on what basis you judge a sportsperson. If it is solely based on popularity then it will be only cricket. I think a clear guideline needs to be established, if you are judging sports you have to put stress on achievements, the victories and titles.

How have you planned 2014?

I would definitely like to play world billiards along with all snooker tournaments. I am not thinking too far ahead and want to finish the snooker season which ends in April next year and then take a call on whether I would continue for another season or two or come back to India and stay away from that. It is all very uncertain as of now. But billiards would definitely be in my scheme of things.