Pankaj, the youngest champion

THERE could not have been a better finale than the Yasin Merchant-Pankaj Advani duel.

KIRTI PATIL

THERE could not have been a better finale than the Yasin Merchant-Pankaj Advani duel.

Pankaj Advani sparkled on way to the snooker crown. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

One was a tad lucky to witness such a high-calibre contest that the two produced. That the teenaged Pankaj Advani won the 69th Senior National snooker title was just an introduction to the future.

Even in defeat, Merchant wasn't a loser. The sport gained tremendously and the audience enjoyed what probably was one of the best finals ever seen.

Pankaj became the youngest Senior National snooker champion, at 17 years of age. More than that, there was another prized record for him. He became only the second player after Geet Sethi to win three National titles in a season.

The 1981 Madras Nationals witnessed Sethi cornering both the Junior National titles. A week later he added the senior billiards crown beating the then World Champion Michael Ferreira.

Yasin Merchant was gracious in defeat and complimented Advani wholeheartedly. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

Pankaj was in line for an unprecedented fourth, but he missed history by just two steps.

Countering a fiery Merchant with his delicate long pots, Pankaj was on the upswing. In a best-of-13-frame final, Merchant started like a storm, but lost his way midway through as Pankaj, nicely and delicately built an amazing lead.

The three-time champion narrowed Pankaj's 5-1 advantage to 6-5 with his exquisite ball selection. He nearly took the match into the final 13th frame, but a difficult attempt on a red with a half-snooked handball failed. The red ball wobbled on the top pocket and Merchant's dreams crashed.

The Asian Games gold medallist left an open table for Pankaj to make a clearance and the Karnataka cueist obliged to complete a 18-74, 67-46, 83-41, 56-47, 71-10, 74-60, 17-78, 62-9, 62-69, 0-97, 37-91, 74-20 win.

Qualifier Siddharth Parikh did well to finish fourth. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

``A deserving player won the title. Pankaj is the future of Indian cue sport,'' was the candid reaction of the former Asian Champion, Merchant.

``He's got a terrific future ahead of him,'' Merchant said and advised Pankaj not to let people around him influence his game.

Getting influenced? Well Pankaj did not let the stature of Merchant sway him. In a virtual battle of attrition, Pankaj played a focussed game that lasted for about four hours and at no point did it became monotonous.

Thrilled after being able to equal Sethi's record, Pankaj paid his due to his coach Arvind Savur. ''My coach Arvind Savur is my greatest inspiration.''

The coach's inspiration and his hard work stood Pankaj in good stead when the situation became delicate. His frame advantage had narrowed from 6-2 to 6-5, when he needed just one more frame for the title. No one would have been happy to be in such a situation.

``His advantage is that he doesn't get rattled in tense situations. He has shown good maturity at this age,'' Merchant summed up.

Merchant was not really tested till the final. He made it there with a 4-0 blanking of Kanishk Jhanjharia in the pre-quarterfinals; a 5-0 crushing of Brijesh Damani in the quarters, and a 6-1 beating of Dharminder Lilly.

It was against Jhanjharia that Merchant essayed the highest break of the tournament, a 135 with 11 blacks, two pinks, a blue, and the table clearance.

The unseeded Pankaj was drawn to meet the fourth-seeded Rishabh Thukral, in the top half of the draw. Pankaj then turned an anticipated close match into his own circus. Blanking Thukral was his way of announcing that none can take him lightly.

In the quarters, Asian Games gold medallist Rafath Habib did take two frames from Pankaj, but never really threatened. And then, Pankaj booked his berth in the final by setting aside the surprise element, qualifier Siddharth Parikh.

The upset of the championship was authored by Kamal Chawla, who defeated defending champion Alok Kumar. — Pic. SANDEEP SAXENA-

Snooker being a more competitive sport than billiards, none should actually take the opposition for granted. An odd ball situation or one or two poor attempts at safety could turn the match. The biggest upset of the championship was authored by the up and coming Kamal Chawla of Madhya Pradesh. Chawla surprised one and all by dismantling the defending champion, Alok Kumar, in the pre-quarterfinals. That he lost in the quarters to Parikh was another story of a series of unintended in-offs. But he did his confidence good by finishing as India number eight.

Bengal junior Brijesh Damani was another player who exceeded expectations. Qualifying to the knock-out stage from Thukral's group, Brijesh made his first big killing by defeating the seasoned Shyam Jagtiani in the pre-quarterfinals. Brijesh had a lead of 3-1, but he allowed complacency to creep in. At 3-3, he became his usual self and won the match. Then he ran into Yasin Merchant.

It was a highly-entertaining championship on all counts. The matches were of high quality, the venue perfect, and the surroundings serene.

But just as in any other good story, there was an unsavoury incident which we were requested not to report till the tournament got over. The central figure of the incident was Sandeep Duggal of Chandigarh, who kept bragging about his game and position and of still being denied an opportunity to be in the Indian team. Duggal had done nothing extraordinary to merit selection in the Busan Asian Games team. A fifth place finish in the pool Nationals was all he could come up with.

Then, in Jammu, he lost his first two group league matches, to Sourav Kothari first and then to Kamal Chawla. That evening he came to the venue with his brother-in-law, who is serving in the Indian Army.

Both started drinking, and with many players and officials around for the dinner, the discussion meandered towards Duggal's performance. Already in an inebriated condition, Duggal grabbed the service revolver from his brother-in-law and wanted to fire in the air, `just for the sake of it'.

The organiser acted swiftly and the gun was emptied. Duggal still wanted to fire, but some 15 jawans of the Border Security Force rushed to the spot. The venue, Hari Niwas Palace, is a high security zone with the Governor's residence located in the same premises.

All were appalled to see a player carrying a loaded gun when the same players had objected to Jammu being the venue of the Nationals, on security count.

The next day the Billiards and Snooker Federation of India (BSFI) decided to debar Duggal for misbehaviour, officially.

The results:

Final: Pankaj Advani (Kar) bt Yasin Merchant (Mah) 18-74, 67-46, 83-41, 56-47, 71-10, 74-60, 17-78, 62-9, 62-69, 0-97, 37-91, 74-20.

Play-off for third place: Dharminder Lilly (Pun) bt Siddharth Parikh (Rly) 61-34, 51-67, 81-8, 52-40, 32-62, 38-68, 72-63.

Semifinals: Advani bt Parikh 81-48, 82-37, 66-60, 73-23, 48-90, 75-73, 73-58; Merchant bt Lilly 58-33, 84-8, 53-60, 59-39, 82-0, 76-31, 78-1.

Play-offs for 5-8 positions: Brijesh Damani (Ben) bt Varun Taneja (Rly) 77-33, 60-39; Rafath Habib (Rly) bt Kamal Chawla (MP) 25-73, 61-53, 73-19; Taneja bt Chawla 77-10, 43-71, 77-37; Habib bt Damani 70-21, 77-44.

Quarterfinals: Parikh bt Chawla 43-70, 52-45, 26-54, 51-69, 73-36, 72-65, 68-34, 59-12; Advani bt Habib 83-22, 84-0, 84-46, 22-81, 12-61, 76-0, 8-81, 65-40; Merchant bt Damani 93-23, 100-5, 70-5, 76-48, 86-26; Lilly bt Taneja 76-7, 60-67, 66-24, 58-15, 50-59, 74-20, 77-7.

Final placings: 1. Advani; 2. Merchant; 3. Lilly; 4. Parikh; 5. Habib; 6. Damani; 7. Taneja; 8. Chawla.