Refreshing change

In the 1950s and 60s, it was Wilson Jones; then came Michael Ferreira in the 1970s, and then I was in the picture from mid-1980s to the 90s. Now we have Pankaj Advani. Indian billiards has to continue producing champions in international events in order to survive. -- Geet Sethi-G. KRISHNASWAMY

Though the administrators are reluctant to get rid of the “high-brow type waist coat and bow-tie” image associated with billiards, they have heeded to the modern-day requirements of keeping the sport short in order to retain its appeal. By G. Viswanath.

English billiards has been churned a lot in order to sustain the interest among the practitioners of the sport in India. We now have the 100-up and 150-up versions — which have been well received — though the format of tolerant time limits still exists. In fact the International Billiards and Snooker Federation (IBSF) conducts world championships in both time and points formats. This would have hardly received the approving nod of the purists and giants of the game such as Chandra Hirjee, Wilson Jones, Satish Mohan and Arvind Savur. They dominated the three-ball sport in the traditional time format; so did Michael Ferreira and Geet Sethi.

The billiards buffs did not mind watching the sport in air-conditioned rooms for hours, but not anymore. Though the administrators are reluctant to shed the “high-brow type waist coat and bow-tie” image associated with the sport, they have heeded to the modern-day requirements of keeping billiards short in order to retain its appeal. Snooker though has a special place among the green baize fraternity as was evident at the Manisha 79th Nationals, organised by the BSAM (Billiards and Snooker Association of Maharashtra) at the P. Y. C. Hindu Gymkhana in Pune recently. There were about 40 qualifying matches in billiards to fill up five slots in the main draw of 48 players, whereas in snooker 308 qualifying matches were played to fill 22 slots in the main draw of 80 players.

Apart from the format, the quality of the table, cloth and balls too has changed over time, contributing to the betterment of billiards. Both Shyam Jagtiani and Geet Sethi have been in the national scene for a long time. Jagtiani, who made his debut at the 1972 Nationals, represented Railways for several years.

Sethi made his debut in the National Championships in 1976. He withdrew at the half-way stage of the Nationals in Pune because of his wife's illness. He would have probably qualified for the knock-out stage in billiards (he did not enter the snooker event) despite his loss to Brijesh Damani in a league match.

Sethi, who has won 20-odd World and National titles, did not participate in the National Championships from 1989 to 1992 because as a professional he was not allowed to play in an amateur tournament at that time.

According to Sethi, four players have dominated Indian billiards. “First, in the 1950s and 60s, it was Wilson Jones; then came Michael Ferreira in the 1970s, and then I was in the picture from mid-1980s to the 90s. Now we have Pankaj Advani. Indian billiards has to continue producing champions in international events in order to survive. I won my first World title when I was 24; Pankaj won his first World title when he was 18. I am sure he will easily be around for another 10 years. We have to keep winning major titles. It will be rather unfortunate if billiards and snooker are not a medal sport at the next Asian Games (Incheon, South Korea),” he said.

Sethi and Jagtiani are not averse to the points format or the shortened time format in billiards. Both are of the view that these formats have offered a level playing field.

Many players believe that the change in the quality of the slate bed, the superfine cloth and super-crystal balls have resulted in the game (billiards) being played at a faster pace. “We have played on solid English tables. They last probably 25 to 30 years. The slates then were two to two-and-a-half-inch thick. Now it is one to one-and-a-half-inch thick. Most of the tables are Chinese-make and hence have largely contributed to the change in the standard of the game,” Sethi said.

A billiards table being spruced up at the Karnataka State Billards Association. The quality of tables, cloth and balls has changed over time, contributing to the betterment of the sport.-K. MURALI KUMAR

“In the olden days the balls hardly reacted; the slate and cloth were thick. The crystal balls could be waxed and washed. But the modern highly polished balls are very sensitive on a superfine cloth. The balls roll longer and faster and that's the reason for the big breaks today. It's good for the game. But the old English tables helped maintain a standard which is not happening these days. Majority of the players at the Nationals have not played on the superfine cloth. For me, it's like straightway going from gully cricket to international cricket,” said Jagtiani.

It was Jagtiani who put an end to Sethi's four-year winning streak in National snooker, defeating him in the semi-finals in Srinagar in 1989. He then beat Yasin Merchant to win the title while Subhash Agarwal defeated Sethi to claim the billiards title.

Jagtiani said that it is tough for the Bengal players (a majority of them practise at the Bengal Rowing Club) to make it big at the National level. “It's difficult to maintain tables. A table bed of one-and-a-half-inch thickness starts developing waves and it affects the roll (of the ball). Further grinding (of the slate) means losing another half inch. Things are expensive. I don't even average five minutes of practice a day, but I train a lot of players including Manish Jain. In the 150-up format you have to play a cut-throat game; one mistake or a relaxed shot, a player can be in soup and finally out of the game,” said Jagtiani.

Billiards has also witnessed a change from the postman's knock to floating white, which is a top of the table game to accumulate points. “There was more of floating white after the 1992 World Championship,” said Sethi. But Jagtiani differed. “Mohammad Lafir (Sri Lanka) used to play the floating white; so did Jones and Ferreira. Sethi pioneered the postman's knock; he made the most of it because its accuracy level was much higher than the floating white,” he said.

At 61, Jagtiani was the oldest participant at the Pune Nationals. “I am in love with the game. I will play as long as my legs give me the strength and power to stand up. Ten to 12 years ago, I wanted to become the coach of the Indian team. I was not allowed to because I wanted to play too. I am playing quite well now, but I am being deprived and the players are being deprived of sharing the knowledge I have. I want to share my knowledge,” said Jagtiani who did not qualify for the knock-out stage in billiards and snooker at the Pune Nationals.

India's much celebrated champion of recent times, Pankaj Advani, though is not unduly bothered about the superfine cloth, super crystal balls or the reduced inches of the slate. He's played enough internationals to adjust. He said he felt a little uncomfortable while playing billiards. “It is difficult to control the balls when under pressure. But then it's a challenge,” he said.