Russell, champion non pareil

Mike Russell and Geet Sethi (in the background) go back a long way.-Pics: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY Mike Russell and Geet Sethi (in the background) go back a long way.

Mike Russell is deserving of words of undiluted praise. His commitment, knowledge, ability and huge focus make him the greatest player of the modern era. In Pune he destroyed his opponents with clinical efficiency and in the process raised the benchmarks of competency and concentration to new levels, writes Geet Sethi.

The origin of the success of the 2010 Dr. D. Y. Patil Vidyapeeth, Pune, IBSF World Billiards Championship – Point and Time Format, which concluded at the PYC Hindu Gymkhana Club on August 28, can be traced to an unrelated visit of Salil Deshpande from Pune to Hyderabad in 2007. The Nationals were being staged there and Salil, a lover of the three-ball game, took the flight to Hyderabad to see his friend Devendra Joshi and other top cueists in action. I remember meeting him at the Jubilee Club where we were all staying and seeing the deep love for the sport in his eyes and a hunger to organise something big.

He started by organising an invitational snooker tournament in late 2007 and then staged the 2009 Asian Billiards Championship in April. Devendra Joshi, Derek Sippy and Ajay Rastogi joined him to make up an extremely competent team, which had the added blessings of Rajan Khinvasara, a top real estate developer of Pune who also loved the sport. In 2009 they approached the Billiards & Snooker Federation of India, who in turn made the bid for the world championship to the International Billiards & Snooker Federation. The rest, as they say, is history.

The purpose of this background is to stress that the reason why world championships are organised in India and indeed across the world is that there are lovers of the sport who just won't let the three-ball game fade into extinction. It is teams like the one I have mentioned above that are scattered around the world which ensure that the sport survives and remains in the public eye. And when organisers like the Pune team conduct world events with deep passion and love for the sport, the players help by producing world-class performances, which in turn further reinforces the popularity of the sport.

In 2001 a portly professor of physics in Christchurch University organised the world championship in Christchurch, New Zealand, and I went on to make a world record session average with three breaks over 500 and an 800 against Ashok Shandilya in the final.

Peter Gilchrist, the runner-up.-

In Pune, Mike Russell exploded into an orgy of relentless scoring as he reached the final with 4 breaks of 700 and 3 over 600.

Only in the semifinal against Pankaj Advani — whom he had crushed 6-0 in the final of the point format event — did one see him out of sorts, but even performing at 30% efficiency (his own estimate of his display) he was still good enough to brush aside the fighting 25-year-old Indian by 117 points in a four-hour contest.

That below par performance was the lull before the storm. In the final he found a smooth rhythm, intense focus, mellifluous touch and tight control over the balls and exhibited glorious billiards. He accumulated 4120 points in six hours — a modern day record — to Peter Gilchrist's 784. Gilchrist himself had compiled a timely 610 followed by a 454 effort to edge out Geet Sethi, who had also delighted the big crowds to two 500+ and one 650 break in the build up to the semifinal.

The highlight of the one-sided contest was a mammoth 1137 break on the 16th visit of the match, Russell's highest career competition break and only the fourth 1000+ break registered in post war competitive billiards — the other three being Michael Ferreira's 1149 at the 1978 Nationals, Geet Sethi's 1276 at the 1992 World Professional Championship and Peter Gilchrist's 1346 in the 2008 New Zealand Open.

I have always maintained that the popularity of a sport in any nation is not necessarily based on the number of people who actually play that particular sport but depends, to a large degree, on the international titles its players consistently win. Billiards' success in India certainly has been based on the consistency with which cueists like the late Wilson Jones (2 world titles), Michael Ferreira (3 world titles), Geet Sethi (8 world titles) and Pankaj Advani (6 world titles) have won laurels for the country. Interspersed between these stalwarts one has Manoj Kothari (1990), Ashok Shandilya (2003) and Rupesh Shah (2007), three outstanding performers, who have won a world title each.

With such a depth of talent, such a regularity of victories at the world level and with personalities, who vary from forceful, erudite and articulate like Michael Ferreira; affable, genteel and ever helpful like the late Wilson Jones; educated, entrepreneurial and innovative like Geet Sethi and young, mentally tough and commercially savvy like Pankaj Advani, every generation has managed to market and keep the game in the public eye with the combined weight of their victories and their varied though powerful personalities. The subconscious self-belief instilled into each generation by their predecessors has ensured the enduring success of billiards in our country.

Pankaj Advani lost narrowly to Russell in the semifinals.-

Mike Russell has become a legend not only in his own country but in every nation where he has played. These include New Zealand, Australia, Malta, Singapore, and India and of course his own country England where he has a strong set of followers who will travel not only the length and breadth of the land, but also continents to see their hero perform at international tournaments. By the sheer mastery that he has attained over his sport, he has popularised it wherever he has gone. Most recently he provided the sport a huge fillip in India with a performance that can be described only as sublime.

Then there is Peter Gilchrist, who three years ago became a citizen of Singapore and has injected a keen interest into the sport not only in Singapore but the entire southeast Asian region. Thailand has benefited with his coaching and players like Praprut have won a double gold at the Busan Asian Games in 2002 and the Asian Billiards Championship. Myanmar has become a keen billiards-playing nation and their leading cueist Kyaw Oo has improved enough to win an Asian Games silver medal in Busan. In this world championship, Kyaw went down fighting to Russell in the quarterfinal losing by only a couple of hundred points in a three-hour match.

The Asian Games has aided the sport considerably as even nations like Korea, Vietnam and Philippines have started encouraging their cueists from pool and carom to start playing billiards as the 100-point format allows for the underdog to defeat even the best players in the world. Taking a cue from the success of the point-format in the Asian Games, the IBSF included the point-format in the world championships some years ago and in this openness to experiment, which is also welcomed by the players, lies the future success of the sport.

One cannot end this piece without words of undiluted praise for Russell. His commitment, knowledge, ability and huge focus make him the greatest player of the modern era. In Pune he destroyed his opponents with clinical efficiency and in the process raised the benchmarks of competency and concentration to new levels. And this in turn has proved to be of huge inspirational value even for cueists who have won multiple world titles. This writer left Pune inspired by the Englishman and instilled with a deep desire to rediscover the intensity of focus, control at the top of the table and to regain the competitive instinct. Thank you, Mike Russell.