Russell crowns himself with glory

BY capturing the 2002 World Billiards Professional Championship with a 2251-1273 victory over defending champion Peter Gilchrist, Mike Russell has crowned himself with glory. This was his fifth world professional title, a record unparalleled in the modern history of the game. The victory also ensures that he will remain unthreatened at the top of the world rankings, a position he has occupied for the last six years, for yet another year.

Performing with his characteristic fluency Mike Russell (left) cruised to victory.-VIVEK BENDRE

Performing with his characteristic fluency, Russell cruised to victory over defending champion Peter Gilchrist in the six-hour final staged at the Centurion Hotel, in Midsomer Norton, a town that is about 25 miles from Bath in the county of Somerset. Russell collected the glistening trophy and a cheque for &pound13500 including the &pound1000 cheque for the highest break (581) he recorded in the semi-final against David Causier.

Throughout the tournament, Russell had exhibited superior skill, copybook technique and a burning desire to win. Having arrived into the final without being stretched at any stage of the tournament, he ensured that he imposed his superiority early in the first session against Gilchrist. The class difference between him and the rest of the players on the circuit has by now been clearly and inarguably defined. Except for the final, in which he outclassed Gilchrist by less than 1000 points, his margin of victory in all other matches in the tournament has been well over 1000 points. Against Dhruv Sitwala, his first round opponent, he won by a margin of 1007 points; he then crushed Manoj Kothari in the quarter-final by 1765 points and then against Causier, the world No. 3, he uncorked that immaculate 581 to score a 1362-point victory.

In comparison, his billiards in the final lacked the sustained concentration with which he approached all his previous matches. Perhaps drained after a week of constant billiards or perhaps just sure that he would win the title, Russell was not as sharp. However, he was still good enough to commence the contest with breaks of 114, 189 & 223 at his second, third and fifth visits. By the time he concluded the opening two-hour session, he had added further efforts of 104 & 168 to enjoy a comforting first session advantage of 818-183.

In a lacklustre second session, both cueists struggled. Russell just seemed relieved to have established a match-winning lead and Gilchrist was only too aware that if he did not perform at this crucial stage of the contest, he would have no hope of a recovery in the last session. Gilchrist failed completely under the weight of that pressure and Russell consolidated his position further with a 376 unfinished towards the concluding stages of the second session. Russell had stretched his first session lead to over 1000 points including the 376 unfinished and virtually sealed the match in his favour.

What mattered in the final session was how many more points he could add to that unfinished break of 376. On resumption, Russell extended the break to 421 but broke down with a sudden and unexpected lack of concentration. Gilchrist was playing only for pride of performance. With the realisation that he had no chance, he relaxed and responded with breaks of 224, 198 and 106 to end the third session with an average of 46.9. In the six-hour final, dominated by the world No. 1, Gilchrist made amends by outscoring his opponent in the third and final two-hour session.

The most surprising result was the unexpected and early departure of Chris Shutt from the &pound45,000 event. Falling prey to his own inconsistency the former World Open champion crashed out losing to Peter Sheehan by a mere 17 points.

There were six Indians, who featured in the main draw of 16 players. The top-eight ranked cueists were guaranteed of a direct entry into the last 16 and eight qualifiers joined them after qualifying in India and the UK. This meant that Nalin Patel, the world No. 8 and Geet Sethi, ranked four did not have to play the qualifying matches which were staged at the Bombay Gymkhana.

Ashok Shandilya, the National billiards champion, made it to the main event thanks to a 645-551 victory over Pankaj Advani, the immensely talented and promising 17-year-old from Bangalore. However Shandilya lost in his opening match 1475-939 at Midsomer Norton to yours truly.

Manoj Kothari qualified by virtue of an uninspiring 459-429 victory over Sushrut Pandya and was lucky enough to reach the quarter-final thanks to a walk over from Roxton Chapman, while Dhruv Sitwala outclassed Arun Agrawal 647-287 to set up a clash against the imperious Russell. Sitwala played with great application and conviction against Russell and displayed rare qualities of a champion despite a 1702-695 defeat at the hands of his illustrious opponent.

Devendra Joshi, the India No. 3 reached the UK with a well-deserved 858-394 win over Punjab's Alok Kumar, runner-up in the Nationals in January this year. Joshi instilled confidence and hope from the Indian perspective through a gutsy and convincing display in his match against David Causier, the world No. 3. Unfortunately, unlike Dhruv, who was completely outclassed by a player far superior in technique, experience and mental strength, Joshi's narrow 131-point reversal stung the Indian in a manner, which is so typical and representative of competitive sport.

In a surprising result, Thailand's Rom Surin crashed out of the &pound45,000 event losing 681-188 to Paul Bennett. Incredibly, Surin, a former world amateur snooker champion, who gallantly led his country to a silver medal in the doubles billiards event in the Asian Games in Bangkok, failed to compile any notable breaks in the two-hour contest. The statistics tell the sorry tale of a cueist who just failed to live up to his own standards. His highest break was 49 and he had only seven two-digit breaks in the two-hour match. The match was part of a qualifying event to get into the main draw.

With the forthcoming Asian Games only a few months away, Surin will need to get back to rediscovering his touch if he needs to help Thailand to win any medals at Pusan, Korea.

The results:

Final (six hours): Mike Russell 2251 (114, 189, 223, 104, 168, 421, 196) beat Peter Gilchrist 1273 (224, 198, 106).

Semi-finals (five hours): Peter Gilchrist 1767 (104, 217, 135, 110, 113, 90, 87, 74, 98, 133, 194) beat Geet Sethi 851 (98, 139, 163, 108); Mike Russell 2456 (581, 133, 201, 287, 210, 121, 216, 275, 244) beat David Causier 1094 (83, 88, 162, 89, 89, 224).

Quarter-finals (four hours): David Causier 1024 (96, 107, 114, 103) beat Robby Foldvari 656 (124, 96, 151); Peter Gilchrist 1403 (118, 90, 70, 100, 95, 117, 110, 205, 102) beat Nalin Patel 768 (75, 78, 112); Mike Russell 2167 (98, 97, 162, 100, 285, 149, 149, 79, 102, 92, 151, 106) beat Manoj Kothari 402; Geet Sethi 1091 (171, 152, 73) beat Peter Sheehan 911 (140, 107, 148, 82).

Round of 16 (four hours): Robby Foldvari 783 (148) beat Paul Bennett 513 (187); Mike Russell 1702 (225, 89, 91, 79, 149, 83, 134, 186, 83, 197, 288) beat Dhruv Sitwala 695 (98, 82, 94, 75, 103); David Causier 1291 (213, 109, 93, 115, 89) beat Devendra Joshi 1168 (75, 93, 94, 99, 95, 150, 117, 115); Nalin Patel 762 beat Ian Williamson 638; Peter Gilchrist 1298 (235) beat Lee Lagan 770; Peter Sheehan 1163 (84, 76) beat Chris Shutt 1146 (120, 91, 78); Geet Sethi 1475 (78, 82, 106, 85, 75, 87, 119, 105, 295) beat Ashok Shandilya 939 (74, 95, 90, 141, 95, 141); Manoj Kotharti w.o. Roxton Chapman.

A record that will take some beating GEET SETHI

MIKE RUSSELL, the 35-year-old cueist who lives in Peterborough in the UK, has established himself as the irrefutable king of world billiards. The victory at Midsomer Norton was his fifth world professional title, a record that will take some beating. The consistency, which he has exhibited in his 12-year professional career, has been admirable and the scores of titles, which he has captured in that time, provide the proof of his skills, mental fortitude and perseverance in a game, which he has dominated since 1990.

In the 2002 world championship, he compiled 18 breaks over 100, ten efforts over 200, one run of 421 and also took home the &pound1000 for the highest break with an effort of 581 in the semi-final against David Causier. The true test of a player's greatness perhaps is judged by not only looking at the big breaks but also by his averages. By recording averages in excess of 50 in almost all his matches the world No. 1 has now set new benchmarks in professional billiards and in the process set new levels of excellence for the cueists ranked below him.

His potting is superb, his all-round game so precise but it is the complete and supreme mastery over the floating white method of top table play which differentiates him from the rest of the pack. In an era, which has seen a number of restrictive rules being introduced by the governing body, Russell's preference for the floating white technique is ideally suited to effectively deal with the 'baulk line rule' which necessitates the cue ball crossing the baulk line between 80-99 in every break over 100. It follows that one must cross the baulk line between 180-199, 280-299, 380-399 and so on.

Most cueists have found this restriction hard to deal with. My world record break of 1276, which I compiled in the 1992 world championship was compiled at a time when this rule was not prevalent. Under the baulk line rule, my highest has been 486. I mention these records to highlight Russell's achievements under this rule. He has constructed a run of 963 against yours truly in the UK Open five years ago, recorded over five breaks over 800 and once fashioned a superb 745 to win a Honda Civic Car on offer for the highest break over 700 in an international event in Wigan, UK, in 1995.

At 35 he has seen a bit of the world, has indulged in his share of mischief and has been asked to appear before disciplinary committees of the World Professional Billiards & Snooker Association a couple of times. But the alleged offences have always been minor and in no way have reduced the genius of his artistry. That he is one of the greatest modern day billiards player is by now proved with the weight of the substantial statistical data of all his matches. But can one dare to compare him with Walter Lindrum, the Australian, who played his best billiards during a time when the world was at war?

For the followers of the game and for those who are aware of the great deeds of Lindrum on the billiards table - his highest break was 4137, he had compiled over 800 breaks over 1000 including 70 in professional competition by the year 1940 and he averaged over 200 consistently in most matches which were played over three weeks - to compare any player to that great man is almost unthinkable.

The compelling statistics revealed above are reasons enough to discard any talk or thought of comparing the modern Russell to the all-time great of the green baize. However, it must be noted that modern billiards needs to cater to the demands of TV and this medium demands that the games be shorter with results being thrown up far more quickly. So today we play four-hour matches in world championships and in some international events games are over two hours and even 150 points up.

In the forthcoming Asian Games the format being used is the best of three 100-point games, which is much like a one over cricket one-day international. In such an era, Russell has done well and who knows how high he could have taken his own level of play were he allowed to participate in tournaments to be played over 100 hours instead of four hours. But the greatest compliment that has been given to him is the fact that the pundits have at least dared to ask that question, "Can we compare him to Lindrum?"