Take a cue from the `young master'

WORLD snooker winner at the age of 18, and a year and five months later the Asian Billiards crown as well — Pankaj Advani could well have the world of cue sports eating out of his hands, if he continues in the same vein.

Avinash Nair

Pankaj Advani... a memorable outing.-

WORLD snooker winner at the age of 18, and a year and five months later the Asian Billiards crown as well — Pankaj Advani could well have the world of cue sports eating out of his hands, if he continues in the same vein. Streak of grey strands at his hair parting does give the 19-year-old Bangalore collegian a wisp of maturity. But, it is his approach on the table — be it snooker or billiards — that makes him stand out.

A crushing defeat at the 2003 Hyderabad World Billiards Championship at the hands of Myanmar's Kyaw Oo rankled Advani deeply. And adding salt to the wound was the league defeat to the same opponent in this year's edition of the Asian Billiards Championship at the beautiful Pune Young Cricketers (PYC) Hindu Gymkhana convention hall. That was the turning point though — finishing second best to Kyaw Oo in the league only pitted the talented youngster against defending champion Devendra Joshi in the quarters. Trailing 1-3 in the best of seven games 100-up format, any player with weaker nerves and determination would have crumbled. But not Advani, who is a second year B. Com student of Shri Bhagwan Mahaveer Jain College. He came up with two big breaks to stun Joshi for a 4-3 verdict, much to the surprise of all. If a `seasoned' Joshi could falter playing a close match what about the others?

With his tail up, Advani brushed aside the challenge from Kyaw Oo in the semifinal and in the final swept Praput Chaithansukul, a former World champion, 5-0 like a hurricane.

Former World champion Praput Chaithansukul had to settle for the runner-up slot.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

"He played brilliantly. He hardly gave me a chance. It was a ruthless display by the young genius," admitted the 36-year-old Praput, through his interpreter and manager, Sunthorn. Praput, who plays snooker as there is virtually no billiards in Thailand, had accounted for two upsets en route to the final.

The `stone-faced' Thai took a gamble and almost pulled it off. Asking his compatriot S. Thawat to concede a walkover to B. Bhaskar in the qualifying play-off for the eighth spot in the quarterfinal line-up to enhance his chances of qualifying surely would not have been easy. In the three-way round robin to decide the two quarterfinal berths between the third finishers from each of the three groups, after the top two from each group made it to the knock-out phase, Praput defeated Thawat 3-2 after leading 2-0 and then lost 0-3 to Bhaskar. In case Thawat had put it across Bhaskar by even 3-1, Praput would have had to pack his bags. Praput, however, requested Thawat to concede his match against Bhaskar, thus enabling him (Praput) to qualify.

Praput dished out a class act to subdue the challenge from seven times world champion and tournament favourite Geet Sethi 4-2 in the quarterfinal and then stream-rolled past former Asian and world champion Ashok Shandilya to quash the optimism of an all Indian final. Praput, who had not been able to put it across Shandilya in the five previous meetings, played as though he had nothing to lose and came out firing on all cylinders.

Having come through his quarterfinal and semifinal with upset victories over fancied Indians, the odds did appear to be in the Thai's favour. But Advani simply blew him away!

Veteran Ashok Shandilya had a good run till the semifinals.-G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR

"What keeps me going is the competition," said Advani. "Losing to Kyaw two times before made me work harder. And having crossed that hurdle and having made the final I focussed harder. Once I got into my rhythm and seeing Praput having an awful day I grew in confidence. Because neither of us had won an Asian title before the nerves did come into play initially. He cracked when I began compiling a few good breaks. But knowing Praput as a `dangerous floater', at no time in the match did I become complacent."

The 100-up format (best of five games for the league, best of seven for the quarters and semis and best of nine for the final) does not give much of a chance for one to recover. And that was where Geet Sethi and the likes, so much at home with the traditional time format, faltered. Sethi and the other Indians in the fray — Devendra Joshi, Pankaj Advani, Ashok Shandilya, Sourav Kothari, B. Bhaskar and Rishabh Thakker — all looked fine-tuned after the 10-day selection-cum-coaching camp held at the Chembur Gymkhana premises in Mumbai. And it was on the basis of the points accumulated in the nationals (also held at Mumbai) and the selection trials that the seven were chosen from an eight-member camp. (Raju Jagtiani was the one to miss out.)

"The ease with which Geet and Devendra Joshi were piling up breaks in the selection trials was what prompted one to put their money on them," admitted Pankaj. "And going by the way the two approach the table and plan their shots makes me feel that I have a long way to go." But it was the instinct and shot making of the talented Advani that won in the end.

Sethi, Shandilya and Joshi have won the Asian title previously at Mumbai, Bangalore and Myanmar and all played well in Pune but it was the Myanmar cueists — Kyaw Oo and Aung San Oo — who created ripples this year not to speak of Thai Praput.

Kyaw, who finished second best to Devendra Joshi in the previous edition at Myanmar, showed brilliant touch and pleasing attitude at the table. A die-hard Shah Rukh Khan fan, (he sang the Kal Ho Na Ho title song in his Burmese accent during the bash organised the day before the championship concluded) Kyaw Oo admitted that he is learning every time he visits India. "This is my second visit (after the Hyderabad World championship in 2003). There is so much to learn from the Indian players," said Kyaw. "Our focus is mainly on getting the gold at the South East Asia (SEA) Games to be held in November this year. We are the silver medallists there and want to win the gold this time. Our Government will support us immensely if we achieve that."

Kyaw Oo was no match to the eventual champion in the last four stage.-G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR

Aung San Oo, the 45-year-old, is the quieter of the two, but has immense concentration levels. "As Myanmar No. 1, I came here to play good billiards and I will do that till the last day," he said after shocking Shandilya 3-2 in the league. Shandilya, however, avenged the defeat winning the quarterfinal clash 4-2.

B. Bhaskar, who went down narrowly to Kyaw Oo in the league, came through the qualifying play-offs with a 3-0 rout of Praput but put up an insipid display against Kyaw Oo in the quarterfinal losing 0-4. Sourav Kothari and Rishab Thakker recorded three and two wins in the league matches against much lower ranked players and were not even in contention for a knock-out berth.

With the organisers — Billiards and Snooker Association of Maharashtra (BSAM) and Clea Public Relations, the event management group which brought in Idea Cellular, Bharat Petroleum and ONGC as sponsors — advancing the dates to the last week of February from the original schedule of March 2 to 9 so as to avoid a clash of dates with the Pakistan cricket team's tour of India, some teams pulled out.

With Indonesia pulling out because of the Tsunami, and Bangladesh and Iraq withdrawing in the last minute only seven countries and 19 players participated in the championship.

The results

Final: Pankaj Advani bt Praput C 5-0 (100-64, 100-32, 100-0, 100-0, 101-51).

Semifinals: Praput C bt Ashok Shandilya 4-2 (90-101, 101-80, 101-63, 23-100, 101-7, 100-22); Pankaj Advani bt Kyaw Oo 4-1 (100-71, 100-0, 101-33, 22-101, 101-0).

Quarterfinals: Pankaj Advani bt Devendra Joshi 4-3 (20-101, 100-0, 0-101, 6-101, 101-0, 100-15, 102-0); Ashok Shandilya bt Aung San Oo (Myanmar) 4-2 (12-100, 100-50, 101-72, 60-100, 101-7, 100-42); Praput C (Thai) bt Geet Sethi 4-2 (100-72, 0-100, 100-6, 101-31, 7-101, 102-77); Kyaw Oo (Myanmar) bt B. Bhaskar 4-0 (100-12, 102-2, 100-6, 100-96).

* * * From Korea, with love

SEUNG CHIL PARK and Wan Su Lee moved around like conjoined twins. They just could not be blamed — it was their first visit to India. And, incidentally, it was the first time that Korea Billiards Federation was sending a team to participate in the Asian Billiards Championship.

Chil Park is the Director of the Federation and doubled-up as manager and player during the Pune tournament. Asked about the sport in Korea, Chil Park who runs a Sports Billiards Academy at Songpa in Seoul for the last six years rues the fact that just about 20-25 players have taken to cue sports. "Carom is very popular and about 60 per cent of the Koreans play it, about 30 per cent play pool at competitive level while only the remaining 10 per cent spend time in either billiards or snooker. But we are trying to change that ratio," said 51-year-old Park.

Park, who played a couple of close matches going down 2-3 to Pakistan's Imran Shahzad before scoring a thrilling 3-2 win over Lim Jia Sheng of Singapore for his only win in six league matches, sounded quite optimistic about the future of the game: "We are planning to invite either an Indian or Thai coach to teach the rudiments of the game to youngsters in Korea. Once that is achieved the Government will support us," he said.

Wan Su Lee, the 24-year-old student and No. 1 billiards player in Korea, blanked Sri Lanka's K. H. Sirisoma but met the same fate at the hands of the other four in his group. "We are impressed with the standard of Indian players. We have watched and observed the game of Geet Sethi and the young Pankaj Advani and we shall try to improve our game on the basis of what we saw," said Lee.