The authentic prince arrives

Pankaj Advani completed a rare hattrick of titles in the space of three months.-G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR

WHO is the only teenager in the world who has won three world titles in any sport?

WHO is the only teenager in the world who has won three world titles in any sport? This could well be a popular question on any Quiz show? And the answer for those uninitiated into the world of billiards and snooker is Bangalore's Pankaj Advani, just 19 years and 8 months, who added two world billiards titles in the space of ten days in Malta, to the world snooker crown which he won in 2003 in China.

Participating as the India no.1 in the IBSF World Point Format Billiards Championship and the Time Format Championship held jointly for the first time since 2002 in Sydney, Australia, Advani showed great mental strength in eliminating India's Devendra Joshi 6-2 in the best of eleven final played over games of 150 points. But it was his performance in the semi-final, which provided the first glimpse of the fighting instincts of this young unassuming collegian.

He was trailing 0-4 against Robby Foldvari, a seasoned and hardened professional from Australia who will not allow any allowances or concessions in a match against his own mother. Most spectators got up and left the arena presuming it was only a matter of time before the 46-year-old would wrap up the match. Advani took the sensible option of asking for a small break at this stage and came out of the match arena to regroup.

Helped by Subhash Agrawal, the official coach of the Indian contingent, who offered some calming advise, a dazed Advani went back to commence a remarkable fightback, which will be added to the Indian billiards folklore and will leave an indelible impression on Foldvari's subconscious mind for years to come. By the time the kid from India had levelled scores at 4-4 Foldvari's mental state had reached a state of fragility which saw his cue arm behaving independently of his mind. Advani's eventual 5-4 victory provided further proof of his immense reservoir of calmness which had helped him come back from a similar position in the 2003 IBSF World Snooker Championship in China. In the most populated country of the world he faced a 1-4 deficit in the round of last 32 when his opponent trapped him with a snooker with only one red on the table and a disheartening difference of 32 points. From that point onwards, he recovered exhibiting great equanimity to win the match and the title.

In Malta he faced the same demoralising task of recovering from a 0-4 deficit in the semi-final. Needing just one more game for a place in the final, the Australian collapsed with the weight and pressure of his own expectations and Advani once again displayed remarkable poise to win five successive games to shock the former world champion. After such an extraordinary performance he was placed as the firm favourite against Joshi who reached the final untroubled and without being stretched.

Joshi, a former Asian Billiards Champion and runner up to Advani in the nationals by only four points, had displayed his class by reaching the final without losing a single game. However once he faced stiff resistance from Advani, the Bharat Petroleum Sports Officer failed to reproduce the quality of play which had aided him in reaching the final.

The final began with Advani converting his overnight relief and exhilaration into a break of 134 to win the opening game 150-107 followed with a 105 in the second. Joshi who faced little resistance earlier, failed to hold his nerves as reflected in many of the unforced errors. When Advani won the third, the trend became clear and at the interval, the 19-year-old established a comforting and overwhelming 4-0 advantage. There was a gap of almost five hours between the two sessions and this gave time for the 38-year-old Joshi to recover his composure and concentration. He commenced the second session strongly with an unfinished 147 to win the fifth game and looked set to win the sixth as well when his arm refused to go through whilst attempting a regulation cannon at the top of the table. This one missed cannon was the deciding factor in the match. Advani capitalised on that miss with a 113 to lead 5-1 requiring only one more game for the title. With his back to the wall, Joshi responded again with a 146 to reduce his deficit to 5-2 but Advani cueing smoothly constructed a 91 to win the eighth game and match 6-2.

With this victory, Advani had completed a rare hat-trick of titles in the space of three months. In January he defeated Joshi by four points in the national billiards championship in Mumbai, then in February he lifted the Asian billiards championship with an impressive 5-0 victory over Thailand's Praprut and the IBSF Point Format World title victory, the most praiseworthy of all, was achieved with his characteristic display of composure and skill. In winning the title, he had also equalled the record held by Malta's Paul Mifsud of winning both the IBSF world snooker and the world billiards. Mifsud had won the world billiards in Sri Lanka (1979) and seven years later he added the IBSF world snooker title to his collection at Invercargill, New Zealand.

Most sportspersons would have been satiated with the string of emphatic achievements. However, Advani was clearly committed to raising the bar even further. He commenced his bid for the time format world title in quiet fashion and was seeded second after the re- seeding process was completed at the conclusion of the round robin matches. This writer was the top seed with Malta's Joe Grech being no.3 and Joshi no.4. The highest break of 573 was compiled by Australia's Mathew Bolton with breaks of 458 and 406 being recorded by this writer and Advani in the league matches. The other highlight of the league matches was the nine century breaks constructed by Malta's Joe Grech.

The authentic prince of world billiards once again demonstrated his character in a hard fought victory against the gutsy Ashok Shandilya in a four hour semi-final match which he won convincingly after trailing by over three hundred points at one stage. I had reached the final in similar fashion against Joshi and when the six hour final commenced, both Advani and me were hesitant and tentative in the opening half an hour. At the conclusion of the first two hour session Advani had inched ahead by 50 points and by the end of the second session he had stretched the lead to 300 points. Whilst being mildly comforting, the 300 point advantage was in no way conclusive with two hours of play left. However in compiling breaks of 334, 157, 208, 261 & 186 in the space of nine visits, Advani provided overwhelming proof of his authenticated ability and more importantly stretched his lead to just under 1000 points with one hour to go. It was a display which punctured whatever hope I may have had of making a comeback in the match. He had already constructed breaks of 122, 132, 114 and 182 in the first two hours of the match which, added to the burst of inspired scoring in the penultimate hour proving his calibre, consistency and composure at the highest platform of the sport.

My response to Advani's relentless accumulation of points was both feeble and unconvincing. In a six hour final one gets enough chances but I was unable to convert the numerous opportunities into sizeable contributions. Breaks of 146, 107, 159, 180 and 168 are not enough ammunition to arrest the kind of prolific scoring which my opponent was exhibiting.

For Advani it is a time to enjoy the fruits of a yet another fantastic year in the sport. In 2003 he proved his class in snooker. Clearly 2005 will be the defining year for his arrival into the top league of world class billiards players. It is interesting to note, that with his win in the time format world championship, he has already collected three world titles — and he is not yet 20. One wonders how many world titles he will end up with in a sport which allows a player to be at one's competitive best for at least two decades.

The tradition established by the late Wilson Jones when he first won the IBSF world title in 1956 lives on. In a long line of world champions which our country has produced starting with Jones, Michael Ferreira, Manoj Kothari, Ashok Shandilya, O. B. Agrawal and this writer, Advani is the yet another entrant into this elite group. He is however, extra special because firstly he has performed at the highest level in both snooker and billiards and secondly he has won three world titles at this age. Wonder how many other sportspersons from anywhere in the world and from any sporting discipline can boast of such an achievement?