The sweet aroma of hope for billiards

THE Om Kotak Mahindra Life Insurance Asian Billiards Championship, which concluded on March 24 at the Karnataka State Billiards Association in Bangalore, was a resounding success from the viewpoint of the organisers, sponsors and the participants. However, the event, which saw Ashok Shandilya winning the title with an exemplary exhibition of fighting spirit, and some fine all round billiards, will be remembered more as the platform which allowed Pankaj Advani to express his intent to become a force in world billiards.

Not yet 17, the composure, calmness, poise and self-control displayed by this boy in reaching the final, evokes passionate and spontaneous reactions from the followers of the three-ball game in India. Given the backdrop of failure and despondency within Indian sport, Pankaj with his youth, talent and ability to perform on the big stage has brought with him the fresh and sweet aroma of hope for Indian sport.

What do we, as Indians have to boast about when it comes to achievement in the sporting arena? A Paes-Bhupathi pair, which gave us glory for three years and has now become just a mirage after their break up. Viswanathan Anand, who toils away, secure in his place as one of the top chess players in the world, is finding it more and more difficult to win the big international titles. A Gopi Chand, who revived those nostalgic memories of an era when a player called Prakash Padukone ruled the world, only to succumb to the pressures both mental and physical, which have left him feeling drained and exhausted and unable to reproduce the form and performance which helped him win the All England last year.

A hockey team, which continues to flirt with excellence, only to be brought down by the inexcusable manoeuvrings and politicking of those who administer the game. A cricket team, which boasts of world class players who are justifiably admired by leading personalities from varied fields, like Mark Knoffler, Amitabh Bachchan and Brian Lara.

But we must remember that the true achievement of sport is reflected not by individual talent or by the fan following of a particular star but by victories and titles. In that department our cricketers must hang their heads in shame. A world title in 1983, the odd three nation title in the last decade and a victory over a mediocre team like Zimbabwe more recently are the glowing jewels in a crown which has lost its sheen and charm to the plundering of much better teams like Australia, South Africa and Sri Lanka.

Against such a backdrop, the game of billiards has consistently made our country proud. Starting with Wilson Jones in the mid fifties, then Michael Ferreira in the seventies and mid eighties and then yours truly in the last two decades, the succession and achievement of Indian billiards has been a remarkable story. And with such relief and joy one can now say that this consistency in achievement will continue. In Advani, we have found that saviour of Indian billiards. In his conviction of purpose, in his deep dedication and in his own belief that he has a tryst with destiny, lies the secret of his impending success.

At the age of 16 he has already won three junior titles, has defeated almost every senior cueist in some tournament or the other and by eliminating Devendra Joshi 4-2 in the semi-final of the Asian billiards championship he proved beyond doubt that he has the mental make-up of a future world champion. The accolades came from every quarter after he defeated Joshi and even more after he lost a 5-4 battle of wits and cuemanship to the indomitable Shandilya.

However, Advani must watch out. He still has some chinks in his armour the most glaring and significant one being his inability to compile big breaks. He still needs to work very hard on developing his top of the table play. He needs to zero in on the art of honing his concentration for prolonged periods of time which will eventually equip him for not just Asian titles played on the 100 point format but will give him the expertise and knowledge to one day win a world title played over the traditional time format.

One must acknowledge here the contribution of his coach Arvind Savur, a former national champion in both billiards & snooker and a cueist who has represented India on several occasions in the world amateur snooker championship. Savur has enough knowledge to impart to any young hopeful and Pankaj is fortunate to have the full commitment and support of Savur. But here again to move into the next level in mastering the sport, he may perhaps have to look at gaining knowledge and the finer nuances of the game from people and players who have performed at the highest level. One is not suggesting that he should change coaches, but it is enough at this stage to just sit and watch great players in action.

He also has a big decision to make in the near future and that is which game would he like to make his own. He has suggested that he would like to concentrate on Billiards. The faster he decides, the better it will be for him. He urgently requires further exposure preferably in the U.K., where the sport is played and taught professionally at the highest level. He will need to garner funds and goodwill for him to be able to reach U.K. But with the talent, which he possesses, and the level headedness, which he has displayed so far, there is an army of well-wishers working to see that he is able to fulfill the promise and God gifted talent which he has been endowed with.

I end by saying that the best thing that has happened for Indian billiards has been the emergence of Pankaj, the future National champion, future Asian champion and future World champion. Pankaj - go for gold.