'There is a lot more to learn and improve'

PANKAJ ADVANI had no clue about the significance of the Mysore Peta.

AVINASH NAIR

PANKAJ ADVANI had no clue about the significance of the Mysore Peta. But when told about it, which even the great Ronnie O'Sullivan sported after his triumph in Bangalore in the World Under-21 Snooker championship in 1993, the 18-year-old Bangalore collegian admired it with an extra glint in his eyes. Needless to say, the symbolic Peta, which adorned the Mysore Maharajas down the line, rested well on his little head. As does the World snooker crown.

Winning a world title, even an amateur one, in a highly competitive sport such as snooker is indeed commendable and if the achievement comes in one's maiden tryst, it should be inscribed in gold. That Pankaj achieved the feat, winning the coveted crown on his maiden appearance and as a teeenager (18 years and 92 days to be precise), makes him the third youngest in snooker history.

A first year B.Com student from Bangalore's Sri Bhagwan Mahaveer Jain College, famous for its sporting culture, Pankaj looked relaxed and was awaiting his mother's return from Delhi, and he happily shared his views when The Sportstar caught up with him at his flat in Bangalore.

Excerpts from the interview:

Question: Congratulations Pankaj. How is the feeling?

Answer: It's not sunk in yet. Not fully, that is. The phone calls and the adorations keep coming non-stop. It feels good to note that there is so much support and following for the game. It was more gratifying to know that I am the second Indian to bring home the World snooker title. (After Om Agarwal, who did so in 1984).

What are your plans now?

I am going to take a few days off (from the table) and attend to courtesy calls and a few felicitations. And then the focus will be on the World billiards championship to be held mid-November in Hyderabad.

Is three weeks of practice before a World championship enough?

I know it's too short. And the preparations for both the games are different. But then billiards is my first love and things being what they are now... there is hope for a good showing in billiards too.

Are we talking of another World title now?

If it comes about it will be the perfect `icing'. I shall not be short of trying for sure.

What are your plans for turning pro?

Yes, it's there at the back of my mind. I am giving myself about two years' time. I hope that the World Snooker Federation will give me a wild card for the professional circuit qualifying tournaments. If not, I have to go through the qualifying grind. I will try to accumulate as many points as possible from the five tournaments.

Pankaj Advani is greeted by his coach Arvind Savur in Bangalore. — Pic. K. GOPINATHAN-

How competitive or tough are these qualifiers?

Very tough. All these tourneys have a field of 128 players and only the top 16 from these five tournaments go through. It's very difficult to sustain one's game over a period of time and that's one area I need to work diligently.

How do you rate your chances and what are the areas that you feel need improvement?

Frankly speaking there is a lot more to learn and improve. It's going to be a long, rough ride ahead. But I'm prepared for it.

Tell us about this World snooker championship.

It started off well for all of us (six Indians were in the fray — Yasin Merchant, Alok Kumar, Vidya Pillai, M. Chitra and Umadevi, besides Pankaj). All of us made it to the knock-out stage with Vidya, Uma and myself progressing beyond the first round of the knock-out. Yasin, Alok and myself all had an identical 8-2 (win/loss) record from the 10 league matches.

How was your progress?

I began well. Beating the experienced Mario Wehrmann of the Netherlands in the opening round by a 4-2 score was a good start. Also the victory against Jin Long of China, whom I defeated 4-1, was good. The rest of my matches in the league stage were straight frame wins, but I also suffered two losses against Mohammed Shahab (UAE) and Hitesh Narang of South Africa, 1-4 and 3-4 respectively. Probably Shahab played his best match of the tournament against me. The first round of the knock-out stage was the most difficult for me. Mei Xiwen of China was in good nick and is an amazing potter. He took a 4-1 lead in quick time. In the sixth too I trailed by 32 points. But then I `fluked' a red at that juncture and thereafter I was on a roll. Mei cracked at that stage. In the quarters against top-seeded Paithoon Phonbun of Thailand I won 6-2. Though I too played a tough earlier round (two rounds were held on that day) I thought the Thai looked tired and lethargic, paving an easy win for me.Against Brendon O'Donoghue in the semis it was surprisingly easy as I began well and was very fluent. The Irishman is a top player but on that day I guess I played better to win 8-3.

Did playing in the final unnerve you?

Believe me, I was nervous and felt very edgy. Saleh Mohammed of Pakistan is a crafty player and was the tournament's second seed. I woke up at about 3.30 a.m. and could not go back to sleep how much ever I tried. I was walking about till 6 a.m.

And the match...

I started on a wrong note. Saleh was potting well and soon I was 0-2 down. But then all off a sudden I found my rhythm and fluency and it was smooth sailing till 5-3. I wanted to go into the break (after the 10th frame in the best of 20 -frame final) with a lead but it was not to be. A lapse (wherein I snooked myself on the yellow) enabled Saleh to bounce back and draw level at 5-frames all. But on return I managed a 59 break and though he made it 6-7, I came up with a 135 (third highest of the championship) to blank him in the 15th. The 16th was a cracker as I was 0-67 but with seven reds on the table and a possible 75 up for grabs I went for it and managed a 70 (with pinks and blues) to win the frame 70-67 to take a commanding 10-6 lead. The final frame was a cakewalk.

What was the mood in the Indian camp at that moment?

Mike (Ferreira), the team's coach, and others were `maha thrilled'. There was a lot of cheering and I was in a daze myself.

How good was your safety play?

I think it touched a new high, especially in this championship. Saleh was gracious enough in defeat and he came up to say, "Aapne safety khelkar mujhe mar dala" (you killed me with your safety play).

About the mushrooming talent in the country?

Yes, there are quite a few youngsters who are doing very well. Sourav Kothari, Rishab Thakkar, Adithya Mehta are promising. I had the opportunity to go on a few overseas trips in the last few years, which gave me a lot of exposure. Sourav is going to England shortly and that should do him a lot of good.

To whom do you owe your success?

Oh! There are many. My mother, who has supported and encouraged me at every step. She takes over the administrative work so that I can concentrate on my game. My brother, who introduced me to the game. Of course my coach and guide Arvind uncle (Savur) and his family, because of whom I am what I am today. My school (Frank Anthony Public School) principal Mr. Brown and the teachers and now my College chairman Mr. Chenraj Jain, who told me right from the start of the academic year: "Don't bother to come to college. Concentrate on your game and bring me the World title." I am happy that I have kept his word. The Association (KSBA) has been a second home for me, always supportive and helped me go through my practice sessions without a hitch. I owe my success to all of them and many more.

Name:Pankaj Advani.

Date/Place of Birth: July 24, 1985/Pune, Maharashtra.

Career Achievements in Chronological order:

International: 2001:Fourth in Asian Under-21 Snooker Championship, Bangkok, Thailand; Third in World Under-21 Snooker Championship, Latvia.

2002: Second in 2002 Asian Billiards Championships, Bangalore; represented India in Team snooker events at Busan Asian Games, Korea; turned professional in Billiards.

2003:Won World Snooker Championship, China; only second Indian after Omprakash Bharadwaj Agrawal (1984, Dublin) and the youngest, at 18 years, 3 months, to achieve the feat; Fifth in World Under-21 Snooker Championship, New Zealand.

National Championships:

1999, 2000, 2001, 2002:Junior Billiards Champion.

2001, 2002:Junior Snooker Champion.

2002 (held in 2003): Senior Snooker champion; third in Senior Billiards; youngest to win Indian National senior snooker championship at 17 years; equalled Geet Sethi's record of winning three titles in same Championships.

State-level:

1997: Won B. S. Sampath Memorial Handicap Snooker Tournament in Bangalore, at 11 years, 7 months.

1997-2002: Karnataka Champion in Junior Snooker.

1999-2002: Karnataka Champion in Junior Billiards & Snooker.

2001: First to win all four Championships (Junior Billiards & Snooker; Senior Billiards & Snooker).

2002: Won three State Championships (Junior Billiards & Snooker; Senior Snooker); Second in Senior Billiards; Award for highest break in all four events.

Coach: Arvind Savur, former World No.4 and ex-National champion.

World champions in Cue Sports from India 1. Wilson Jones — 1958 and 1964 (Billiards).

2. Michael Ferreira — 1977, 1981, 1983 (Billiards).

3. Omprakash Bharadwaj Agrawal — 1984 (Snooker).

4. Manoj Kothari — 1990 (Billiards)

5. Geet Sethi — 1985, 1987, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1998, 2001 (Billiards).

6. Pankaj Advani — 2003 (Snooker).