Wilson Jones was my boyhood hero and my greatest inspiration

Michael Ferreira

With the passing of Wilson Jones a golden era in Indian sport has come to an end. These words might seem presumptuous insofar as they intrude into an area outside the limits of billiards, the game that gave Wilson his reputation. But when you consider how he put India on the map in a game which was the white man's exclusive preserve, the manner in which he instilled pride in Indian sportspersons and the inspiration he provided to a whole generation of players who went on to become world beaters at a time when money did not drive the mare, his contribution cannot be viewed only from the narrow prism of the three-ball game. His deeds furthered the cause of Indian sport as a whole to an extent that was remarkable.

"Wilson Jones was always concerned about my well-being as we shared a special relationship ever since I had timidly asked him for his autograph as a 15-year-old," says Michael Ferreira, here seen with Jones.-

Billiards to an incurable romantic like me is the well-spring of life. It is art, science, coordination of mind and body, grace, character and discipline all rolled into a wonderfully textured amalgam. For as long as we were subjects of the British Crown, trying to master its subtle skills to match the English or Australians was, by all accounts, an impossible dream. I daresay that this colonial hang-up extended to other sports as well. We did have entrants to the world championship right from the 1930s, but I suspect those were merely to make up the numbers.

The grim determination and burning desire of a certain Wilson Lionel Garton-Jones from Pune changed all that. Fascinated by the game from his early teens when he secretly watched his uncle and India hockey player Ossie Massey from the window of the local saloon, the youngster was delighted when he was finally let into the room on attaining the age of 18. He took to the game like a duck to water and was soon better than anyone else in the region. His winning the Evening News of India Snooker Championship in Mumbai, a particularly noteworthy feat for someone from the boondocks without any previous exposure to speak of, caught the eye of R. K. Vissanji, a business magnate who was mad keen about the game. `Vadabhai,' as Vissanji was affectionately known, promptly offered the gentle six-footer a job in Mumbai. The rest, as they say, is history.

His road to the top was long and hard, and was characterised by a relentless drive for perfection. I maintain that all great persons in any walk of life have an amazing resistance to fatigue. Wilson once told me that he never missed a practice session for 20 years, and that included Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. I thought I had a pretty satisfactory work ethic, but his statement flabbergasted me. His contemporary Chandra Hirjee, with whom he had many a battle royal, was arguably the more gifted, but was streets behind Wilson in application, determination and dedication. These qualities really spelled the difference between Wilson and the rest of the pack.

His finest moment was undoubtedly his pivotal match against defending champion Leslie Driffield in the 1958 world championship in the Great Eastern Hotel, Calcutta. Trailing by over 600 points in the final session against one of the fiercest competitors in the world, Wilson had the crowd in raptures as he went for broke, flashing his cue at everything. When the final bell shrilled he was ahead by a mere 136 points, the greatest Houdini act ever seen in the game at that time. I feel a pang of infinite regret, which I am sure is shared by all Indians, that there was no TV to record the moment when India's first world champion was crowned.

But Wilson knew that to cement his place in history, it was necessary to win the title again and away from home turf. He failed in his title defence in Edinburgh in 1960 and again in Perth in 1962 when he raised quite a few eyebrows by comfortably beating hot favourite Bob Marshall in his own backyard in the league phase. However, the nuggety little Aussie stormed back in the knockout to set up an India vs. Australia final. It was cut and thrust for most of the eight-hour match, till one fiery session saw Marshall streak to his third world title with a record session average of 128.4.

Wilson finally achieved his dream in the 1964 world championship held in the quaintly-named Pukekohe, a little market town just 30 miles from Auckland, when he finished unbeaten in a star-studded field. My finishing third on debut so pleased him that it set him down a path that was unfortunate, from the Indian standpoint — the thought of retiring. He had been toying with the idea for some time, much to the consternation of his admirers, but now decided that it was the right time to hang up his cue. "The game in India is in good hands" he was kind enough to say, a compliment that I shall always cherish. He finally retired in 1967 after winning the last of his 17 national titles at the comparatively young age of 45. I maintain that he was good enough to cop another world title or two, but alas, it was not to be.

Obviously history will have its own perspective on Wilson Jones the player. On Wilson Jones the man, I can supply fond personal footnotes. He was one of the most chivalrous competitors I have ever played against. He was always concerned about my well-being as we shared a special relationship ever since I had timidly asked him for his autograph as a 15-year-old. "Sit down Michael" he once softly advised me in between the strokes of a massive break against me. He saw that in my youthful inexperience I was unnecessarily consuming nervous energy by fretting about being kept off the table.

His courtesy and thoughtfulness were a byword. He never failed to write to my mother in that lovely copperplate handwriting of his whenever I did well and always sent a prompt `thank you' note when she congratulated him on his performances. Forced to drop out of school because of circumstances, he nevertheless acquired a polish that was quite astonishing. Wilson could speak extempore on virtually any subject, a quality that had even his mother-in-law in a constant state of wonder. The secret of course is that he spoke straight from the heart with no hint of artifice or posturing. And at the end of a hard day's play, he could be relied on to be the life and soul of the party.

But when the final balance is struck, the world will remember him most for his humility and simplicity, attributes that, as much as his play, won him a legion of fans. He was my boyhood hero and my greatest inspiration. It is now time to bid him farewell. When my time comes, if history judges me even half as kindly, I will consider my life to have been well spent.