Pankaj Advani: A single-mindedness of purpose!

With Pankaj Advani there are no distractions, time-outs or emotions — only an intense engrossment in his chosen field.

Pankaj Advani's ability has increased manifold since he returned from his recent stint on the professional snooker tour.   -  R. Ragu

Pankaj with Asian billiards champion Dhruv Sitwala. Dhruv says that Pankaj shuts out bad shots or spells of bad play from his mind totally.   -  SUDHAKARA JAIN

Women's player Vidya Pillai observes that Pankaj has a very high standard of 'safety play.'   -  PTI

A couple of years ago, some of the best Indian cueists were in town to ply their trade in the annual G. Raman Nair handicap billiards tournament, at the East Cultural Association. Results in this invitational event do not count towards National — or even State — ranking points. Matches here, though competitive, are without the sort of rigid, formal air that fills the halls of organised cue sport.

Pankaj Advani, already a multiple World champion at this point, is a guaranteed entry here. Club officials say that he has a long-standing relationship with the patron, G. Raman Nair.

In one of the group stage fixtures, Advani is paired against a talented National-level player. At one stage, the lesser-known cueist misses a cannon, and his break is over. Advani jumps out of his chair and strides to the table, while his opponent makes his way out of the hall. With the champion at the table, he must have thought that there was enough time to get a cup of tea, and indulge in some idle chat with his friends. He is wrong. Advani fumbles, rather uncharacteristically.

But where is Advani’s rival? He is nowhere to be found. The anxious referee and organisers form an impromptu search party, and after a few minutes, the embarrassed competitor makes his return. He mumbles a sheepish apology, and is met with an unemotional ‘thumbs up’ from Advani.

All through this confusion, Advani sits still in his chair, staring at the green baize in introspection. His concentration never wavers, and he seems to be constructing his next big break, in the mind. How easy it must have been for him to throw a fit, or even take a break himself — especially given that he was the clear favourite. He does neither, choosing instead to just focus on the game.

Herein lies one of Advani’s traits that must surely contribute to his remarkable success. There are no distractions, time-outs or emotions — only an intense engrossment in his chosen field. The days of sipping whisky and smoking a cigarette during play may be long gone, but there are plenty of other ways to get the mind to wander. For example, a missed shot could cause untold agony, and from this point, the player usually never recovers.

Current Asian billiards champion, Dhruv Sitwala — he is also Advani’s close friend — believes that it is all in the mind. “Pankaj has the ability to forget about the past — be it what happened a year ago, or just seconds before — and refocus on the present moment. If he plays a bad shot, it is immediately forgotten. I have never seen him lose control over his emotions — whatever be the circumstances. This is what makes him better than the rest of us,” Sitwala says.

This came to the fore, albeit in reverse fashion, during Advani’s recent world-title run in Egypt. Up against the Chinese potting sensation, Zhao Xintong, in the IBSF World snooker final, the Indian knew that he could not afford even the slightest of slip-ups. He steadily worked his way to a 7-6 lead in the best-of-15 frame encounter, and watched Xintong fluff a regulation pot. The 18-year-old prodigy was clearly annoyed at himself for making the error, and Advani had his man. “When Xintong got upset, I knew that this was my best chance to finish the match. He showed a moment of weakness, and I had to capitalise,” Advani would state later. Sure enough, a century break followed, and the fate of the championship was sealed.

These instances provide some clues on what makes Advani click on the mental side, but what of his technique and skills? Decorated ladies player Vidya Pillai, who watched her countrymate fight it out in the summit clash, says that the power of a good safety often goes unnoticed. “With enough practice, most players can pot and build breaks. But Pankaj scores over everybody with his incredible safety play,” she says.

“It was such a treat to watch him in the final. Xintong is a fabulous shot-maker, but Pankaj kept him out by placing superb return safeties. Pankaj takes to safeties like fish to water. This frustrated Xintong, who was forced to make errors.

“Once he made the odd error, Pankaj pounced. Let me tell you, even if he plays against Ronnie O’ Sullivan (a British all-time great), I’d give Pankaj a 50-50 chance. He can stop anyone with his safeties,” Vidya says.

She adds that Advani’s ability has increased manifold since he returned from his recent stint on the professional snooker tour. “That period on the Pro Tour has been brilliant for him. I can see a huge change,” she says.

As for what lies ahead, Vidya is not brave enough to bet against the 15-time World champion. “He could go on to win even a 100 World titles. With Pankaj, you never know.”