“There are many senior players you can learn from. Even though I have won a lot of titles I still think I am a student of the game and have a lot to learn in this wonderful sport,” Pankaj Advani tells K. Keerthivasan and R. Venkatnarayan.
Pankaj Advani has done almost everything that an amateur cue sports player can hope to achieve. He has won the world billiards and snooker titles in the longer format as well as the shorter version and the 6-red world snooker title twice.
The poster boy of cue sports in India still has the drive and the inclination of a beginner.
In Chennai to take part in the MCC-Kumbhat 6-red invitation snooker tournament recently, the 30-year-old spoke exclusively to Sportstar about a variety of things including the urgent need to televise the sport, on where the Billiards and Snooker Federation of India needs to pull up its socks, on the growing popularity of 6-red in India, why he decided to leave pro snooker, on the Central Government’s neglect of cue sports and why he doesn’t subscribe to the Government’s belief that the Olympics is the be-all of sports.
Question:You’ve won 13 World titles and 26 national championships across age group categories. What keeps driving you?
Answer: It’s not about numbers anymore. It’s about evolving as a sportsman. It’s about playing to the best of your ability, fulfilling your potential. If I can see myself improving even more in the next few years, that for me would be very, very fulfilling as a sportsperson.
If you look at any sportsperson, who has performed consistently and been at the top, there are quite a few. Someone like Federer, whom I really look up to for the way he has re-invented himself. When he was not winning Grand Slams and tournaments he came back strongly to buck the odds. He may not have won a Grand Slam in the last couple of years, but he is still beating the top guys. It is all about re-inventing yourself and constantly finding ways to improve and that for me is the greatest satisfaction for a sportsperson.
At any point of time have you felt that you’ve done enough and has complacency set in at any stage of your career?
Obviously, if you win a lot, there are times when you get complacent, when you tend to take it easy and not practice much. Then you lose your sharpness a bit. Suddenly you lose a couple of matches and then it’s a wake-up call. That’s part and parcel of sport. Every sportsperson goes through a purple patch and a rough patch after that. It’s a constant struggle. But it’s wonderful to compete at the highest level and showcase your skills and talent. I am fortunate that a lot of people have supported me along the way.
The audience in Europe and China likes the traditional format, while in India the longer format hasn’t found a big following. In that regard, is the 6-red a format which suits India?
The 6-red will help attract more people to the game because it is quick and fast, there is scope for a lot of upsets. It requires skill, but at the same time the luck element is huge. It has the ability to be a television friendly sport. It has all the ingredients to make cue sports popular.
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Is there a danger of youngsters taking to 6-red giving the longer format the miss?
In the sub-continent 6-red is good. Ultimately, if you want to excel in countries like Europe and China and England, obviously you have to be skilful in the longer format. I don’t see a major difference between 6-red and 15 reds in the sense that if you are able to clear up with six reds and pot six reds with colours and clear the table then you are almost as good to play the 15-red format. The only thing you require is more stamina, a little more thinking. You have to apply yourself more in 15-red and it is more tactical.
Also, I don’t think we have enough 6-red tournaments to be sustainable for anyone. 6-red will just work as a means to an end in the sense that it will popularise the sport. And then eventually players when they represent India will obviously have to stick to the 15-red format.
What are your suggestions to youngsters, who want to seriously take up billiards and snooker? What should they aim for?
The first thing is to get their basics right. I started in a snooker parlour myself. When I went to the Karnataka State Billiards Association, I proved myself and when they saw that I had talent they gave me a playing membership. So it is not as difficult as people think it is. If you are talented in a sport and you show promise, you can get memberships in clubs. Get yourself trained by a senior player and do well in state championships and move on from there.
Is there any particular fitness regimen required for this sport?
Fitness is crucial in any sport. It’s the key to your success. In our sport, we don’t require as much of strength training as the training of the mind. My brother, Dr. Shree Advani, is a sports psychologist and we stay together. He is my mind coach and that makes a huge difference. Right there at the top, the top five players, there is hardly anything that separates us. It’s how you deal with anxiety and stress, pressure of performance, what do you do when you are down in a match, etc. I go to the gym three-four times a week. I work on my endurance and stamina more than my strength, because that’s what you require. You require prolonged periods of concentration.How about meditation?
I don’t do meditation, but visualisation. Visualisation is one thing which has worked very well for me. You just create a picture of playing well before a match. You go through all these feelings. Some of the best matches that I’ve played are after I have actually imagined the worst. When you go through the worst you’ve already seen the worst possible outcome.
When you play a match it’s entirely different. It’s not as bad as you thought it would be. So there are many ways of dealing with how you approach a game. All top players have a particular way of approaching a game.
How was defending the World 6-red championship in Karachi? Was there more pressure?
I didn’t expect anything from myself. One, 6-red is unpredictable; two, I was not feeling well at all. I had a throat infection. I was almost not on the flight to Karachi. Three, we were scared of Pakistan in certain ways. Because I had been there before I knew it would not be so much of a problem. We were playing a team event after the 6-red and I couldn’t ditch my partner. I lost my first match in the group as I had to take three flights and had to play a match the next morning. It was difficult to defend. This is probably one of the toughest titles I’ve had to defend.
Compared to the inaugural World 6-red title, was this different?
In the inaugural year, I didn’t know what to expect. Here, I knew what the competition was like. More than the pressure of defending, it was the fact that I was not in proper health and proper frame of mind to play. After I lost the first match and was struggling in the second, I told myself, ‘you can’t make excuses and now that you are here you may as well give your best.’ And I think that turned things around for me. Once I saw the competition was high, I gave my best.
Who are the promising players from India who have a bright future in the sport?
You have players like Sree Krishna, Jagdish, Pranit Ramchandani, Lakshman Rawat and Varun Madhan.
Do you believe that the sport is in the pink of health?
Once it is televised and once you get to see the 6-red format, cue sports will get better. In billiards the 100-up format will work more than the longer one, because people want to see quick results. They want to see action, upsets and activity. Once it is televised, it will be better.
How do you look at the Government’s support to cue sports?
I am not complaining that the Central Government hasn’t done anything. It has supported our sport and many other sports in India. But what it needs to understand is that policies need to be inclusive, be equal to every sport, whether it is an Olympic sport or a non-Olympic one, whether it is an Asian Games sport or a non-Asian Games sport.
Are you referring to the Target Olympic Podium (TOP) scheme?
I am not saying that TOP should include other sports. I am saying that if it (Government) has Rs. 30 crore to spend on only six to seven sports which they feel will get Olympic medals, why don’t they pay incentives to cue sports players which have been pending for the last five years? That amazes me. Incentives for all the medals which India has won in the Asian championships and the World championships in the last five years have not come.
It doesn’t upset me, it amazes me. I am not going to cry foul and say that I am complaining or begging. I am saying, ‘Where are the priorities? Here you have a sport which has given you title after title; Asian Games medals, Asian championships gold, World championships gold. Women players are doing well and they are neglected for Arjuna Awards.You are talking about Vidya Pillai?
Yes, obviously. She is the most deserving person. I can’t think of anyone who deserves more. She should have been in the list this year. She won the World Cup 6-red gold in a two-member team event in Ireland in ’13 and they say a two-member team doesn’t carry that much weightage. Then you have a doubles specialist getting the Khel Ratna award. I am not against Sania (Mirza) getting the Khel Ratna. She has done really well for herself. At the same time, what I say is don’t have policies that show double standards.
Recently, para athlete Girisha went to the court arguing against the award of Khel Ratna to Sania Mirza. In this respect, how important is Government recognition to sport in terms of taking the sport forward?
If an award is due, it should come from the authorities, and the players should not be left to ask for it. I don’t believe in asking for awards. The funds given for the Federation have been nearly cut by half this year just because we are not part of any quadrennial event. And this for a sport which has consistently given you title after title; Asian Games medals, World championships gold.What does cue sport lack?
I think it is a combination of factors. I think the (National) Federation has to do a lot more. For example, the Premier League hasn’t taken off. It is probably going to happen in the first half of next year. The Federation has to take these things up with the Government.
Overall we have had a great tradition and legacy. We’ve had Wilson Jones, the first ever World champion (of independent India) in any sport in India. Since Jones we’ve had a plethora of stars and champions.
Talking about champions to take the sport forward, billiards and snooker have always had champions. But still cue sport hasn’t been able to garner attention.
It needs to be televised. Television is the key. Seriously, the Federation has to do a lot more to make the sport more accessible not only to people in big cities but also all over the country. Make it accessible to youngsters. Do something extra. Have a carnival and make the youngsters play with the stars. Don’t stick to the game. Do something different. It’s not the sport that sells. It is also about the glamour quotient.
What are the memorable wins and disappointing losses in your career so far?
In the bigger tournaments, touchwood, I have done well for myself. A couple of Asian finals I have lost. My first world title was in 2003 in (Jiangmen) China where I beat Saleh Mohammed of Pakistan (now Afghanistan) in the final. That was the best as I was only 18 years old and nothing was expected of me. I was possibly the 20th favourite person to win and ended up winning it. It’s a terrific feeling when you lift your first trophy. As far as losses go, it would be the loss in the final of the Asian snooker championship to Hamza Akbar of Pakistan in Malaysia this year. I was up in the deciding frame and lost. And then the 2002 Asian billiards championship where I lost to Ashok Shandilya in the final. Disappointing, yes, but I think I’ve made up for it with my world titles.
Our Federation is doing its best. The selection is done in a fair manner. In that sense there is no politics. But they need to do much more to make the sport more popular.One major roadblock that you can point out?
I feel that our obsession with the Olympics is making us believe that the Olympics is the be-all to aim for in India. In any other country, that is not the case. Like China or America or Australia, they churn out world beaters consistently. They are not worried about just the Olympics. They create champions. And those champions perform over a period of 10-15 years and as a result they are bound to win an Olympics medal in their journey. Here we are doing the opposite. We just invest for two years in a scheme and invest on six-seven sportspersons or sport to train for the Olympics and we are just happy with the three-four medals. This is not going to work in the longer run. If you have to create a sporting culture you have to create champions or at least churn out world beaters consistently, so they ultimately win you medals at every Olympics. What’s happened in the last two years, our performance in the Olympics has become the benchmark of excellence, which I do not agree with. I’ll tell you why. Because sport is all about consistency, about winning year after year. We need to change our perception of sporting excellence. Do we want to have four or five medals or do we want consistent world beaters in every sport whether it is an Olympic sport2 or not? These are the questions that the Government needs to answer.How much does technology help in cue sports?
It is important to see videos of yourself, to see your shots. I don’t do that regularly. Basically, I keep my eyes open. There are a lot of coaches not only from India, but different countries as well. In India we have great coaches like Arvind Savur and Manoj Kothari. There are many senior players you can learn from. Even though I have won a lot of titles I still think I am a student of the game and have a lot to learn in this wonderful sport.
What are the difficulties in professional snooker? You tried and left it?
I played in it for two years. At least I have the satisfaction of giving it a shot. Unfortunately, it is UK-centric. You either make a shift to UK or forget about it. Financially, it is tough. More than fame, it is all about staying in a country for nearly six months a year. And that’s what I was not prepared to do after more than two years. Felt really lonely. It is good in terms of exposure. I learnt a lot. It teaches you to take risks and also develop sportsmanship. Youngsters should go (to pro snooker). But it is very difficult for Asians to go and make a mark. There are only a few from other Asian countries there — Ding Junhui from China, James Wattana of Thailand and Marco Fu from Hong Kong. Only Aditya Mehta from India is playing in pro-snooker there. I know it is not easy for him. That’s why I feel the game has to be developed in India. There is potential. It is a colourful sport. Put it on TV and let’s have a league of our own.2
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