Losses are good, else you won't push yourself to work harder, says Pankaj Advani

From his preparation routine and growth as a player over the years, to the state of the sport in India, Pankaj Advani talks about all things snooker.

Pankaj Advani said: The Karnataka State Billiards Association has been the best in India for a very long time but now you have academies coming up in Delhi in Talkatora stadium. You have some really good clubs in Mumbai as well.   -  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Pankaj Advani has had quite a year. He won the IBSF World Snooker Team Event with partner Aditya Mehta, after bringing home his 22nd World Championship title a few weeks prior. The decorated cueist talk to Sportstar about the sport in India, its accessibility to aspiring players and his own ambitions for the future.

Is billiards and snooker an expensive sport?

It's not an expensive sport. That's a misconception really. It's a myth. You really have to invest in a cue that's the real thing. However, obviously, this isn't a sport where you can just take the cue and go on to the street and play.

Every sport has a lot of challenges. You look at tennis and badminton. They are much more expensive sports than cue sports. You need sponsorship to travel, investment in equipment, fitness and physio every thing. In billiards and snooker it's just that once you get access to the facilities then obviously it's not much of a challenge.

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Nowadays, clubs are offering sports memberships and if you are talented, you can use the billiards sections. Me and my friend (Sasha) in Bengaluru have started an initiative called Cue School by Pankaj Advani. The idea is to take the sport to schools. Our activities are currently based in Bengaluru but we eventually plan to go pan India and introduce this game in as many schools as we can. We need to start at the grassroot level to give school children the chance to play the game. If they want to take it up as a career, we can provide them a platform.

What kind of physical demands do billiards and snooker impose on a player?

Many people say that it's a game of concentration and mental strength. Yes, it's predominantly that, but you need to be physically fit in order to be mentally sharp. To be strong you need to be flexible because you are also stretching in weird positions on the table. And also the fact that large amount of endurance is required. Because sometimes you are playing matches for five six hours. You have to maintain your physical strength and as well as mentally be aware of what is going on.

Is billiards spectator friendly in comparison to snooker?

It's the other way round because snooker has got more colours on the table, so it has more appeal. However, I think any sport now, like cricket, has gone the 20-20 way to attract more viewers and even get the women and senior people to follow it.

I think every other sport needs to go the shorter format way because people's attention span has shortened. People want a quick, crisp game with unpredictable results. And drama as well. Only the shorter formats will provide that. The traditional format is the 16 red format which has been played for years but even if we go the shorter way in snooker and have a 6 red format it will go well on television, and attract viewers.

You hail from Bengaluru. What is the standard of facilities in the city?

The Karnataka State Billiards Association has been the best in India for a very long time but now you have academies coming up in Delhi in Talkatora stadium. You have some really good clubs in Mumbai that have upgraded their billiards sections and also their facilities.

But talking about KSBA, it boasts of maximum number of tables under one roof as an association. It has 12 billiards and snooker tables and a few pool tables as well. Most of the national selection tournaments, many national and international level tournaments have taken place at KSBA. Lot of coaches are also available to guide people. We have summer coaching camps as well and that's how I came up as I remember.

Pankaj Advani also spoke about the existence of private leagues in Cue Sport.   -  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

In the summer of 1996, I was playing snooker by paying 80-100 rupees an hour and I joined KSBA for a summer camp. I trained under one of the coaches, the basic one, and they spotted my talent and that's how I applied for membership and I grew. Every state will have the state association and it's up to the respective state how they develop their own state association. KSBA is the one to follow because it has produced so many champions.

Are facilities accessible even to those who may not be able to afford it?

Yes, if you are promising, show talent and perform in the junior and senior state rankings, we do provide incentives. I don't come from a very affluent background. The first time I won a handicap tournament, like in golf, I was 11 and they waived my subscription fee for the whole year. You need to show some amount of talent and promise to eventually get the support and facilities.

Do you think your achievements have evoked the kind of appreciation you would have expected from your countrymen?

It is up to the country really. If winning a World Championship is a big deal, then obviously it will be a big deal. But if it's about the sport in which you win the World Championship then obviously it's double standards. If it's about just the achievement, then I think it's up to the country to recognise an individual's performance in shooting, badminton or whatever the sport is.

Do you feel any kind of discrimination?

Our federation needs to understand that the sport needs to be televised and that people need to consume it rather than just witness and play. It will give them an idea of what the sport is. When you educate the public,there will be a deeper understanding of the magnitude of all our achievements and all our cues.

The focus these days is on private leagues. Can cue sport go the same way?

We did have a league in 2017 in Ahmedabad and it got televised but last two years nothing has happened. It's up to the Federation.

What about leagues overseas? Can we, and if yes how, bring that kind of appreciation for the sport in Indian audiences too? 

In China, UK and Europe, the sport gets televised. The production quality is amazing. We should also imbibe it as to how to go televising the sport in the most professional way. The people who are there at the helm of the Federation are aware of this. Back in the day, it was done in DD sports and there was a lot of viewership. The need of the hour is television.

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In India it's difficult because our perception of sports is to to go to the stadium and cheer and make noise. If it's sport, it has to be physical in nature as a form of entertainment. At the same time, there are lot of precision sports as well which require different set of skills like shooting and archery. In UK and China they appreciate the sport but they remain quiet during the shot. In India, it's difficult to adjust and cater to the needs accordingly.

Were you ever tempted to pursue any other sport?

 I started playing a little bit of basketball, badminton, table tennis and cricket. I was pretty useless to be honest until I discovered how good I was in snooker and billiards. That's the message I want to drive across to the youngsters that not everybody can become an `A’ class cricketer or a badminton or tennis champion. It's about where your talent lies. It can be a physical sport, a precision sport or maybe another field altogether. When I stared playing billiards and snooker and in fact when I hit the first shot ever, I realised that's where my calling lay. I never looked back after that. You have to pursue your passion irrespective of what the awards, rewards fame and recognition. You get all that as a by product.

You have dedicated more than a decade to this sport. What do you think the sport has given back to you, on a personal level?

At a very basic level,  it has given me an identity as I would be nobody without the sport really but more than that it has taught me how to deal with victories and defeats. It has taught me not to get egoistic when you win and sometimes it's okay to give yourself a pat on the back.

At the same time, it doesn't allow you to rest on your laurels. It teaches you to be gracious in defeat. If the opponent played well then it's great. Besides that, I have travelled a lot, travelled to so many different countries, seen so many customs and traditions and met people from different walks of life. It's just been a great educative experience. And that's what the sport has given me. The exposure, understanding how people function and growing as a human being are invaluable lessons.

If you had to choose a standout moment from your career, or more specifically, from the year gone by, which one would you pick?

This year I won two titles – Asian snooker and the IBSF world team snooker championship which I had not won in my career. So I would say this year has been a year of many firsts.

Two moments I would talk about are my first world title in 2003 in China. It was October 25 and it was Diwali, I remember. It was my Diwali gift to the nation. My Asian Games gold medal was also a very memorable one. When the flag goes up and National Anthem is being played there is no better feeling than to add up to the medal tally. I don't like to compare but like Asian Games and Olympics, which are important for the country, we also represent our country when we play the World Championship. I am however a bigger fan of consistency rather than winning a medal only at the Games.

What motivates you to keep pushing harder with every passing tournament?

I enjoy the journey with its all ups and downs. It wouldn't be fun if I was winning all the time. Of course fortunately I have won more than I have lost in my career so far and I wouldn't want that to change. Earlier in my career I was afraid of losing and also winning. Sometimes when you are there at the big stage, you are just afraid to go across the finish line but now I love being on that stage where I am shining as an artist and representing my country.

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I am grateful for all the opportunities. So I just look at it with a very different perspective now and enjoy every minute of it now. That's all that keeps me going. It doesn't matter to me what the statistics are, which records to be broken. I have more or less done and taken care of that. Now it's just about enjoying myself and the thrill of the competition. It's good to lose also because you get the reality checks. Otherwise you won't go back to the drawing board and work harder.

What kind of challenges or benchmarks have you set for yourself?

I am 34 now. People think that I am very young and perceive me as younger, sharper opponent. I have mentally aged so much though and few hair have turned white also but now I concentrate on my fitness and overall development. I understand that there is life beyond the sport. I want to grow as a person and travel the world, and in terms of the game obviously improve my fitness and other aspects. When you go close to 40 you obviously start slowing down a bit. To sustain myself for the next 10-15 years, I have to be physically fit in order to be sharp and match the younger guys.

A word of advice to youngsters who wish to pursue sport?

Two things- passion and hunger. Today's is a world of distractions, and technology consumes so much of our time in our lives and it's difficult to focus on one thing. I understand that those are the biggest challenges for the youngsters. When I started performing 10-15 years ago we didn't have social media, smart phones and all of that technology but now it's different. But if you are passionate about something, just do it for the love of it. One should also have the ability to dream big. I remember my first interview when I won the handicap tournament somebody asked what would you like to become. I said businessman and on thinking for a minute, I also said a world champion. I dreamt big from the beginning.

What does the year end look like for you in terms of competitions?

The second half of the year has been very hectic and there has been a lot of travel. There is just one more major event to go which is the IBSF World Snooker Championships (in Turkey). I leave for that in one week’s time. Then, I am done for the year. After that I can take a much needed break.

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