Cueing up for
Pankaj Advani’s recent triumph over reigning champion Mike Russel to capture his eighth world title — seventh in billiards (time format), reasserts his authority as the king of cue sports. And he was the youngest to achieve the feat
M. S. Unnikrishnan

Though India has had a great tradition in cue sport — billiards and snooker — it’s still considered as an elitist pastime with limited fan following. And it’s no mean achievement for an Indian player to excel in the sport, and catch the fancy of the world, as it’s basically the preserve of the English.

Pankaj Advani’s youthful exuberance, pleasing persona, and his winning ways, have endeared him to sports fans across the country. And his recent triumph over reigning champion Mike Russel to capture his eighth world title — seventh in billiards — in the time format, was a great achievement by any reckoning, as he was the youngest to achieve the feat. He recorded an emphatic 1895-1216 triumph over the seasoned Russel, 11-time champion, at Leeds (England) to reassert his stamp of authority as the king of cue sports.

In 2005, Pankaj had created history when he became the first cueist to lift both the time and points format titles of the IBSF World Billiards Championship in the same year, and played an encore in 2008. He won his first world title when he was 18, and is the only Asian to have been adorned with both the billiards and snooker world crowns.

Pankaj Advani (top) is the only Asian to have won both the billiards and snooker world crowns
Pankaj Advani (top) is the only Asian to have won both the billiards and snooker world crowns

The 27-year-old is a much decorated player, having already awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, Padma Shri and the Arjuna Award. Advani has made a steady climb to the top ever since he lifted the India Junior Billiards Championship in 2000. He annexed the title three more times, and made his mark in snooker, too, when he emerged the Indian Junior Champion in 2003 and 2005. In 2003, he also struck gold by winning his first World Billiards Championship. Since then Pankaj Advani has been on a roll, both in billiards and snooker. His mastery over billiards is evident from the fact that he is the reigning champion both in time and point formats, and is a pro who excels in billiard and snooker with equal felicity.

But before the World Billiards Championship, Advani was in a dilemma — whether to compete for the billiards world crown or the snooker championship, as the latter event in China was clashing with the former. But he opted for billiards, and in hindsight, his decision proved a winning deal. He displayed superb form throughout the championship, playing with patience and composure, to setup the title clash against Russel after quelling the challenge of fellow-Indian Dhruv Sitwala with a resounding 881-281 victory in the semifinals.

Pankaj Advani’s mastery over billiards is evident from the fact that he is the reigning champion both in time and point formats. He is a pro who excels in billiard and snooker with equal felicity

This commanding win considerably bolstered his confidence when he took on Russel to annex his seventh billiards world title, and fourth in the time format. It was history repeating itself for Pankaj, as he had tamed Russel to win the World Professional Billiards Championship at the same venue in 2009.

“I took a tough decision earlier this year to play both billiards and snooker at the highest level, and I am glad that I have been able to maintain top form in both the formats,” Pankaj had said after his title triumph. “This win is a testament that if you follow your heart, nothing is impossible,” he added. He was in rollicking form throughout the championship, remaining unbeaten in the earlier rounds to enter the knockout as the top seed in both points and time formats. He developed self-doubt when he lost to Peter Gilchrist in the quarterfinals of the points format, but bounced back, and was composed and calm while getting the better of Rupesh Shah in the quarterfinals of the timed format, as well.

It is indeed a remarkable achievement for a young player to win all that there is to win in his sport, when most sportspersons only begin to peak at his age. This speaks volumes about his talent, resilience and hard work. May his tribe multiply!







Big break
Ruma Kat

IN the 19th century, Sir Neville Chamberlain dubbed an opponent who missed a shot during a billiards game as ‘snooker’ . The word ‘snooker’, referred to his lack of experience and was also the slang term used for first-year cadets or inexperienced personnel.

In India, Michael Ferreira, Geet Sethi, and Pankaj Advani are a few, who have taken the sport to unprecedented heights.

Pankaj Advani with his recent world title has surpassed all international players to be emerge as the active cueist to compete at the highest level in both billiards and snooker. His success in the international arena will definitely encourage new players.

Among most youngsters, cue sports generally begin from 8-ball or 9-ball pool among friends at a nearby club during the school or college days. Echoing these sentiments, Panchkula-based Divya Sharma (28), India's number 5 in 8-ball pool and number 6 in 9-ball, says, "This game is very addictive. You start with pool, shift to snooker for more accurate shots and then try your hand at billiards. But once you start playing, you just cannot resist and play every day and sometimes for hours ." Sharma is currently the only north Indian cueist to be in the top-8 in both categories.

Social acceptance for a game that is played, at times, in shady clubs and for which you might have to shed more than a hundred bucks per hour to play, doesn't come so easily. The players, who are at the top, have struggled in their initial years. Many could not even convince their family members to believe in themselves and their calibre. According to Rajat Khaneja (29), two-times winner of the Chandigarh state championship, "Snooker has always been my passion, but my parents were totally against it when I started. After some time, I started winning tournaments and they saw my name and photographs in the newspapers. They never stopped me after that." Khaneja has taken coaching from world-level coach PJ Nolan to improve his professional snooker.

Rakesh Duggal, Secretary, Chandigarh Billiards and Snooker Association, says “This game is very demanding. It not only needs time and money, but also requires a healthy body and a calm mind. A professional snooker player's day starts with exercise and meditation. If you do not exercise daily, you may get a severe backache because of the continuous back bending. Meditation helps you to focus on how and where to hit the ball." Duggal, is also coaching Sumit Talwar, one of the quarterfinalists in the 2010 Asian Games, Guangzhou, and is also the winner of 2010 National 8-ball Championship. "I practice for minimum 10 hours every day," says Talwar. "My goal is to be a professional world-class cueist," adds Talwar.

New Delhi-based Pushpender Singh (24), who was ranked 20th in World U-21 Championship in 2007, too, harbours of being a professional cueist. "I practice for hours. There was a time when I stopped playing because I wasn't winning tournaments. But then my uncle encouraged me and I now hope to be a world-class player one day," adds Pushpender, who defeated the No 2 player of Asia in the 2009 Asian Games.

To compete at the international level, it is important for players in the region to get exposure. To achieve this goal, beside state and the national championships, many open tournaments are being organised. The prize money in these tournaments is about 10 times the entry fees. Many players compete and play to win, as many then can invest in professional sports equipment. A pair of professional cue sticks can cost around Rs 20,000 onwards.

A shot at success: At eight, Chandigarh-based Ranveer Duggal is one of the youngest snooker players of the region. He started playing at the age of two, when he could not even reach the table. “He used to sit over the pool table at home and play with the balls,” says his father Sandeep Duggal. At the age of six, Ranveer was given an award by Geet Sethi as he was the youngest-ever participant in the Pool Nationals. In 2011, he was the youngest participant in the Snooker Nationals in Pune. “He is 4 feet 8 inches tall, two inches shorter than the cue stick. But I know he’ll be able to beat any player in the world one day,” hopes Sandeep. 
Rajat Khaneja (right) is the two-time winner of the Chandigarh state championship Photos:
Nitin Mittal