Pankaj Advani is a lot of things — a multiple world champion, India's star cueist, a player who has made his mark in not one but two sports, a recipient of the prestigious Arjuna Award, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and the Padma Shri. Yet, above all of it, he is a sportsmen who loves his craft, as it becomes evident after a conversation with him.
Almost two decades, 15 world championships, and numerous accolades later, one would imagine the thrill of the game may have dimmed. But the 30-year-old is still hoping to learn more about the game and improve, he is eager for newer challenges and hopes to better his own (admittedly illustrious) record.
Firstpost caught up with him for a chat about all things cue sport. From the difference between snooker and billiards and the challenge of remaining motivated to keep improving, and his thoughts on India's infrastructure for cue sports, read on to know what Pankaj Advani had to say.
After all these years, is there any difference in the way you approach the game?
After playing for so many years and establishing myself in the game, I have realised that I have so much to learn. Learning is a never ending process, and the best part is that whatever the result, I feel that as long as I am improving myself and as long as I am trying out new things, adding new shots to my repertoire, I think I am in the right direction.
Cue sports is usually not age bound, even though you started at an early age and are going strong with former players saying you have many years left in you. What’s your take on that?
It (cue sport) is not highly physical in nature but I still feel that fitness is crucial to one's development as an athlete whether you are a snooker player, shooter or a chess player or even a hockey, tennis or cricket player. But in cue sports you can play for a very long period of time, you don't have to retire in your thirties or have injuries slow you down. But yes, your reflexes become slow even in a game like ours after a certain age and it is not as easy as it was when you were younger.
Apart from the the physical aspect, what are the challenges in cue sports that are unique to it?
Every sport has its own challenges. Billiards and snooker are associated with prolonged periods of concentration and intense focus, to be able to handle pressure and be still. I do feel that in a sound body lies a sound mind so if you are physically fit, you are also mentally sharper.
Also, one has to be extremely agile and flexible in a game likes ours. When it comes to the back or different postures, or positions on the table. I cannot stress enough about the importance of being physically fit. Did you know that top chess players from Russia used to do weight training and it helped them tremendously?
Here is a sport (billiards and snooker) where there is so much movement around the table — it may not look like there is a lot of activity happening but only the player who actually plays it knows — you are bending down, you need to have hand eye-coordination, your arms need to be still and your mind needs to be alert as well as focused. Sometimes if you are scoring heavily you are on the table for a period of 10-15 minutes in a game of billiards.
What are your goals for the coming year?
To the play the game with ease, to play with efficiency, fluidity. I am still evolving as a sportsperson, still evolving in the game and lot of people say that once you reach the pinnacle, it is important to maintain, but I disagree. I don't believe in the word maintain, I feel that you should try to be better, to be the best you can be and not compete with anyone else and try to be excellent and successful all round.
As far as tournaments are concerned, there are a lot of tournaments coming up. In March-April, I have Asian Billiards and Snooker Championships to look forward to and then July onwards the world events begin. It's not that I set my targets on any one tournament or I feel like I have to win this, this and this. So go with the flow, enjoy myself, enjoy my game, work hard and get better at what I do.
As a cueist, how does it feel to be missing out on the Olympics? Do you think cue sports should be part of the Games?
Olympics is a big stage, it comes once in four years. I wouldn't say it is the be all and end all of sports, but at the same time it is very important, you have most of the sports in it and lot of importance is attached it. Obviously I would have liked to be part of it but it's not like the end of the world. All I can say is that I wish all our athletes the very best of luck. I would have at least liked to have the opportunity to go for it. But no sweat, if it's not there, it is not there. We have our World Championship, we have our Asian Championship I have been a part of the Asian Games where I have won gold medals in succession in 2006 and 2010 so I know how it feels to go out there and win gold medals for your country. But as I said, Olympics is just one event it comes once in four years so maybe one day hopefully.
What change have you seen in cue sports in India from when you started to now?
I think there are a lot of youngsters who are taking up the sport now, there are lot of people who are interested in learning the game. Whether they make it to the national or international level is another story, but just the fact that there have been an increase in the number of participants in our national championships every year is a good sign. It has gone up from 800 to more than a 1110 and every year the number of entries keep going up. This is indicative of the fact that the sport is actually gaining in popularity. There definitely has been a change over the last 10 years and people are supporting sports. They are understanding that it is not only about the so-called conventional, mainstream sports. We may have talent in different sports, we have a guy in luge, Shiva Keshavan. If you are talented, then I feel we must encourage every kind of athlete.
What’s your take on the upcoming cue sports talents in India?
There are lots of young players, there is a guy called Srikrishna from Tamil Nadu and there is another junior player Ishpreet Chadha from Maharashtra. They are just under 20 and they are actually they are almost as good as most of the seniors in our country, so the future is very bright. I also find that the public sector companies have been supporting cue sports for a while now for the last 10-12 years. railways and many organisations are recruiting sportsperson and giving them jobs.
What do you think should be done to make cue sports more popular in India?
I think television is where we need to be seen, that's where the focus needs to be on at the moment, because lot more people will have access to the sport and be educated of the rules. The world of sport is becoming more entertainment oriented and I feel that shorter formats and compact games and quick, unpredictable results seem to be the flavour right now. So anything that's short, fast, quick that can capture the attention of people is something that will work. It has to be on television that is when it will get eyeballs.
I also feel our perception about sport needs to change. Are we interested in being consumers of two or three sports in our country or are we interested in learning about our athletes across various disciplines of sport? Are we willing to invest money in them are we willing to give them a chance and understand what they do and how tough it is?
That's where I feel Games like Commonwealth and Asian Games, Olympics bring about more awareness. At the same, I think we need to look beyond that because these events comes in once in four years and we feel that they are massive events. I feel that the true measure of consistency and sporting greatness lies in the fact that an athlete must be consistent and must be performing year after year, tournament after tournament not just once in four years. I feel there are a lot of areas where our thinking needs to change, our perception of sport needs to change
Do you think that cue sports are often seen only a club activity more than a sport? Is that something that affects the way it is perceived?
It's very strange because some people tell me that it is perceived as an elitist sport, some people tell me that 'oh, it is played in a parlour that people are drinking and it's a recreational activity and it is played only in clubs'. If you want to play it as a recreation and see it as that then obviously no one is stopping you but at the same time do recognise the fact that we have nearly 25 other state associations that are actually active and that are hosting national and international tournaments, world ranking events, Asian and World Championships. We have a plethora of stars and champions who actually achieve laurels for the country. Not just one player there are 50 odd players who actually won medals for our country so it is highly competitive, highly skillful.
I started at a parlour and I went to a state association to hone my skills and get serious.
I'll give you an example, I was in England between 2012-14 and I went to probably one of the best academies in the world because I wanted to improve further as a player so I went and I played there, I played in that circuit there and it made a difference. Similarly if people want to hone their skills in India, they have to go to state associations whether it is in Bangalore or Bombay or in Chennai.
On that note, do you think that India has the requisite facilities to train players?
Absolutely, there are facilities everywhere and there are clubs as well and many people say that you have to be member of a club but there are so many clubs that offer sports memberships specifically to sportspersons who are talented in a particular sport. You don’t have to become a full fledged member, you can be a sports member and you can use the sports facilities. I think that itself is a great step.
You recently lost the billiards Nationals to Siddhartha Parekh. As rare as it is, how do you deal with defeats?
I believe that wins and losses are bound to occur, it's not my birthright to win, even though I maybe the overwhelming favorite and I know that expectation is always going to be there when I enter a tournament. But I think I also need to be fair to my opponent. I think he played exceptionally well, very focussed and a couple of errors I made in the middle of the match and he punished me without giving me another chance. That's the nature of sport really, you slip up, you blink and before you know it's all over.
While it was disappointing, I think I need to go back to the drawing board and work on a few areas.
On the bright side, this signals that there are players in India who are capable of beating the world champion?
People may think that Pankaj Advani is playing so it shouldn't be a problem and even if I win they say 'yes, we expected you to do that' but I know how tough it is, I know what kind of competition I have and the fact that they are constantly improving and working hard on their game is a very good sign for sport in our country.
The formats also matter, for example the quarterfinal that I lost, it was a shorter format in billiards, in that you cannot take anyone for granted because a short format is very unpredictable and even if you are the best player, even if you are world champion there is no guarantee that you are going to end up winning. You have to treat every opponent equally even if it s a lesser opponent and you know you are going to get many chances just the fact that you respect the game, you love the game so much that you want to play your best every single time. Besides its a very professional way of being a player.
Billiards and snooker appear to be the same for a layman but they are different sports and it must be a challenge to balance both?
Both billiards and snooker is played on the same table but the scoring pattern, the technique, the way you approach the game there is a lot of contrast. Yes of course it is very tough to balance both sports because I have to change my technique when I am switching from billiards to snooker. In snooker there is more tactical play, in billiards there is more scoring so you have to actually be prepared for prolonged periods of concentration in billiards but in Snooker you got to go into the hit-and-run approach, you take whatever you get and then you play defensive or you have to attack when you have to so they are very contrasting. 99.9 percent of cueists specialist in only one sport and in that lies my biggest challenge - to excel in both and so far I think I haven't done a bad job at all.