For a professional cueist, opulence comes with the territory. Billiards and snooker – subsumed under the larger umbrella of cue sports – have been associated with colonial-era gymkhanas where those with the deep pockets partake in a game or two while discussing important matters.
That imagery has percolated a myth about the sport being elitist. Of course, it’s not helped by the fact that for tournaments on the International Billiards and Snooker Federation (IBSF) pro tour, players are required to turn up in the traditional dress of bow ties and waistcoats, contributing to the aristocratic milieu.
However, much of India’s younger lot pick up the sport in dingy parlours with a pay-and-you-play facility, rates going as low as ₹1/ minute for a pool or snooker table. So where did Pankaj Advani, the country’s foremost cueist and a 23-times world champion in English billiards and snooker, first learn the ropes of the sport?
“I first learned it at a parlour too because I saw my elder brother play there,” says Advani as he reminisces the days of his initiation into the sport, in a conversation with Firstpost. "Eventually, I did move to the Karnataka state association's academy when I felt that I need proper coaching to up my game for state and national level tournaments."
“I don’t think billiards or snooker are elitist at all. It’s actually one of the cheaper sports because the only thing which the player needs to invest in is the cue stick,” Advani quips.
The Bangalore native, who won his 23rd world title in Mandalay, Myanmar last month, goes on to concede that while the sport may not require one to be at the peak of their physical prowess, as perhaps some of the other sports such as tennis or football, it’s one’s mental faculties which are tested the most during a professional snooker or billiards match. “I do work on strengthening my core and enhancing flexibility as we have to stretch at weird angles and stand for long hours during a match but it’s not the typical muscle-building sessions as maybe for other sports,” says Advani.
“It’s the mental focus that counts the most. This is the only sport, apart from Golf, where you set a stationary ball in motion. So when one is about to strike the ball, there are a lot of thoughts that can cloud your vision and hamper your performance. Those thoughts can make or break you really.”
In fact, 2006 was a year in Advani’s professional career where the cueist failed to make the cut at major tournaments and contemplated quitting the sport. What made him grind through that phase and come out triumphantly further highlights the importance of mental conditioning in cue sports. “My brother Shree, who’s a sports psychologist has helped me immensely in terms of the mental conditioning required for a professional career. Those sessions really helped me unleash my potential,” says Advani.
Having been at the top of his game since he was 18 years old, Advani, 34, has worked past the temptation of giving up either English billiards or snooker to focus on just one discipline. Instead, he’s biding his time racking up titles in both formats of the sport, evidenced by his brace of titles –world billiards and team snooker – in Myanmar last month. That makes observers wonder if they’ve been witnessing the works of a true-blue unicorn.
After all, modern-day vagaries of most sports call for specialisation. Advanced age makes tennis players move from singles to doubles. Cricketers too, give up Tests first, followed by the ODIs, so that their careers can be prolonged with the short and crisp T20 format. Most of Advani’s contemporaries have also focussed their attention on either billiards or snooker.
However, Advani remains unperturbed by the trend, not in any mood to follow suit. He is the only player in the world to have won world titles in both the 6-red and 15-red formats of snooker, and both formats of billiards – time and point. What then, makes the Indian keep clicking after all these years, across formats? “I think I’ve grown surer of my tactics and playing style. Before, I obviously put in a lot more hours as a youngster. Over the years, it’s more quality over quantity. So I do the two hours of practice and then come back to rest before going back, if at all I need a second session in a day,” says Advani with an air of quiet confidence which goes with his stature in the sport internationally.
“In a typical training session, what I do is set up different routines on the table, practice specific shots, sometimes play alone, especially when I need to work on certain areas of my game. On occasion, I’ll focus on safety and try and hit a safe shot, making sure that the ball locks in a spot where the opponent can’t get it into the pocket.”
While the skilful aspects of the game and shot-making are honed through relentless practice and hard work, according to Advani, the secret to success lies elsewhere.
“I’ve added different layers to my game and it’s not just one-dimensional. I like experimenting, trying a couple of unusual shots, my technique is unorthodox and somewhere, that has helped my longevity in this sport,” says Advani.
India has a rich legacy when it comes to English billiards with proven heavyweights winning Asian and world titles since the '50s. For much of the '90s, Geet Sethi steamrolled the competition at hand, winning the World Professional Billiards Championship four times in the decade.
While Advani is a glorious extension to the country’s legacy in billiards and cue sports at large, the 34-year-old is already thinking about the future. “I think a proper grassroots programme is essential. To that end, I’m trying to do my bit with the initiative ‘Cue Schools by Pankaj Advani’ with a friend of mine where we’ve tied up with a few schools in Bangalore. So we want to take this game to as many schools as we can across the country,” says Advani, also pointing out that there’s more support needed from the Billiards and Snooker Federation of India (BSFI) to grow the sport.
“We also need to show people that there is a future in the sport. Some of the players are recruited by PSUs which help a lot in funding the player’s professional expenses. But that happens only when you reach the top eight in the rankings so many players are invariably left out.”
“The federation needs to look at having more tournaments across the country, especially for the juniors and the ladies since their representation is scarce when compared to those on the senior men’s circuit.”
Advani's performances on the pro tour show no signs of ebbing, suggesting that the swansong isn't yet on the cards. Moreover, the Padma Bhushan awardee exudes confidence as he expresses his belief that he can be at the top of his game for another 10 years, if not more.
However, it's when one quizzes him about life beyond the sport that Advani shifts in his chair, some queasiness showing. "I don't know what I'll do besides billiards and snooker," says Advani, a wry smile crossing his face.
"One is definitely taking up the academy full-time and getting more people into the sport. That will always remain a priority. Also, some causes, like saving water, are close to my heart and I'd like to do everything in my power to contribute to that movement," he signs off.
Updated Date: Oct 23, 2019 16:45:48 IST