The game of snooker was accidentally invented in Jabalpur, India by a lieutenant of the British Army, Neville Chamberlain, in 1875. But it took more than 100 years before India had its first professional in the sport.
Ranked No 1 amateur in India, Yasin Merchant took a leap to the professional circuit in 1992. He was bold and brazen, just what the cut-throat environs of the pro tour called for. He reached a career-high ranking of 65 in 1996 and like all good snooker players, had a boisterous nickname: the Bombay Bomber.
"My turning pro came out of a vendetta," says Merchant, never too far from an interesting back story.
"There was an invitation tournament organized in India, with some the top pros coming for it. The draws were made by then and I was drawn to play the World No 1 at the time, Steve Davis. This was in 1990 when I was 23 and was the India No 1. Alok Kumar, who was the India No 2 at the time, and I rebelled as we thought we were being treated unfairly. At the time, someone passed a comment, 'who would give Yasin Merchant a chance to play against the top pros? He should give his right arm to play against them.'
"There was a war of words and it was mentioned that I would never get a chance to play against the top pros. I said I can play in the pro circuit.
"In 1991, in another Pro-Am tournament, I had beaten the World No 22 Danny Fowler and made it all the way to the final. At that time, I had a chat with Fowler and Tony Drago (who eventually won the tournament) and asked them about my chances in the pro circuit. They said I had a fairly good chance. They said, 'You have the right game for it; you are aggressive and are not a typical Indian player who is just playing to win every frame. That's the kind of game the pros play.'"
As luck would have it, that same year, the world snooker body (World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association) decided the open the game to anyone who was willing to pay the entry fees. The numbers shot up from 128 to over 900.
"I was ranked somewhere around 900 when I started but in the very first year I made it to 192," says Merchant, now 52. "Ronnie O'Sullivan joined the same time as I did! There was a time when we were running neck and neck, winning matches consecutively. I won 17 matches on the trot, so did he. I lost the 18th and he went on to win 77! He was a different class."
At the time, Merchant had to win 11 qualifying rounds to make it to the big-ticket main venue. Even though nerves got the better of him in the first four matches, he gradually got used to the surroundings.
"The last-32 was at the main venue, where it was televised. That was what I was told I would never be able to reach. In the very first season, I made it to three venues. I made that gentleman apologise in public. He said, 'I take back my words, I was wrong, and I'm happy that you proved me wrong,'" he says.
"The 1992 British Open, in Preston, is when I played my first main venue match. The first tournament, first match, again I was completely in awe. Next to me (seven-time world champion) Stephen Hendry is playing, the table next to that (six-time world champion) Steve Davis is playing. And you are announced in the arena, the man from Bombay, the 'Bombay Bomber'. You feel a little hollow in the stomach because it's like the Mecca. It's what Wimbledon is for tennis players. I didn't play well in the first match. I lost to myself, I lost to the occasion.
"Snooker is more of that because you don't have somebody hitting the ball back at you. It's more of how you can control when you are on the table. How you can conquer your fears and your pressures. How to be cool and calm at that time. The opponent is there, he's not gone completely out of your head. But when you are at the table, you are your only ally and opponent."
Even though Merchant had been to Europe and Great Britain, still the hub of snooker, before, staying there for a long time to compete in the pro circuit came with its own downside.
"England used to be depressing," says Merchant, who lived in an apartment with a friend, whom he convinced to become his manager. "Winters are very bad and you want to just run away from there. It affects the game. A happy mind is a successful mind. More than struggling to get used to the players or the playing conditions over there, it was the weather. How do you spend your evenings? The people there go to the bar and have a drink with their friends. For us, it's not the same, as it is I don't drink. So how do you pass your time? How much can you move around in a mall? Everything shuts down at five in the evening there."
But England is where the biggest prize money tournaments were. From being a breakaway arm of billiards, snooker had grown into a television spectacle worth millions. There was a time, the Indian pro informs, when there were four channels in Britain and three of them would show snooker simultaneously. The 2016 World Championships, which had a winners' purse of £330,000, was reportedly viewed by half a billion people across the world.
Merchant, who says he was more of a part-time snooker player because looking after the family business was his main job, never had a formal coach and played with a cue stick that cost £31 (equivalent to Rs 900 then).
He was introduced to the game at the age of 12 by his father at Mumbai's Islam Gymkhana.
"I used to go to the Islam Gymkhana with my dad every evening after school. But at that time I was not allowed to play," Merchant recalls. "Under-18 was not allowed at that time. I would steal a shot; when nobody was watching and maybe play a frame.
"But the strange thing was they used to have a U-21 Western India tournament and at the age of 13, I won that tournament. It was bigger than the nationals. Two days after winning that tournament, I was not allowed to enter the CCI (Cricket Club of India) billiards room. They said U-18s were not allowed. My dad is more aggressive than I am, so he kicked up a row about it. He wrote to people, saying, 'a 13-year-old is winning a tournament, how are you not allowing him? How are you going to create champions?" I am not sure, but I think from that moment onwards, they started relaxing the rules."
While Merchant flew the Indian flag high on the pro circuit, he was exceptionally proficient on the Asian Amateur circuit. The only player to compete in all the four Asian Games editions that featured snooker, Merchant won gold (2002 Busan, doubles), bronze (2006 Doha, team event) and silver (2010 Guangzhou). He also has two Asian Championships, 12 years apart.
"My first big win was at the 1989 Asian Championships," says Merchant.
"This was in New Delhi. I was scheduled to open the tournament, with the President of India watching the match. That time it was known as the Australasia Cup and I was playing a guy from New Zealand called Grant Hayward.
"I made a fool of myself and lost 4-0. It was humiliating. The President got up and walked away. I wanted to go into a hole and never come out. I called my dad and told him I'm coming back. He said, 'Don't worry, finish the tournament. Don't run away like that.' Next day I had an off day, I went and practised for six hours; I normally don't do that. My next match was against the top seed (Udon Khaimuk). I beat him in the decider and somehow managed to get out of my group. I beat Geet Sethi in the semis. In the final, I beat the top seed again after being 6-4 down, I beat him 8-6. The match lasted some seven-eight hours."
It was his first brush with fame. His name was featured in newspaper headlines and he was met with hearty applause on his flight from New Delhi to Mumbai.
"That was possibly the first time I thought I could become a professional," says Merchant, while reflecting on his career on a pleasant evening at Mumbai's Khar Gymkhana. It has been his 'home club' since the age of 16 and also has a snooker hall named after him.
"As a professional, we had no government support. A lot of the top pros had coaching, but coaches didn't come cheap in Europe. Maybe if I had one I would have doubled what I did achieve. But I did very well for someone whose life didn't revolve around the sport."
Even though India was the site of snooker's origin, it was mainly seen as billiards' country. Ever since Wilson Jones' World Amateur Championship title in 1958, the legacy has been carried forward by Michael Ferreira, Geet Sethi and Pankaj Advani. In snooker, however, Yasin Merchant is the man who shattered the glass ceiling.
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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2019 22:03:45 IST