Pankaj Advani on cue sports needing franchise-based league to attract fans, absence from Olympics and need for proper structure
Pankaj Advani talks about the lack of investment and interest in cue sports, the challenge of playing a non-Olympic sport, the need for a system in place to churn out quality players and more.
Pankaj Advani relishes the hectic schedule ahead. He is slated to compete at the 150-up IBSF World Billiards Championships, World 6-Red, Team Snooker Championships, longer format of the World Billiards meet in Melbourne and the IBSF World Snooker Championships in Antalya (October-November). These are some of the major tournaments, but unfortunately, none of them will be televised in India. This is not something new to Advani, who has been in the mix since 1996. But after almost two decades, 21 titles, and numerous accolades later, the 34-year-old is hoping for better things to come.
Firstpost caught up with Advani to talk about the lack of investment and interest in cue sports, the challenge of playing a non-Olympic sport, the need for a system in place to churn out quality players and more. Excerpts:
Do you think you have set a benchmark?
I would like to think so. At the start of my career, I never thought that I would win so much. But I remember when someone interviewed me for the first time, my first press interview, they asked me what would I like to become and I said, "I’d like to become a businessperson". That's because during that time, I didn’t think I would make a career out of cue sports. As an afterthought, I also joked that I would like to be a world champion someday. But life changes and here I am. Fortunately, I had good support from everywhere. I was tiny when I was interviewed. I could barely reach the table. People would make so much fun of me. But I did what I had to do and my performances do the talking.
Cue sports have never quite attracted many eyeballs or investment...
A franchise-based league can be a game-changer. You have the badminton, cricket and kabaddi leagues taking place but you also have volleyball and table tennis, which were not considered mainstream sports. A league like that will help us promote the sport. The federation needs to come up with a format. If a sport like cricket had to reinvent itself and switch to a shorter format, keeping in mind that people’s attention span has reduced, you need to have a quick, crisp and entertaining league with a lot of drama.
Have you taken any steps to educate people about cue sports?
In my small little way, I have. It is not going to happen overnight or you’ll see tangible results right away. A friend of mine and I have collaborated to open 'Cue School by Pankaj Advani', which is an initiative to introduce the game at the school level and grassroots for youngsters to have access to the game and just let them have a feel of it. And you never know in the process we may just find someone who is super talented. We will take them to the state championships and we will guide them to ensure that they get opportunities to perform in various competitions and hopefully create a future champion and a world champion someday. But the whole idea is to just get more people involved and make them understand that this is a serious competitive sport.
So we need to find people who can devote their time to this cause because I'm obviously travelling to tournaments. So, I can't devote that much time but every now and then and to make a visit to the school and to see how the kids have progressed.
Having won so many titles and awards, did you ever feel exhausted or felt that you have done enough for the country?
Obviously, as athletes, we tend to think selfishly and anybody who is involved in an individual sport would think, 'Okay, if I'm winning this, then I am entitled to awards or I should get this much recognition or rewards'. But off late, I've been thinking of ways to give back to the sport. We talk about equality in sports, but we also need to look at what's happening between the Olympics and non-Olympic sports. There is differentiation in terms of sports policy for non-Olympic sports. That should be reviewed. If you're not part of a quadrennial event, then the support and encouragement from the authorities are much lesser. We are working as hard as everybody else and we're also winning medals for the country consistently.
It's not the fault of players that it’s not a part of the Olympic Games. The world bodies or the federations can actually lobby for it. But if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. We still have the World Championships, we still have the annual events. I feel that we need to also encourage every sport equally whether it's part of the Olympics, Asian Games or not.
ASIAN SNOOKER CHAMPION My trophy cabinet is now complete Never worked so hard in my entire career to win a title. Had to fight back in most matches and even high fever during the final! NEVER SAY DIE pic.twitter.com/n6FodmTUbO
— Pankaj Advani (@PankajAdvani247) June 22, 2019
How do you feel about cue sports not being a part of the Olympic Games?
It is obviously disappointing. It hasn't affected me much because as a sportsperson, you are only looking at performing at the highest level on the big stage. Now that big stage could be the Asian Games that big stage could be the Olympics or it could be a state championship. Every tournament has its own significance and relevance. Yes, when we were out at the Asian Games it was a bit disappointing because we were there from 1998 up until 2010. And then in 2014 Asian Games in Korea, they removed cue sports and even chess because those were disciplines where they didn't have a chance. The hosts included disciplines where they had more chances of winning medals. Similarly, when India does events like we did the Commonwealth Games in 2010, it could have definitely lobbied for the sport like billiards or any other sport, which can give us more medals. We need to fight for our sport, right? It's okay to be a little biased because ultimately it'll help us win more medals. And why not? Because other countries do it. Though they exclude sports where they don't have a chance. We should also fight to include sports where we have great chances of winning medals.
But what makes the billiards and snooker so entertaining that people should watch it and federations should lobby for it?
That is the challenging part in India because people here are used to seeing contact sports. People are going out and stadiums and cheering and making noise, whereas snooker is a precision sport where people need to be quiet. But if we do a league format where we have people sort of making a little bit of noise and a carnival atmosphere without compromising on the nuances and the core part of our game, I think we can do something great on television. I also feel like it's the colour that the game brings. Actually, snooker is very colorful and it's beautiful to watch on TV. If it's televised properly and if the production quality is very good like how they show it in England in China. So, if we can get that kind of television coverage and the production quality can be at that standard then we definitely have a fair shot at being on television and having a financially viable league.
What are the lessons that India should learn from other countries in terms of cue sports?
One thing is to definitely have programs you know coaching programs and development programs. We just have our tournaments. And then we have selection events, we have national championships, some international events organised and that's it. But we don't have a structure where we have programs to nurture the ladies players or the juniors, especially in these two categories. There's a lot of focus that needs to be there because somewhere down the line, we need to improve their performance and get them up. We have a couple of players here and they were doing well. We need to have programs and development programs to take care of these categories of players. There's no system. We see players who are self-motivated with good family support and the ones who have access to a good club or an association. They come on to the scene, but they're not products of a system like China.
What is your next step with 21 titles already in the bag?
There's never an end to learning in life. I'm always open to learning new things. Even in my game or even in my personal life or even you know developing it or personality, there's just never an end. And that's why I feel like my aim is to just improve as a player; to learn more about the game; to pursue excellence. I don't believe in perfection because I don't think perfection exists and one can only really strive to get close and be the best version of you.
Any record you're looking at?
No in fact it's you know beyond all of that I don't really think about the numbers and statistics anymore. Yes. It obviously crosses your mind when you're playing a match. But that's not the reason that I play the game for I played the game because I love playing it because I love competing because I enjoy the process of competition. And the main thing is when I wake up in the morning I look forward to doing something. I'm in a job that gives me immense satisfaction.
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