It’s why foreigners love playing the IPL in noisy,Indian bullrings for eyeballs glued to the TV and adoring spectators can lift them to super-hero statures. The big bucks don’t hurt either. It’s also why Pankaj Advani flew westwards a fortnight ago in what is sport’s reverse migration and is camped in Sheffield currently,gearing up for the World Championship qualifiers at the English Institute Of Sport a venue for the warm-ups of snooker’s biggest spring centerpiece in England.
The snooker faithful swear by their sport’s swashbucklers – Ronnie O’Sullivan,Mark Selby and Judd Trump when the Crucible is round the corner; the sport theatre that’s akin to Wimbledon,and is considered by the ilk as snooker’s Vatican.
Making his maiden attempt to seek passage into that hallowed stage,Advani runs into one of Crucible’s darlings Joe Swail of North Ireland,who is known to always punch above his weight at this venue even though he’s come through the preliminary qualifiers. Congenitally hearing-impaired,Swail is immune to the din that it can throw up. But Advani,the reigning world billiards champion who is accustomed to all the applause,will first and foremost need to learn to be the ‘other guy.’
Pro snooker puts a lot of store on personalities,weaving drama around these mavericks,while the Indian’s novelty factor has been his ability to straddle both his billiards and pro snooker ambitions. They call him the ‘all-rounder’,but he’s also quite the Indian oddity amidst the majoritarian UK-centric community,now sprinkled with the Chinese and the Thais.
“It’s refreshing for them to have a new face coming out of a different outpost,” he says. “They want to know about my background and how I adjust to both formats,” he adds,though the crowds can get ruthlessly partisan should he go up against one of their many heartthrobs.
Back in India,the buzz is quieter,and in the IPL bedlam,even non-existent. “I guess awareness needs to be created,and people educated about the nuances. It needs to come on TV,” he says. What can stoke interest are his results,as well as those of the other pro,Aditya Mehta,whose rise has been steadier than Advani’s.
Starting the season well below his expectations,Advani had a win over former world champ John Higgins in two months,scalped some respectable names on the circuit,and at the Welsh snapped his biggest win against former world champ Shaun Murphy.
“In my first TV match,I was just thinking of not making a fool of myself,” he recalls. But Advani quickly got used to the TV glare and had produced his best snooker. He was striking well,showing control,playing tight,defensive and tactically compact snooker.
However,the pathway to the Crucible and the sport’s blue-riband event of Top 32 players is essentially a test of stamina and endurance as much as his potting skills. Which is where his billiards pedigree will come in handy. “Winning four matches over 19 frames is tough. I’ve focused on durability to build my stamina,” he says.
But long,drawn passages of billiards has lent him the necessary cue-ball control and knowledge of the table that commentators pointed out during his good run at the Welsh. “They said I was bamboozling with safety play from billiards,” he says.
Yasin Merchant who slugged out in a two-day long match against Anthony Hamilton over 20 years ago – a match that was decided 10-9 on the pink ball before they both almost dropped dead on the table,believes Advani will benefit from his tremendous stamina built due to billiards. “Over 19 frames,there’re periods where it mentally kills you. But Pankaj is ready,” he says,adding that crucially having battled the likes of Mark Russell and Peter Gilchrist in billiards,the Indian has conquered the fear of playing the who’s who.
“Having played billiards at the top level,I believe that I belong to the elite pack,” Advani assures.
While opening his campaign on Sunday against Swail,should he be successful in his first best-of-19 frames encounter,he will then have to take on Adam Duffy,who beat world No.1 Mark Selby this season,then Mark Joyce and finally Michael Holt both of whom he’s beaten.
Having skipped the Nationals and Asian Billiards where his habitual stream of titles come from,Advani will need to bring out his A game to even create a flutter on the pro circuit here. But being the other guy not under pressure could suit him better. “In billiards and at home,I’m expected to win. But here for first time I’m playing without expectations and freely,” he says of his unburdened approach that’s slayed a few giants these last six months.
MAKING THE BREAK
* Winner of 8 world titles in cue sports,Advani,27, is the only person in the world to win all world championships of the IBSF – Billiards – time and point formats,as well as Snooker,and the Professional Billiards Titles twice.
* Advani became the first Indian player to reach the quarters of a ranking event on the professional snooker circuit with a 41 win over World No 11 Graeme Dott in the Welsh Open.
* Ranked 72 currently on the pro circuit,he has already registered wins over Top 10 players like Shaun Murphy (No 4) and 6-time former world champ Steve Davis
* The World Championships are pro snooker’s most coveted event.
* Advani needs to win 4 matches in qualification to be eligible to become one of the 16 qualifiers who play against the world’s top seeded 16.