Aditya Mehta was coasting through the season and on a high after making the finals of the India Open, an unprecedented feat for an Indian, last April. Then came the sharp fall – rather a sharp pang of realisation that the disc issue in his neck was acting up, forcing him into a break, which would eventually stretch to nine months.
Heading into 2019, the snooker ace’s technique had been overhauled with a higher-chin stance to factor in the disc and pain-management, but his game could unravel quickly. It is against this backdrop that his 7-3 victory in a crackling final against Pankaj Advani at the CCI Snooker tournament on Tuesday gives him confidence for the rest of the year.
“I had absolutely no idea about what I was doing, after having completely changed my technique. I hadn’t played for nine months between April and January, and I needed to figure a system that would work,” he said, after rallying from 1-3 down to string together a bunch of clearances in a solid display, that held the crowd captive as two of India’s top snooker players, both 33, matched wits.
The edge to the rivalry was unmistakable, though the two share immense respect for the forked paths that their careers have taken – Mehta heads back to Q-school (qualifying for the pro tour) after the break, while Advani is the dominant winner in India and on the amateur circuit after a short but creditable stint among the pros.
“I have achievements abroad to show on the pro circuit where I’ve done better than any other Indian, but Pankaj has carved his niche here and is a fantastic athlete. We are looking at different ideas of success, but of course when we play, we are desperate to not lose to each other,” Mehta says.
The crowd was thoroughly entertained on Tuesday when Advani raced to a 3-1 lead, after which Mehta had to eke out a 56-clearance going to 3-2, and then immediately a 79 for 3-all. Mehta would then steal three solid frames from him, with the Mumbai cueist clearing with an outstanding 42, not allowing the Bangalorean any openings.
It was one of the more entertaining matches the two have played (“no one wants to see a drab 7-5 Mehta-Advani faceoff”, he says) since they first faced off in the junior nationals in Jammu and Kashmir, a tie Advani won 4-3. In the last seven years though, given their paths diverged, they’ve played just four times.
“We obviously want to put it across the other when we play and today the quality of play was real good,” Advani says of the cordial rivalry that rarely turns prickly, and adds, “We are the two flag bearers of snooker in India, so we both recognise it’s a big responsibility to take the game forward, when it gets competitive.”
Advani was pipped 4-3 in the quarters at the India Open last year, and the two have since focused on their reboots, with years of wear and tear on the neck and back taking their toll. They have fed off each other’s experiences, sharpening their own games – Advani attacking a bit more against Mehta, while Mehta riffing off Advani’s safety-play.
While the depth in snooker has increased, the two remain practitioners of top-level consistent games. Mehta is considered defensive on the pro circuit, but in India, he doesn’t over-indulge in safety, using it only to draw out mistakes. He was gunning for sharper match-play, and got going once he had levelled from 3-1 down after Advani had done the simple things right.
“For both of us, it’s just a match to be won. But those watching can feel it when we play each other. It feels like things are literally about to go berserk, and there’s intrigue in placements,” Mehta says about how the duo tried to outsmart each other.
In the race to the seventh frame, it slowly came down to Mehta having to merely avoid a foul, and he pulled out a one-in-hundred on a tight red, but Advani conceded Mehta had stolen a march over him a little earlier.
“He played the big points better and those clearances…,” he ended, with ungrudging admiration.