Merchant says ...


The Search for the Next whiz Kid

Courtesy ALLSPORTS Magazine


Yasin Merchant

India's ace snooker Specialist

The young man walks the earth with a purposeful stride; his achievements enveloping his tiny frame, as if forming an impregnable halo. He answers to the name of Pankaj Arjan Advani, and of late has taken the world of amateur Billiards and Snooker by storm, showing not the slightest sign of letting up yet. With his recent victories at the World Amateur Billiards Championship, Advani has stamped his mark of invincibility – well, almost. He is all of 23 yrs and has managed to convert his really dazzling future, which should have happened in the future, into a glorious present. Such is his triumphant march, that all other contemporary performers have been forced to assume the role of mute spectators, gracefully applauding the little genius at work.


But that is just the Good news. Now for the……..bad news. We have just a solitary Pankaj Advani who promises to take the challenge of Indian Cue-Sports into the world of tomorrow. And as we all know, as of now he is on an unprecedented high, which given a sportsperson’s career graph, does not follow the upward path forever. What then? Where is the back-up plan? Or better still – is there a back-up plan?  Does the future of Indian Billiards and Snooker begin and end with Pankaj Advani. Who’s next?


Before we commence on our journey to find the next Advani, let us examine what we already have and what kind of impact the existing lot can hope to wield on the world scene. Beginning with Billiards itself, Advani’s forte and his calling card in international events - unfortunately the cupboards seem barren. Currently no other Indian Billiards player can brandish his cue like Pankaj can, and few are willing to make the effort to emulate the young achiever.


Besides Pankaj, India still has to rely on it’s greatest Billiards exponent Geet Sethi to eke out a victory or two and in the process push the likes of legendary Mike Russell to some extent, but that too is now happening on occasions fewer than even the greatest Indian fan can expect. It’s not that the Geet Sethi story is over and done with, but just that the others have managed to catch up, and the aura of unshakable dominance that he exuded, seems to have all of a sudden sprouted some holes.


Next in line of sheer skill, you have Devendra Joshi, probably India’s best player never to have won the World Amateur title. Joshi suffers from the ‘have the skill but cannot win majors’ syndrome and has been consistent in faltering just when the finishing line appeared on the horizon.  Ashok Shandilya, the street fighter appears to have opted for a slight break from the game, which may turn out to be longer than he expects, as the Billiards events are few and far between, allowing lesser opportunities to display histrionics. Waiting in the wings, perhaps for too long now is Dhruv Sitwala, India’s supposedly most dedicated player, but for whom time is not an ally anymore. If he needs to do it, he should have done it yesterday.


All of the above names are potential world beaters but only just, and age is their foe right now, for most of them are in their late 30’s or early 40’s with Sethi fast approaching 50. But amidst this not so optimistic scenario, you do have a ray of hope in the form of Saurav Kothari who happens to be Pankaj’s age, but with no glory to boast of yet, just a whole lot of promise to deliver.


The Snooker Scene is not any better. With aging war heroes in the form of Yasin Merchant, Alok Kumar, Devendra Joshi, Rafat Habib and a few others, the mantle of carrying the torch forward once again falls on Pankaj Advani, who happens to excel in the multi-coloured game as well, though here he is bound to face international opposition which is far superior to what he encounters in Billiards.  Keeping him company in the quest for fame is Aditya Mehta, another 23 yr old, who has finally realized his own potential and has come up with noteworthy performances (no titles yet), which have earned him an invitation in the professional circuit. My favourite player though, Manan Chandra, though not as young as Pankaj and Aditya has underperformed considerably, with oodles of talent lying unutilized somewhere within his system. He needs to shake off his demons soon and get back to winning ways.


Within the junior category there seems to be a vacuum like situation with Pankaj, Aditya and Saurav Kothari having graduated to the senior stream. At the risk of sounding harsh, I stick my neck out and proclaim that there is no junior player worth the mention, who can carry on the rich tradition of winning international fame and fortune as attained by their worthy predecessors. But does the fault lie entirely with them or with the system that we are entwined in, which sadly does not boast of any formal programme to mould a champion from a rookie cueist? Are the higher-ups inventing a champion-making plan, or at the least borrowing the success formula from countries like Thailand and China, who are churning out winners as if from a factory, each performer an improved clone of the earlier product.


Ten years ago, China was everybody’s favourite punching bag in international tournaments, but they took their beatings, and learnt from them. Each defeat taught them what not to do the next time and today they lead the Asian countries in the field of Snooker, with their finest export Ding JunHui (world ranked 6) proving to be more than a handful in the highly competitive world of professional snooker. Thailand experiments with new players in every tournament thereby increasing their depth in the quantity and quality of their performers.  A three tier system of graduation takes their players through the grind within their country and shapes them into world champions.


What are we learning from this? When are we going to learn?  Unless we do so, Pankaj Advani will have to bear the brunt of performance each time he takes centre stage, hoping that Aditya Mehta, Saurav Kothari, or Manan Chandra will do their bit and take some pressure of his already burdened shoulders. India will keep doing well in Billiards due to the three ball game’s smaller reach in the world, but when it comes to the globally popular, ‘Snooker’, the sooner we awaken from our slumber, the better it is for our future.





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Last modified: Monday August 24, 2009 22:42:19 +0530