Pankaj Advani- Published in New Woman in March 2004

Pankaj Advani – Striking the Right Cue

When Shree Advani allowed his little brother Pankaj, to tag along with him for a game of pool, little did he realize that he was sowing the seeds of the makings of a champion and that in a matter of just a few years, this little brother of his was going to storm the bastions of snooker and billiards, to become the youngest World Snooker Champion by defeating some of the heaviest names in business. In October 2003,Pankaj Advani , all of 18 years, lifted the World Snooker Championship trophy at Jiangmen in China, bringing the crown back to India , almost twenty years after Omprakash Agarwal won the same title in 1984.

When Pankaj discovered his affinity for the game, he was just as high as the billiards table. As a sixth grader of The Frank Anthony Public School, Bangalore, he was actually advised against the game for being undersized! So he practiced with marbles and chop sticks till he was allowed to enter the summer camp held by the Karnataka Billiards Association. And then there was no stopping him. Spotting the talent in this most persistent little boy, former World No.4 and National Champion, Arvind Savur, took him under his wing. Pankaj‘s first big win came in 1997 when he was only 11 years and seven months old. He then went on to become the State Junior Snooker Champion in 1997 and retained this title till 2002. He was the State junior Billiards Champion from 1999 to 2002. At the national level, between1999 and 2002 Pankaj won four successive junior billiards titles and was the National Junior Snooker Champion in 2001 and 2002. In 2002, he became the youngest player to win the Senior Indian Snooker Championship. Moving on to his international forays, his first significant rating came in 2001 when he finished fourth in the under 21 Snooker Championships and third in the World snooker championships in the same year. The crowning glory of course, came last October, when he became the youngest World Snooker Champion. A prolific and successful record by any standards.

Born in Pune in 1985, Pankaj Advani is just into college. But his approach, his orientation and his commitment to the game belie the fact that he is still a teenager. Here is a player who puts in a three hour stint in the morning and another three hour stint in the evening at the table. This is apart from the hours put into observing the nuances and techniques of senior players on vcds and of course, training under his coach. While most of his seniors agreed that Pankaj showed great promise and he has excelled at both the State and National levels, being the youngest to lift the World Snooker Championship has been The Lifetime event that has come sooner than expected. “I was almost out of the tournament at the knockout round”, he confesses, “At one point my opponent was leading 4-1 and he needed one more game to win the match and I would have been out. Apart from leading 4-1, in that next game, he was leading by a huge margin and I was in a situation where I needed to pot everything on the table. If I had let him pot even one ball I would have been out. And my opponent was in terrific form. When your opponent is playing like that, you have no option but to just sit back and appreciate and I was in such a situation that I could not see the ball which I needed to play. Still, I bent down and hit the shot. I got a fluke, and finished off everything on the table, and then things just took off from there” In the successive rounds, Pankaj defeated the top seed Paitooa Ponbum of Thailand 6-2 and Irishman Brendon O’Donoghue 8-3 and went on to win against seasoned Pakistani player, Saleh Ahmed, to lift the title.

While accolades and felicitations have come his way, since that fateful Diwali evening last October, Pankaj has taken care to remain most grounded and humble. Having lost his father at a very young age, Pankaj traces a lot of his success to the encouragement and impetus given to him by both his mother and brother. “A lot of the credit goes to the upbringing given to me by my mother. She has been the major influence, the lady behind the scenes. She is mentally very strong, because dealing with the loss of a loved one and bringing up your sons alone is not an easy job. Of course she felt that I needed some more time before I played the World Championship,” he reveals. But his mother Kajal believes that the game itself has kept her boys away from the distractions that others of their age are prey to. “They used to visit the parlour at the end of the road, and had they continued there, the story may have been different. When I saw that they were serious, I put them in the summer coaching camp of the Karnataka State Billiards Association and from there his game just took off. But everything has been God’s Grace and he has always managed to balance his game and studies,” states this one time short story writer. But, like a typical teenager, Pankaj prefers to keep his mother out of his game and does not allow her to watch him play. “Once I let her watch and then she started making all sorts of noises, when I started missing a few shots. So, I told her, now you don’t watch me play!”

Pankaj also credits his coach Arvind Savur with always having had belief in him. “He always told me you can win; you can bring back the Championship. He is a great coach, in terms of the game and in terms of preparing a player mentally.” Ironically the personalities of the coach and the student are quite dissimilar. “Ours is a case of opposites attract. He is a very aggressive and perked up person and always tells me before a match that I can hammer the fellow. But I like to take it as it comes, with no expectations, just go out there and play. He is very outgoing, I am reserved, but I have learnt so much from him and for the way he teaches, there should have been so many more World Champions.”

Apart from the rigorous practice, Pankaj also believes that a certain mind set is very crucial to this game. He is known to exude tremendous maturity and a strange calm when he plays, which, according to World Champion Geet Sethi are the two essential ingredients of a good snooker player. “This is a mind game and I try to keep positive and in a happy frame of mind. If there is any single thing that is bothering you, then you won’t be able to give it your best. Every time I play, I come back and analyze what I have played on the table. It’s a continuous process and the game is addictive.” He admits to reading self help books and authors like Shiv Khera, especially at those times when he feels demotivated. He also admits that there are phases when he hits a bad patch either because he has played too many tournaments with little gap between them or has been travelling. He is realistic enough to face the fact that there are still certain aspects of his technique, like his complacency in the initial stages of a match that he needs to work at. He remembers losing an invitation tournament in Bombay to a most unlikely player due to sheer complacency and overconfidence. All this, along with a personality that is intrinsically but very quietly driven, could be the reason behind his maturity and calm.

Again in a society where teenager’s lives are dominated more by extra curricular activities, films, and girl friends, Pankaj is careful enough to stay away from such distractions. “After reaching a certain level in the game when I realised that I am going to be playing this game for quite some time, I thought it better to keep my mind on the game. I have never had a girlfriend.” And when he does get married, it will be to someone who is far removed from the world of snooker and billiards, for otherwise it will be an overdose! A mature head on young shoulders, indeed.

But, scratch the surface and you get to see the teenager lurking behind. Although he is a student of the Mahaveer Jain College, he attends regular classes only for two months a year just before the exam. “ That is the time I enjoy most when I take my bag and books and go to college and people start laughing at me how come you are with books”. He loves Italian food, listens to music both English and Indian watches movies and TV. Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin is a top favourite. He loves irritating his 90 year old grandmother. He gets put off by having to spend too much time at one place. “I am a typical teenager, I love change, I love action. I feel bad missing out on all the action with my friends when I am out of station”. He confesses that there are days when he does not feel like picking up the cue.

This side of Pankaj, however, vanishes sooner than it surfaces. “This game has always taught me to be focused. I am looking forward to the Asian Championships to be held in Jordan from the 5th of June. It is also my dream to win a gold medal for India in the Asian Games and hopefully some day at the Olympics when snooker makes it way there. In the last Asian Games in Busan, Korea, Geet Sethi was supposed to win the gold medals but he landed up with the silver and bronze medal, which is an achievement in itself, but at that time I felt the need to put that flag of India right there on top.” He is looking forward to turning pro in snooker. He is looking forward to going to the UK, the Mecca of snooker, to play with the world greats. Looked at from any angle, its going to be the billiards and snooker all the way.

“If I do anything else on the side I won’t be able to do justice to the game. My seniors have accepted me well and I am comfortable with them. I have been playing the game for so long for the love of it and the game has given me so much that I would be cheating if I did anything else.” Noble intentions indeed, from someone who has been fortunate to be successful at what he likes to do best, potting the balls, and pocketing the titles!

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