Awinner of seven world titles in billiards and snooker, he is considered the best all-round billiards and snooker player India has produced. Last month, Pankaj Advani took a big stride forward — becoming the first Indian to reach the semis on the professional snooker tour, on debut. t2 caught up with the 27-year-old Bangalore boy on the game and beyond.
Your first stint on the professional snooker circuit has been very rewarding…
I started off the season in June this year. I won a couple, I lost a few. It, of course, took me some time to get accustomed to the nature of the game as well as to external factors like the country, the weather, food, everything. It was actually after a few tournaments, say in August, that I started getting used to a lot of things. The approach to play… just getting used to that way of life. Hopefully, things will get even better from now.
I think the highlight would definitely be the few big wins I had against people like Higgins (John, former world number one) and a few other top 10 players that I managed to get past in the Germany event.
What has been the toughest part of the tour?
I am actually staying with a Punjabi family in Sheffield and so life is a lot easier for me in many ways. But at the same time, it takes me an hour to get to the academy where I practise, although the transport system in the UK is very good. But you tend to have problems adjusting… huge sacrifices have to be made. Like in Germany, I had a tough time because I am a vegetarian and there were hardly any options as far as food was concerned. Things like that make it more of a struggle, but it also made me value all that I have.
Are you planning to shift base to England?
I am actually one foot here and one foot there as of now. I am half the time in England and half the time in India. Shifting base is a decision I don’t really have to take right now since I have just started out. Even if I do well on the tour, I will go there for a month or a month-and-a-half and come back home for a few weeks. That’s how it will be for the first one year, at least. I am doing reasonably well right now, but once I am sure I am in it and can make a career completely out of it, it makes sense to shift. But not as of now.
Losing out so narrowly in the semis must have been disappointing after the great run you had this season.
I don’t think so because no Indian had ever gone to the semi-final stage before this. Of course when you lose a match you always reflect and introspect, but I wouldn’t say I was disappointed… it didn’t affect me so much. I already knew that some of the wins that I had posted earlier had been in some very difficult matches and I had to produce my A game to beat those guys. And ultimately I lost to whom? To the world number one (England’s Mark Selby), and I gave him a good fight, I lost 4-2. Actually, I took back a lot of positives. I was a little sad of course when my run came to an end but I knew that it had to end eventually.
Despite its popularity, snooker still isn’t an Olympic sport…
It is a global sport and it’s played by so many countries. I think it’s the job of the world bodies to make sure that they come up with a presentation and lobby hard enough to get it included in the Olympics. I don’t see it happening soon… I don’t know why…. Maybe that’s a question you will have to ask the people who administer the game.
Do you think the mindset that snooker is an elitist sport still slows it down in India?
Well, there are a lot of youngsters taking it up… I can tell you that. This I am telling you by the sheer numbers we have in the national championships every year. But what we perhaps really need to do is have more platforms for them to showcase their game and become tougher in a match situation. Everyone is very good, but when you have more matches and more tournaments, that’s where the competition sets in and performance improves. That’s when you will see some great talent emerging.
Can you name a few potential champs?
There are some juniors…but I can’t really pinpoint anyone and say that they will make it big. There are some kids… around 20, 21,22… who have come out of the juniors from different parts of the country and are poised to do well in the big league.
You started off at age 12. Did you miss doing the things that people of your age do?
Of course! I am human after all… I do miss the normal life where people go and work, enjoy the evenings and sit back with family and friends. But then this is the life I have chosen… this is what I have wanted to do all my life. It’s different and fun in its own way (laughs)…. It’s challenging and exciting. But I don’t have too many friends as of now, given how erratic my lifestyle is. I am one day here, one day there….
What kind of discipline is needed for a high-concentration sport like this?
You need to be very determined in your approach… very strong mentally not only on the table but off it as well. Even when I am not playing a game, I have to keep my conversations and thinking very positive. I cannot indulge in backbiting or negative thoughts. I have tried to become like that as a person as well. The truer you are to yourself the easier it is to concentrate on the game. You need to be calm and channelise your energy positively. I also do yoga and meditation to improve my concentration.
Before a big game, does the key lie in relaxing your mind or psyching yourself up?
It’s a very personal thing and I feel that both ways work. All players will be divided on this. If motivating yourself and pepping yourself up helps, then that’s good. I kind of try and keep myself calm. But sometimes you need to feel the butterflies in your stomach before a big match, otherwise you don’t feel the pressure. But that doesn’t mean feeling jittery or getting yourself worked up.
What are your goals over the next one year?
I am really enjoying my game at the moment. I am not going to talk numbers because I feel sport is just not numbers and statistics. People only look at winners, but that’s not what it’s for me right now. Just challenging myself and improving my game is what I am looking at right now.
Debut: At the Asian Billiards Championship 2002, at Bangalore, where he finished as a finalist.
Is the only Indian to have won the world titles in both snooker and billiards and only the second cueist after Malta’s Paul Mifsud to have won both the billiards and snooker world titles.
Is the youngest to have won the IBSF titles in both
billiards and snooker for a record six times.
Is the only player to have won all five billiards
tournaments in a season — the Junior National Championship, Senior National Championship, Asian Billiards Championship, World Billiards Championship (point format) and World Billiards Championship
His total tally of
international majors is 16 — 7 Worlds, 5 Asians, 2 Asian Games golds, 1 Australian Open and 1 Asian Team.
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