Oct. 29: Bangalorean Pankaj Advani last night became the first-ever undisputed world champion of billiards, notching a landmark for Indian sport and matching Prakash Padukone and Sachin Tendulkar for achievement if not fame.
Technically, fellow-Indian Rupesh Shah got there first by lifting the world title in the points format on Saturday but the time format, the version in which Advani triumphed, is considered more prestigious, somewhat the way Test cricket is considered "higher" than T20.
Indians have traditionally done well in the cue games: Advani, 27, had won six world billiards titles earlier to go with a world snooker crown, and Geet Sethi and Michael Ferreira too have enviable records. But what sets this victory apart is that the tournament was the first-ever unified World Billiards Championships, held jointly by the International Billiards and Snooker Federation and the rival World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association at Leeds, England.
By beating a record field of 65 top players from 15 countries in what may be dubbed the game's first "open" championship, Advani has more than emulated Padukone's victory in the 1980 All England badminton tournament. Asked by this newspaper why this win was special, the unified title, however, wasn't the reason the young champion cited in an email.
"First, I won it on my mom's (Kajal) birthday, so this is one of the birthday gifts to her. Second, the title came at the price of the sacrifice of the International (Snooker) Championship in China (which he had to miss because of a date clash), a major event I worked really hard to qualify for."
Advani told PTI he was happy about the difficult choice he had made in picking Leeds over China. "I feel relieved and proud of my decision. Whenever I've had to make a (similar) choice, I've come through. I guess the pressure of missing out on something makes me want to outdo myself in what I choose even more," he said.
"It definitely was a tough decision to make but your heart seldom lets you down. I had a great feeling about the world billiards this time and simply followed the calling."
With Rupesh and Advani completing an Indian double, three-time world champion Ferreira suggested that cricket was not the only English game in which Indians have outdone the Queen's subjects. "We have already overtaken them, my friend," he told The Telegraph.
In the final, Advani thumped the king of billiards, 11-time world champion Mike Russell, 1895-1216 to lift what was his eighth world crown in cue games and India's 25th in billiards overall. Add to that the other feathers in his cap:
Advani, who won his world snooker title aged 18, is the only active player on the planet now to be competing at the highest level in both billiards and snooker;
In 2005 in Malta, he became the first player to win both the points and time formats in the same world championships before repeating the double in Bangalore three years later;
He is the second cueist after Malta's Paul Mifsud to have won both the billiards and snooker world titles.
"He is the finest all-rounder we have produced," was Ferreira's verdict.
Advani saluted his opponent in the final as the best in the game's history. Asked if beating Russell to clinch the title was special, he said: "Absolutely! Beating him, that too in the time format, is a massive achievement. There is no greater billiards player ever to have played the sport. Making it past the finish line before him is a big deal."
He thanked his brother Shree ' "who is a sports psychologist" ' for helping with strategy.
"I didn't get much time to make the big switch from snooker to billiards. The two sports are different in technique and mindset. I feel I still played my best billiards yet this year, which is why the strategies I discussed with my brother... really helped me against Mike. It really helps that he understands the game, my mind and the overall situation."
Advani said Rupesh, who beat Australia's Matthew Bolton 6-2 to become the fifth Indian to lift the world title twice, "played like a champion throughout".
"And for us to bring home both the titles, when so many countries from around the world participated, only goes to show the talent India has in the sport."
Seven Indians figure among the top 20 in billiards, jostling with nine from England.
For the uninitiated, billiards is played with three balls: white, red and yellow. The white and yellow balls are the cue balls (used to hit the red balls with) and the objective is to score the required points before your opponent.
In snooker, there are 15 red and six coloured balls and one cue ball. A player has to pot a red first, then a colour, again a red, and so on. At the end of the frame, the player with more points wins.
Has India, where most games apart from cricket stay under the radar, given Advani his due? Well, if the Arjuna Award in 2004, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in 2006 and Padma Shri in 2009 are enough, then yes.
Asked how he would look back at what has been a good year, Advani told this newspaper: "I look back with gratitude and look ahead with renewed vigour to keep going."