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More an urban sport, but growing love for cue sport in remote corners of the country: Pankaj Advani

More an urban sport, but growing love for cue sport in remote corners of the country: Pankaj Advani, the vie

Ace cueist Pankaj Advani has enjoyed a good run since tournaments resumed after the coronavirus-induced break. The lockdowns left the 36-year old ‘hungrier’ and made the recently-crowned World Cup winner realise that this is something he loves doing and would never take it for granted.

Pankaj, who has won the World and Asian snooker crown multiple times, stamped his supremacy at the GSC World Snooker Qualifiers by winning all 12 matches (6 each in the Y-Camp and Z-Camp). He accumulated 10,760 points (3,560 National points, 3,600 points each from Y and Z Camps) to take pole position. He will now be representing India in the World Snooker Championship in Doha.

, the vie On Thursday’s final, Pankaj began with 50-plus break in the first (55) and second (50) but in the ninth and the final frame he posted 63 for a convincing win. For all his efforts, Pankaj also went home richer by ,000.

Pankaj’s winning streak began with the National Championship in 2020, including the recent 24th world title at the IBSF 6-Red Snooker World Cup held in Doha. Speaking to the Indian Express, Pankaj talks about how lack of tournaments during the lockdown changed his perspective and left him wanting to put himself out more, the misconceptions related to the sport and the difficulty of switching to Billiards from Snooker.

What has been the secret behind your winning streak? Do you have a table at home? Did the forced lockdown play a role in bringing out your winning momentum when the tournaments resumed?

In every sport, in every athlete’s career, there are ups and downs. This is a very different kind of momentum because we have played tournaments with gaps of six months due to the pandemic situation. Particularly the International tournaments and the World Cup happened after two years. So I was even more hungry, even more keen to play and very grateful for the opportunity to finally be able to travel oversees and represent the country. Icing on the cake was to win two gold medals for India, which by my own standards was kind of unexpected.

I don’t have the baize green at home. I was out of action, even in practice, for a while. Even for the International ones in September, I had one month to prepare. I was perhaps the most under-prepared ever for the event. But I put in the hours, worked on my physical fitness. The first lockdown, we thought that this would be a matter of a few months and things would return to normal. But then the second lockdown was enforced and it hit all of us. For a sports person, it is very difficult to deal with staying away from the game or travelling because there is no other life that we really know.

The first lockdown was of course a welcome break. But then there were a lot more serious things to think about, especially with what the world is going through – the economy, health, losing loved ones. Everyone has lost somebody to Covid that they were close to. So our priorities changed for a while and in a way brought perspective. It made me more hungry and made me realise that this is something I love doing and to never take it for granted.

What is the importance of physical fitness and flexibility in a sport that doesn’t demand a lot of strenuous movement? What is your fitness routine? Do you also have to follow a strict diet?

Fitness actually plays a big role in our sport, contrary to what the general perception of it is. People think you don’t need to be strong or need too much fitness and that it’s just a cue you’re striking balls with. But there is so much that goes into it, the details. I have had back pain since 2018, a problem which seems to be coming back in phases and then it disappears and I work on it. Invariably, 99% of the snooker/billiards players have back issues if they have been playing for over ten years. Because you’re using the same muscles in and out, you’re bending, you’re fixed in one position. So the stability needs to be right up there as well as flexibility because you’re leaning over the table. Strengthening of your upper body, lower body because you’re standing on your legs for so many hours and playing.

Yes, it does not require physical power like say tennis does but there are a lot of movements, core activation, stability, flexibility that I have worked upon and understood over the last three years.

I am not too strict on diet but I like to keep it simple, especially when I travel outside. I stick to comfort foods, not too much spice, not too much fatty food and try to eat a mix of proteins and vegetables, juices. I like to end my meal with a bowl of curd to settle the stomach. There are things that I try to maintain.

I have a soft spot for cake and ice cream, but it is something I do not touch during events. I fell very ill a couple of times after having ice-cream during tournaments so that is a strict no. So I indulge in these when a tournament gets over.

Physical fitness aside, what is the importance of mental health for a cueist? Does having a clear mind help?

It is unfortunate that mental health is not spoken so much about. Of course now there is some awareness and sports psychology is still at the nascent stage in India. I am lucky to have my in-house help in my brother, who is a sports psychologist. The kind of issues athletes deal with are very serious like pressure, anxiety, expectation from yourself, representing the country because sports is all about that one moment and sometimes when you don’t seize it, you have to wait for another year to come back and get your ranking in place. Many athletes in India aim for a job based on their performance. There are sponsors and so many other things involved so there is pressure from all sides.

More an urban sport, but growing love for cue sport in remote corners of the country: Pankaj Advani, the vie

So yeah mental health is something that needs to be addressed regularly. However sane you are, however level-headed you are as an athlete, you constantly need help. And there is no harm in asking for it. That’s the message I would like to really tell people: Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help. It can only do you good in the long run and you need that one person to help you with these things.

You have been playing the sport for 26 years now? What changes have you observed in the sport as well as around you since you started winning titles and national awards?

Back in the day, there were a lot of events within India. Now, a lot more have cropped up internationally.

I also feel that in those days there was no social media. There is a lot more awareness now but sadly the authorities and federations haven’t capitalised on it or looked into those areas to promote our game, whether through social media or establishing a strong online presence.

We used to have way more televised matches back in the day in the 90s and early 2000s. That is something that needs to be revived. Having said that, I think the governments have supported us a lot. The state governments, however, can do more. Things have improved. We get jobs in petroleum, railways and other government organisations that are there to support players. And with the Olympics, the sponsors, corporates are more keen and the private sector is opening up to the world of sports and not just cricket. So this is a good time.

But again you need an aggressive team to pitch and create news and big events for the sport. That’s the sole job of the federation. As a player, I can only suggest these things. The administrative part lies with the government body.

Days after defending your Asian Snooker Championships title, you won the 6Reds Snooker World Cup in Doha by defeating Pakistan’s Babar Masih 7-5 in the final. Do you face pressure knowing you are the sole representative of India in most competitions? How was it winning the title after defeating India’s arch-rival Pakistan? Or did you view it as any other match?

As a professional athlete, I am very clear about how I feel and approach a match. If it is a final, it doesn’t matter if it is against Pakistan or Sweden or Germany or Iran or any other country for that matter. I approach it in the same way. But for fans and even my relatives, snooker got really exciting as it also went down to the wire. I guess it brings a different kind of sentiment, a whole new level of patriotism when an Indian athlete plays with a Pakistani one.

But off the table, we are very good friends. We exchange notes, discuss the game. Of course, when you’re on the field, the loser doesn’t feel that good but we have all been through ups and downs. Even I have had my fair share of losses. Even the World Cup that I have won just now could have been anybody’s game, it was like 20-20. So it is a healthy rivalry that we share.

Do you change your approach when you move to Billiards from Snooker or vice-versa? Or is it easy to maintain consistency with both games similar to each other?

When I won my first title in 2003, it was Diwali that day. That was my first World Snooker title. When I came home, I told my coach that I now want to specialise in Billiards. He started laughing. Most of the senior players also told me that it was impossible to specialise in both. I said I wanted to do something that nobody has ever done before, redefine the word ‘specialisation’ and excel in both sports.

Players know how difficult it is. 99.99% are only good in one sport and end up excelling at that. That is something that I wanted to change and I think I have done a decent job in that. But I must tell you, it is really difficult to switch from Billiards to Snooker. The technique, the scoring pattern, the approach, everything is contrasting, although it is played on the same table.

I worked on my technique specific to each sport. My techniques are quite unorthodox. That also was a topic of discussion among my seniors when I started playing the game. It is something I am very comfortable in. If you see any top athlete in any sport, a lot of them have unusual or unorthodox techniques and that works for them. So it is all about being comfortable in your own skin.

Is it a rich man’s sport?

Big misconception. We have all come from middle-class familes. The only investment you need to make is on the cue and that isn’t very expensive. It depends on the range and quality. In fact, sports like badminton, tennis are much more expensive. I understand that the access to facilities is limited, it is more of an urban sport but you would be surprised to know that so many youngsters love the sport even from remote corners of the country. Again, it’s the responsibility of the federation to spread it even further, engage the youngsters and increase the facilities in all areas.

What do you do in your free time?

I like watching films, TV shows on the OTT platforms. I was watching the Morning Show recently, it’s all about journalism actually – the politics that revolve around the media.

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