With two Indians — Pankaj Advani and Aditya Mehta — in the fray on the professional tour, I am regularly asked about their rivalry on the circuit. Since I can stake a claim to have played on the tour longer than any Indian so far, I could probably throw some light about the differences or similarities, and the rivalry between the two.
These two have set some very high standards on the professional tour vis-à-vis Indian snooker, and for many years, theirs will be a hard act to follow. In some strange way, they have been hunting in pairs, and have launched a two-pronged attack on the English and Chinese professionals, making more than a dent in their dominance.
When Pankaj creates a ripple in a particular event, it somehow triggers off a motivational mechanism in Aditya’s system, and he chooses the very next event to make his mark. One feeds off the other’s appetite for success. With them crossing swords (cues) frequently, the perennial question arises in the mind of the keen snooker enthusiast or even a regular sports aficionado — who is the better player of the two? Or what distinguishes one from the other?
Not an easy issue to tackle for me, given the fact that I have had the opportunity for many a duel with both, and in some way mentor one of the two. Either way, my respect and adulation for both, in my current capacity as a fan of the game, keeps growing with their conquests.
Pankaj took a much shorter time to scale heights on the professional tour, as compared to Aditya. But then he had the advantage of having performed on the big stage, when he kept amassing those World Pro and World Amateur Billiards titles.
His confidence to take on the higher-ranked players reached audacious levels as he gave little or no credence to the giants of the game like Mike Russell, Peter Gilchrist and Geet Sethi, and built favourable head-to-head records against them. This attitude makes him a dangerous opponent even on the pro snooker scene. Intimidating rivals just by the weight of his reputation, which precedes him before any encounter, has now become second nature and has made it easier for him to shoot down fancied names in snooker.
Billiards has also given Pankaj the edge when it comes to safety play or using uncanny angles to outfox players, as well as allowing him the advantage to focus when on the table, and de-focus when his opponents are occupying the table for long periods of time. Over the last two years, one positive that has developed in his game is the ability to be aggressive, and force players into submission.
This was missing before he turned professional. Pankaj always played the role of scavenger to perfection, and would grind down players with his near-perfect defensive game, and then pick on the pieces left behind by them. Mind you, he would score very heavily amongst the balls even then, but it was few and far between. His in-your-face aggression has now made him into a very formidable foe, and one who can never be taken lightly even by the best in the world.
Aditya, on the other hand, epitomises dedication, hard work, and sheer determination to succeed. He took a while to stamp his name as a challenger on the pro tour, but once he had done it, he came across to every opponent as a huge and thick wall to surmount. He is always there, hitting back relentlessly at every opportunity, his poker face showing very little emotion, as he goes about his business, in pure clinical fashion.
Never an incorrect attempt, or a shot for the gallery shall escape his cue. Stoic, gritty, and copybook – these are the words that come to mind when Aditya is in full flow. He works on his game; as if his entire life depended on that very shot, never once deviating from his carefully honed technique, irrespective of the degree of difficulty of the shot. His one obvious flaw a few years ago, that of falling prey to the occasion, than to his adversary, has been so smoothly eradicated from his system.
Aditya knows that he is not a showman, but is willing to let his performance take him to the zenith, and then the accolades shall follow. Pankaj Advani has now been transformed into a flamboyant, but supremely dangerous player in the sport, and he relishes this role. Without delving into the business of deciding who is the better of the two, let us sit back, and enjoy this new-found rivalry, which is pushing each of them to go one better, and at the same time, defining India on the snooker scene.