mid-day meet your icon: Being unique appeals to me, says Pankaj Advani
Twenty one-time world champion Pankaj Advani tells young cue sports players and fans how he excels in billiards and snooker
Few have dominated the green baize like India's Pankaj Advani. Across two decades, he has won almost every championship - be it national or international - he has competed for and holds a record 21 world titles across both billiards and snooker.
Known for his aggressive approach to the game and an equally calm influence off it, Advani was all wit and humour during the latest edition of mid-day's Meet Your Icon held at the Cricket Club of India last week.
The cue sports ace provided an insight into how he maintains a balance between the two versions of the game, his dislike for the ultra formal dress code during matches and his plans to take the game to the masses.
Of the 21 world titles you have won, which one is special to you and why?
Your first love is always special. Similarly, when it comes to my world titles, I feel, the first one - the IBSF World Snooker title - is most special. It was in China and I was representing India for the first time. It was an incredible journey, where I was almost knocked out of the tournament. One fluke changed the entire course of the event and I ended up winning the World Championship at the age of 18, beating a Pakistani player [Mohammed Saleh 11-6] in the final.
India's top cueist Pankaj Advani chats with mid-day’s Harit N Joshi during mid-day's Meet Your Icon at the Cricket Club of India last week. Pics/Atul Kamble
In November 2017, you became the first cueist to win both the World Billiards and World Snooker titles at the same time. What was that feeling like?
For those, who really don't know the finer aspects of the game, let me tell you that any player specialises in only one sport - billiards or snooker or even pool for that matter. No one has tried to excel in two or taken up two seriously and done well in both at the world level. So, I thought, why not. If I have the ability and if I can find a way, where I can form a technique and play both games at the highest level, then let me just give it a shot. Till date, it's obviously a constant struggle but that's where the fun is. Only when you struggle, do you really enjoy doing something. You go through the grind. Of course, I love both games and that's the reason I still play both. And it challenges me to constantly reinvent myself and excel in two versions of the sport which are so different in terms of technique, scoring pattern and just the way you approach the game. I feel it has challenged me and has broadened my horizons. It has made me get out of my comfort zone. So, I feel like excelling in both games. Winning both the World Championships in Doha  was a very, very special moment.
How do you strike the balance between billiards and snooker?
Billiards is a game of prolonged periods of concentration, of endurance and stamina. Snooker is a game of accuracy, precision and tactical awareness. I feel both are very different in their styles of play. So, that's what really challenges you as a cueist. And 99.99 per cent of players specialise in one sport. So, I thought why not just be different and try something that really brings out a different side in you because I like variety. I don't prefer playing one sport and sticking to the basics. I feel like finding your own way of doing things. Being unique is something that appeals to me. And that's what I would like to tell all the kids here, to be your own person. Don't copy anybody. Obviously, we all have inspirational figures and we all get inspired by people and great achievements. But I would like to tell you, develop your own style. And do what works best for you.
How did you develop both skill sets simultaneously?
My first major achievement came in snooker in 2003, when I won the national title and the world title. In 2005, I picked up billiards. And it was only post-2008, where I felt I could play both games at the highest level and make a career out of both. My coach Arvind Savur always made me believe in myself and told me, 'You have great natural ability and you must believe in yourself at all times'. And as clichéd as it may sound, you must believe in yourself, that's the most important ingredient for any achiever to have - the self belief that I can do it. Of course, you shouldn't be overconfident and flamboyant and say, I can achieve anything. You should actually get down to doing it and say that I'm really passionate about something, I can actually excel in it.
Billiards and snooker have never quite gained the popularity that sports like cricket or football enjoy in India. Does that hurt?
I feel it's more about perception. Snooker is a main sport in China, cricket is not. In India, cricket is the main sport. While precision sports like cue sports, archery, chess are very differently perceived, every country has their favourite sport. In India, games that involve people cheering in stadiums and wanting quick results are more popular, and not truly understanding the precision and the skill involved. Obviously, there is a way of educating the public about a sport like ours and I feel that a lot can be done to popularise it. To get children like these to play. And once you start, it's like a bug, you get addicted to it. Cue sports should be televised more and there should be more visibility for players. I'm sure it will change with time. Obviously, we are seeing the change in the way Olympics sports and the Khelo India initiative came in through the ministry. So, I think there is a future for all kinds of sports in India.
Why are you guys so formally dressed during matches? Won't a T-shirt and track pant be more comfortable?
For a long time, I have actually been against the dress code - the waistcoat, bowtie and long-sleeved shirt - as I feel it is restricting. As a player, when you are playing, you are restricted as the bowtie strangles you, in a way. The shirt is there, the waistcoat is there, so it kind of restricts your movement when you are playing. At the same time, I feel that if we play in shorts - extremely casual attire - it will not blend with the image of the sport. I'm not saying that the sport is meant only for the elite. All of us, who have performed, come from middle-class backgrounds and it is not really expensive to take up billiards and snooker. Having said that, because it is played in an indoor environment and is not extremely physical in nature like running or using physical power, I feel even a waistcoat with a trouser/jeans and shirt should do, but not the bowtie. The bowtie can be eliminated from the dress code. I don't know why the international body still sticks to it.
What is Pankaj like when he puts his cue down?
I don't drink [alcohol] at all. I only have tea. That's my favourite beverage, whether it is in the morning or evening. Of course, I am not trying to say that it [alcohol] is bad for you. Everybody makes their choices, but alcohol is something that really clouds your judgment and it changes the way you think. And any substance that alters your thinking is not good for your health because it makes you defy logic and you become irrational. So, I am big on being non-alcoholic. Besides that, when I am not playing in tournaments or preparing for them, I like watching super hero films. I am a huge Batman fan. I watch all Batman films. I like watching any superhero film - whether it is a DC character or Marvel character. They just fascinate me. A lot of you may think that I'm thinking like a kid. It's just good to see a different side of things because entertainment takes you to another world. When you like what you do, your daily activities and other things, you just want something to take you to another world and superhero films do that for me.
Tell us something about your lifestyle.
I love music. I love spending time with family and friends. Whenever I am travelling, I am away from my near and dear ones for long periods. Especially, since I play both billiards and snooker tournaments, my calendar is pretty tight. But I like doing different things as well. Like recently, we have started opening academies in different schools in Bangalore. I would like to introduce this across schools in India. I plan to take it to different cities, including Mumbai, where kids can have easy access to the game. The plan is to give them formal training, get them to actually learn from a good coach, provide them the opportunity to play this game and be trained by an expert, then do little talent scouting and take them to inter-school events.
What's your ultimate target?
Over the years, whenever I have played, initially, I thought if I win one world title, it will be great. So, let me narrate this incident: A journalist asked me when I was just 11, after I won my first tournament, 'What will you want to become when you grow up.' And very innocently, I said, I would like to become a World Champion. I didn't even know how much time it would take or whether I was good enough or not because at the age of 10-11, you are just starting off in the sport. You really don't know how good you are since you are yet to fulfil your potential. But the fact that I thought about it in itself meant that it was there in my mind and I had that belief that I would do it. I am reiterating the fact that it's so important to dream big. Only when you dream big, will you eventually work towards reaching there and do the right things and put in all that you have.
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mid-day meet your icon: Snooker and billiards champ Pankaj Advani interacts with fans