It’s just another day in Mumbai. The morning bright skies fade into a gloomy afternoon following a downpour and Pankaj Advani has his final media interaction of the day lined up after spending nearly four hours with journalists.
There’s an empty teacup on the nearby table and it seems as if Advani needs more, given how exhausting the day has been for him; he is visibly fatigued and one look at his eyes give that away.
The conversation begins with a question on his preparations for the upcoming Billiards, Snooker World Championships and Advani responds in a not-so-energetic tone on what he describes as a “hectic three months”.
The talk then switches to his love for the game and the energy in his voice springs back to life. Time is running out but the veteran cueist ensures that he makes himself comfortable for a short tête-à-tête before wrapping up.
A bonafide star, Advani’s CV reads like this – 21 World, 21 National and 11 junior titles. He’s mastered both billiards and snooker by dominating in the IBSF circuit for years now but even at 34, he’s hungry for more.
Earlier this year, Advani made his way into the history books by completing a Career Grand Slam in cue sports, becoming the only player to win the Asian and World Championships in all formats. But he wants to raise the bar even higher.
Ahead of the World Championships, he spoke about keeping up with the record books and more. Excerpts:
After so many titles and wins, what gives you the drive to push for more and more?
It’s just the love and passion for the game that keeps me going. Up to this point, you think like ‘Okay, I’m going to win this record, I’m going to win that’ and you work towards consistency. The challenges keep on changing for a sportsperson. When I won my first world title it was about whether I could do it or not. Do I have it in me to win a major title? I did that at the age of 18 in China when I wasn’t expecting. Perhaps, there it was much easier because when you’re not expecting to win, you play with a lot more freedom. You’re fearless in your approach.
But later on when you start winning consistently, you become a bit more cautious, you mature as a player and use that experience. There you can’t play that rash or as fearlessly because I am expected to win so I have a certain reputation to maintain. So you go down a plateau and then you realise and use that experience to become a more complete player. Once you start winning again, it is a constant challenge. That’s the responsibility that comes with raising the bar but it’s also about just going out there and enjoying the process of competition that keeps me going. I have complete job satisfaction and I look forward to performing every time I wake up.
Do you have a particular target set in mind when it comes to chasing titles or do you just go with the flow?
I just go about playing, I don’t focus much on the numbers and statistics. But of course, they do cross your mind when you’re playing a big match or scoring a big break. I do realise that I have the chance to score this or break these records, it crosses my mind but that’s not what keeps me going. It’s just about playing the game and enjoying the process of competition. We often tend to forget why we are doing it in the first place. We become so serious and competitive that we lose the joy of the sport. I have managed to get that back and that’s why I am still going strong.
Only you and Sourav Kothari both play snooker and billiards internationally. Do you think that its a myth that you need to only focus on one sport and not two at the same time?
Yes, I do. There are few players like Sourav who have tried playing both and they’re good at it. But no players have represented India at the same time. That’s where I have been able to say I have broken the myth and that you don’t need to specialise in one category. But its a lot of effort I have put in to make that look effortless.
No one has specialised in both billiards and snooker and I feel that has been my biggest breakthrough as a cuiest. The fact that I have been able to play both billiards and snooker – short and long formats – and later on switch to a different one. Both sports require such different styles and techniques that everybody just specialises in one. I thought at the start of my career why not do both? It hasn’t been done before but I wanted to enter that uncharted territory.
Players from both sports are constantly evolving and they’re specialising in one. So they’re getting better at their sport while I’m juggling between the two, so my attention is automatically divided by half. These challenges keep me on my toes.
What according to you is the key to juggling between the two sports? Is it more down to technique?
Yes, it is technique and it also comes down to an understanding of the sport. A shift in the state of your mind and the (mental) approach. Because the two cannot be approached with the same mindset. You need to have more stamina, prolonged periods of concentration for billiards, whereas in snooker, you need to be more tactically aware. It’s more of a hit-and-run kind of game, where a lot more accuracy and precision is involved. In billiards you just need to keep going on and on, so that flow needs to be maintained. The styles are very contrasting.
Both billiards and snooker require prolonged periods of concentration. How do you mentally prepare for such scenarios, even under pressure?
I visualise before I play any big match. So it helps me prepare mentally what I’m going to go through. I do feel the pressure, though. I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t, even though I have won so much in my career. It’s only when I feel those butterflies in my stomach that I play well. I am much sharper but when I’m not nervous I feel like I am complacent and taking it too easy. It’s important to feel that. So when I’m under pressure before a game, I am on the right track.
From the time you started till now, how much has the game evolved?
In terms of the way the game is played, in terms of resources, encouragement, the way it has been perceived has been a huge change. The game has become more attacking, especially snooker – it has become more unpredictable. That nature of the sport is such, where you cannot really win every tournament you play because it has become much more attacking and some days players are just going to pot everything and outplay you. So you need to be prepared for that.
Of course, billiards has also changed in terms of the format. Billiards traditionally was a longer. When you talk about Wilson Jones and that 1950-’60 era, then you had Michael Ferreira and Geet Sethi. Now the formats have become shorter given the younger generation has come up. So again, there’s a lot more unpredictability in terms of results.