Pankaj Advani may well be off the radar of most UK snooker fans, but in his native India he is already a household name. To date he has 7 world titles in IBSF billiards and snooker (he is only the second player to win both disciplines joining Paul Mifsud from Malta), 2 Asian Games gold medals in singles billiards and 23 national snooker and billiards titles. And he is only 27 years old.
Snooker fans are in for a treat as he recently accepted a 2 season wildcard to the main tour. Only a few events into his debut season and he has already reached a European PTC semi-final beating among others John Higgins along the way, and joined his compatriot Aditya Mehta in qualifying for the International Championship to be held in China at the end of this month.
Like most club snooker players I’ve played a little bit of billiards myself so understand the basics, but this was a long time ago now so in the presence of billiards greatness I made my excuses; “Before we start I have to tell you that I’m from a snooker background so I apologise if some of the billiards related questions seem a bit ignorant”, and was met with a laugh and a reassuring “No worries”, at which point I knew everything was going to be just fine. So off we go.
Congratulations on qualifying for the International Championship in your first season on tour.
It was only your third qualifying event as well so that’s some achievement. Has it sunk in yet?
It’s taken a while! I had no time for it to sink in straight away because I was travelling to Germany the next day for the Euro PTC so I didn’t even have enough time to celebrate because I had to pack my bags. When I finished the Euro PTC where I reach the semi-finals I then had both of the achievements to deal with and let both of them sink in.
So how do you feel now?
Yeah it’s good because when you come out to another country and especially when you’re so far away, you want to get some good results and have some good wins and when you do that you get more tempted to play and you start enjoying the game even more on the professional circuit. So as of now I’m in India for the next two months but I’m really excited to get back and resume the remainder of the season.
On the day you qualified for the International your compatriot Aditya Mehta followed you to the venue so it was a historic day for Indian snooker. How has the reaction been?
It’s wonderful! Right up to when we qualified there was talk of having a professional ranking event in India and just the fact that both of us got the breakthrough means a lot for Indian snooker because it gives a lot of aspiring players hope and belief and inspiration that they can get up the ranks and play on the main tour too; so it obviously has a lot of inspirational value to the aspiring cueists in India.
Considering this is your debut season as a snooker player your record is pretty phenomenal so far, because as you already mentioned you reached the semi-final of the Paul Hunter Classic in Fuerth where among others you beat the great John Higgins live on international television, and also in PTCs 1 and 2 you lost 4-0 to Michael Holt and Alan McManus and you overturned both of those results when you qualified for the International, so that obviously says a lot about your character. How do you assess your season so far?
Well to be honest I had a very slow start and I think as a new professional it does take a while for you to get your teeth in and start scoring heavily and I thought for the first two months I wasn’t scoring that heavily. But when August came and I had a good run in PTC2 in Gloucester when I won 3 rounds, that’s when I started believing that I could actually win more matches on tour. Obviously when you win against players of the calibre of John Higgins then your confidence goes up that much more so I just felt that it took a while for me to settle down and to adjust to the table and start playing with a different kind of approach, the approach that the top players play, and that took a while for me to digest. But things have fallen into place and I’m really happy that it’s happened so soon.
Given that you won the IBSF World Amateur in 2003 at the age of 18, why has it taken until now to turn professional?
The thing is that when I won the IBSF at the age of 18 that was the only time the champion did not get an entry into the main tour. So I was raring to go at that time and I only had one route which was the Challenge Tour. I played in a couple of events but I felt that I couldn’t last and that it was going to be a really really gruelling 6 or 8 months that I’d have to spend trying to qualify for the main tour so I lost interest and I lost hope in a sense because I thought I would get a direct entry that year. So I played a couple of events in the Challenge Tour and I thought that you know what, I don’t think I’m meant for this, so I went back to India.
One year I got a wildcard and I refused it. I’ve always resisted playing the main tour because I felt that it would be too much time away from home. Somehow I got the wildcard this time and I woke up one morning and I thought that you know what, I just want to give it one shot, because I don’t want to regret not trying. So that’s how this whole journey on the main tour began.
I looked up your records earlier and noticed that in your last Challenge Tour match you lost to one of my own snooker heroes Steve James. Do you remember that match at all?
Yes I do actually and I remember that I started off really well and won the first frame, and then he was all over me. I don’t think I got a chance after that! He played really well for those 4 frames.
How long have you been playing?
I started playing at the age of 10 so I’ve been playing the game for 16 years.
Did you have any heroes growing up in billiards or snooker?
There are so many! In India we’ve had some great players like Geet Sethi in billiards and Yasin Merchant in snooker and obviously internationally there’s Mike Russell and Peter Gilchrist in billiards and in snooker there’s Ronnie and Stephen Hendry and Higgins and all these legends so it’s wonderful to have watched them play on TV when you’re growing up and learning and then suddenly after 10 or 12 years you actually get to play and compete with them. It’s a dream come true.
In 2005 you achieved the grand double of billiards in winning both the time format and the points format IBSF World titles and you repeated the feat in 2008. What did the achievement mean to you?
Billiards has always been special to me because although I love playing snooker now and I enjoy playing on the main tour and I’ve played a lot of international snooker events and won a few national titles, I think billiards has given me my identity and that’s something I will never forget. So when achievements like these happen, the double in both time and point formats, it just makes the journey that much more special. To repeat any feat or defend any title is something that every sports person wants.
What’s the main difference tactically between the two formats?
It’s probably the same as the difference between playing 6 reds and playing maybe a best of thirteen 15 red snooker match. The point format is shorter so you’ve got to alter your game to suit the demands of the format, you’ve got to sometimes play the wrong shot and just survive and make sure you score those 100 or 150 points, whereas in the time format you always have to play the correct shot so that you can build bigger breaks and convert the 100s to 300s and the 300s to 500s.
When it’s 150 up is it best of so many races to 150 or is it just first to 150?
In the league stage it’s best of 5 first to 150 then best of 7 in the pre-quarters and quarters and best of 9 in the semis and final so 150 up would probably be like a snooker frame. It takes between 15 and 20 minutes or something like this and is usually over in 2 visits.
Historically the story of breaks in billiards is fascinating with the likes of Joe Davis and Walter Lindrum trading thousand breaks just as the snooker players of today trade century breaks, but the rules have changed a lot since those days and your high break in competition is registered as 867 so can you explain the differences in rules that make it harder to make a thousand break today than in the days of Lindrum?
Yes. The cloths have changed so much over the years and when Lindrum and Joe Davis used to play the cloths were a lot thicker and they were using ivory ball sets which meant that the balls were more sluggish so they were easier to control in that they wouldn’t run away as they would do today. So today you have shaven cloths with less nap and it makes it that much more difficult to control the balls because they are skidding and sliding and running all over the table. But during the days of Lindrum and Davis the balls were heavier and you also had nursery cannons where they used to make hundreds and thousands of points which today is not allowed because you can only play a maximum of I think 15. There’s a certain limit to the number of hazards that you have in billiards so you can’t play one particular shot continuously, you’ve got to get a cannon in between then you’ve got to get a pot in between so obviously the rules being changed makes it a lot more difficult to make a thousand break. Also you’ve got the baulk line rule today where you’ve got to cross the baulk line between 80 and 100. So lots of changes in the rules and lots of changes in the conditions mean you see lesser of those big breaks, but you still see 300 and 400 breaks which are equally entertaining when you see them with how the rules and conditions are today.
When did you make the 867 and how long did it take you?
Well I was actually down by about 40 points in the first 5 or 10 minutes of the match, and it was a one and a half hour time format game and I’d not actually been keeping to well and had taken a couple of tablets the night before and then on the morning of the match, and then I just went out there and made it in about an hour and 20 minutes.
What happens if you’re on a record break and the time runs out, do they let you carry on to see what break you can get?
Well it would just be called an unfinished break if it continued until the time ran out but I still had about 4 minutes left after the break ended. I thought I had less time so I was rushing. I wanted to try and make a thousand and I thought I didn’t have enough time and that’s why I hurried up and then I missed a shot but I still had about 4 minutes so it was possible!
Gutted! What’s your highest break in practice?
I’ve not made even close to 800 in practice! Somehow it’s so much better playing in a match when you have new ball sets and when the occasion is big. But I’ve made about 400 in practice but the higher breaks have come in matches.
How does a century break in billiards compare to a century break in snooker, are they comparable?
I would probably say that a century in snooker is equivalent to a 300 break in billiards. Because billiards, while it’s easier to score it also requires prolonged periods of concentration and that’s the tough part of billiards because you really need to concentrate to make big breaks. In snooker you just need to be really precise in that moment and score as much as you can when given the opportunity so probably a century in snooker is like a 300 in billiards I would say.
This might sound like a silly question but have you ever gone back to the old rules in practice to see how your scoring would compare with the likes of Lindrum, like doing endless nursery cannons?
To be honest no I’ve not gone back to those rules because well, first of all I’m not good at nursery cannons I’ll be very honest! I don’t think I would make much in the nursery cannons and I think Lindrum was a genius when it came to that. Secondly the formats have changed and the rules have changed so you just want to play in the modern style, so I’m not tempted to go back to the old school and try that stuff.
I’ve seen Lindrum doing his nursery cannons, there are some clips on youtube and it really is something to behold isn’t it?
It is, it’s absolute magic!
A silly question showing my lack of billiards knowledge: do you ever play safe in billiards and if so, what’s the scenario?
(laughs) Well actually there are a few safety options. Obviously it’s not such a major part of the game as it is in snooker because in snooker you try to keep your opponent safe and tight so he’s snookered and then you’ve got a good chance of getting a good opening. In billiards yes if you do play safe you can get yourself a good chance of getting an opening so what we would probably do is keep two balls on the side cushion if we have to play a safety shot, because anything you play when the object ball is on the cushion becomes very difficult to score from. So if there is any safety shot it would just be to keep the red and your white on the side cushion so the opponent doesn’t have an easy shot to score.
I ask because when I was younger I played in a combined billiards and snooker league and I think there were 4 snooker and 2 billiards games per match, and one time I played billiards and I couldn’t see a shot so I potted my opponents ball and put both my ball and the red in baulk because obviously you can’t play back up the table, and my opponent seemed really annoyed and got down and smashed his next shot making no effort to hit another ball, so I figured I must’ve broken some sort of billiards etiquette!
(laughs) Yes that is also a way of playing safe but it’s considered more in a negative light because you’re potting your opponent’s ball and you’re sticking him behind the baulk line and he can’t do anything about it. But it also happens today especially in the point format because you have to do that sometimes to win, because you cannot allow your opponent to score so you must keep it as tight as possible. So it depends, if the format is long then normally you don’t pot the white but often in the shorter format you have to resort to different options of safety. But yes, sometimes your opponent will not be too happy with it.
Your list of titles and medals in both billiards and snooker is very impressive to say the least. What do you consider to be your biggest achievement so far?
It’s very hard to pinpoint and say one achievement is above the rest but I would have to say that my first World Snooker Championship in 2003, the IBSF in China would be one of my best, along with the Asian Games gold medal I won in 2006 in Doha (Qatar) because these two moments were just so big. When I won the snooker I was just 18 and no one expected me to even reach the last 8 or last 16 of that tournament so to go out there and win it was unbelievable. I had a crazy match in the last 32 and I was almost out, I was 4-1 down and I fluked the last red and cleared up for 4-2 and from there things changed so that’s a story that I will remember and cherish forever.
You often see that in snooker don’t you? The player that gets out of jail in an earlier round ends up winning the title. It’s as if after that they’ve got nothing to lose.
Yeah you can have those moments and come out of them and go on to win the championship. I also remember the frame where I played Higgins and it was 1-1 and he was 66 in front and he missed a relatively simple red with 5 reds to go and I cleared up with 5 blacks and made 67 so those are the frames that really stick with you and that you’re really proud of.
(How good is this folks?!)
You received the Khel Ratna award in 2006 which is something Aditya mentioned in the interview I did with him when discussing his Arjuna award, which you have also won, so based on what he said about the Khel Ratna that must have been a very special moment?
Yes the Khel Ratna is basically the highest honour given to a sportsperson in India and to receive that from the President of India was truly a humbling experience. It was a moment I will cherish for a very very long time because it’s an award that is only given to one sportsperson every year and sometimes it’s not even given to a sportsperson because the performance has to be spectacular or outstanding in order to receive it, so I think there are only 20 sportspersons who have received the award so it’s truly a great honour to my career.
Was it the Asian Games gold medal that won you the award?
No because I got it in 2006 and I remember it was for my achievements in 2005.
The double in Malta yes.
Now I’ve got to ask you about your technique because in snooker terms we’ve never seen anything like it. Where did it come from and has any coach ever tried to change it?
Yeah there’s been lots of talk regarding my technique and people say that in certain ways it’s really effective but in certain ways it needs to be changed, and I’ve worked a little over the years but at each stage I’ve always been more comfortable doing what I originally did which is my natural technique. My coach in Bangalor told me that I don’t need to change anything, if I do then it’s just maybe the way I stand and maybe the distance I keep from the table, so in terms of my cueing style and the bridge and cue action, my coach never told me to change it. And the reason my technique is the way it is, is because I started playing when I was really short; that’s why the right hand goes a little up and down you know like I’m in a boat rowing. So a lot of people say it’s like a rowing action, but you know I’m used to all this talk but at the end of the day I’m quite comfortable in my own skin and comfortable with what I do and there’s no point of changing it drastically if it’s not going be the natural way of playing.
I totally agree with that, just look at Joe Swail as the example and if you tried to change his technique then you’d lose the magic of what he is.
In snooker terms we can spot a good billiards player through their safety games. Do you feel your billiards skills give you an advantage over todays snooker players?
Well I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage over the snooker players because I think the experience they have over the years is something that I obviously don’t have at the moment and I’m still gaining in it as I play, so over the next few months or maybe over the next one and a half years (guaranteed time remaining on tour) but it is definitely a dimension that holds me in good stead in my journey on the main tour. So whether it’s safety or whether it’s cue ball control and understanding what the white is doing, it’s all very very important factors in snooker so I definitely feel that both games complement each other. If you want to be a good snooker player you need to know a little bit of billiards and in order to be a good billiards player you need to know some of the finer aspects of snooker.
How would you describe your style of play?
Yes in snooker.
I’ve always based my game on shot selection. I think that shot selection is something that is very important to me in snooker. You know, it depends on the situation; it depends on how the balls are running on that particular day for me. Sometimes they may be rolling really favourably for you and on another day you may not be as lucky, or on certain days you’re striking the ball really well so you want to be more attacking. So a lot of my game is based on shot selection and I think a balance between attack and safety is really what my game is all about, and I try to balance them in different proportions depending on the situation.
I’ve heard it said that you’ve actually invented a new snooker shot, I don’t know if you’re aware of what people say about you but someone told me that they once saw you several times during a match play safe off the blue and land tight in behind a baulk colour when the scenario is that you’re in amongst the reds and run out of position and don’t have a shot at pink or black, and the standard shot among most snooker players is to instantly think of playing safe off a baulk colour to leave white tight on the baulk cushion.
(laughs) I didn’t know that was noticed and I’m glad if people think that’s a shot that I’ve come up with, but I’ve seen the shot being played in India quite a few times so I wouldn’t take credit for it. But you know, if it solves my process of playing safe and keeping my opponent tight then whatever does the job really.
Well it’s the sort of thing that snooker purists get off on, we love seeing new shots and new approaches so it’s the sort of thing that wins you new fans. So what sort of crowds have you played in front of and how much will this help you when it comes to playing in the International in front of the Chinese crowd?
Well I remember the IBSF World Snooker in 2003 and that would probably be the biggest crowd that I’ve played in front of. In fact the match that I had against Higgins and Selby later in the semi-finals in the Germany PTC would also be the maximum number of people that I’ve had watching me play a game. But yeah I’m sure the experience in Germany and playing such legends as MacManus, Davis, Higgins and Holt would give me the confidence to perform in front of a huge crowd when I play in China.
What about billiards crowds?
Yes there have been a lot because I remember when I played in India there were a lot of spectators as well, especially when I won the double in Bangalor in 2008, there were a lot of spectators for that.
What will it take for you to prioritise snooker over billiards? Do you feel that mixing it with the big boys in snooker will put billiards on the back burner?
That’s such a tough question! It’s so difficult to answer because I love both games and as I said billiards has given me my identity but it does not mean that I love billiards more than snooker. I have not given it a thought because I’m somehow finding a balance and it depends on my results on the main tour because there’s still a long way to go and although I’ve had some good results I can’t say that I’ve arrived as such, all I can say is that I’m doing well at the moment and it would take me a little more time to prioritise one over the other.
You’ve certainly got your hands full with both of those disciplines but what about 3-cushion billiards? Ever tried it?
Carom? No I haven’t tried that. That would be mixing up too many of the cue sports! (laughs) I think two for now is more than enough; I’ve got enough on my plate.
Now you’re a professional snooker player, what goals have you set yourself for the coming season?
To be honest I really haven’t set any goals. I’m just excited that I’m there on the tour and I’m happy that I’m giving it my best. Sometimes when you’re out there and play the big boys you feel like you want to go out and play like them, which is fine, but you’ve also got to realise that you’ve got your own style of play and that’s what I’m doing right now, I’m just playing snooker the way I know it in my own style. Obviously over the coming months when I play in England more often and I play the big boys I will learn how to play their way and that’s the day I’m waiting for.
Your elder brother Shree is a sports psychologist, how much has he helped you when it comes to the psychology of the game and dealing with the pressure?
He’s helped me immensely; he’s been such a pillar of strength and support. I can’t tell you how much he’s helped me, he’s been there throughout. In fact he was in Australia for a few years in between, I think from 2001 and 2007, and when he came back in 2007 and he started helping me out things changed for me so much that I think a huge part of that change is due to Shree.
I asked Aditya about your respective rivalry from junior days until today, how do you see it?
I think it’s great that two players from the same country are actually pushing each other to play their best snooker and I think it’s wonderful for the sport if there are two players that are playing at a high quality. Obviously we want to continue and go further on the main tour. It’s wonderful to see him perform well and he’s got a couple of good results as well in the Shanghai and the Wuxi and we both qualified for the International so it’s great that we can push each other. It’s not a rivalry as such; it’s just good that one person can egg the other person on to achieve greater things. So I don’t look at it as a rivalry, just healthy competition.
He mentioned how you were setting the standard when you were younger and the rest were always trying to catch up, but he’s been noticed now in his own right and is getting a lot of fans because he’s good to watch.
Yeah absolutely, and he’s probably playing the best snooker of his life now.
How much of your time do you base yourself in the UK? Obviously you’re in India now and you’re going to be for a while yet so since you took up the wildcard how long have you spent over here?
When I started off the season I originally thought that I would probably do six trips up and down to the UK, but I think after the last two months I will probably have to cut down on the number of trips and extend my stay because it makes more sense to stay longer so I can have more exposure and practice more in the UK. So I’ll probably stay for a month and half when I come back in November and come back here during Christmas, so maybe about 4 or 5 trips in a season.
Do you have any thoughts on the direction the professional tour should take bearing in mind currently all the qualifying is done here in the UK?
Yes well I spoke to Jason Ferguson and he agrees with me that I think the time is right for snooker to go global. We have Asians doing well and China obviously hosting 5 ranking events in a season is obviously supporting snooker massively and you have the Australian Open and I think there’s going to be an event in Canada next year and India is also looking forward to holding an event so I see snooker going the global way and I think we’re going to see a lot more ranking events outside the UK. Probably the qualifying events will stay in the UK but there will be a lot more ranking events outside the UK which is really good for the sport.
Some people think that ultimately questions should be asked about where the qualifying is done because it seems a bit unfair on all the foreign players that if you’re trying to grow the game they all have to come over here to qualify, especially with the visa issues that a lot of them have. Have you had any visa issues?
Yeah, well fortunately for me there haven’t been any visa issues as such but obviously especially when you’re playing in a European PTC and after a couple of weeks you’ve got to travel to another country to play another qualifier for a ranking event then possibly another European PTC. But I think for now probably the qualifiers in the UK are still a good idea but in a year or year and a half I can see the qualifiers happening in other countries as well. That’s the day I’m looking forward to, when everyone can travel to that particular country, play the qualifiers and play the tournament and then come back.
Do you feel a duty to promote the game of snooker in India and be a flag bearer?
Obviously with success comes responsibility and you’ve got to do your bit as an ambassador for the sport in your country and be involved in as many promotional activities as you can, but I also feel it is the job of the national federation of each country to use their top players to promote the game in their region. But I will always support whatever promotional activities happen because I feel it is a duty to be involved in popularising the game.
How many Indian snooker players do you think we’re going to become aware of in the next 5 years? Is there any talent that you’ve seen bubbling under that could make a go of it on the main tour after yourself and Aditya have lead the way?
Realistically I would probably say in the next 5 years about another 2 to 3 players can make a mark on the main tour. It’s too early to say who they will be, but there is a lot of talent and there are a lot of juniors, under 21 players, who are coming up and all they need is good financial support and the right kind of guidance and they will definitely be up there some day.
Ultimately how far do you think you can go in the game? Ranking titles? World titles?
I haven’t really thought about where I can go, I’m just trying to flow and enjoy whatever comes my way and whatever results come my way. Actually the main reason I wanted to give it a shot is because I wanted to come over the UK and learn more and gain more exposure as a player, and that will always be my purpose in playing the pro tour and if I do get some good results then great. But I really haven’t thought about how far I can go; I just want to take it one day at a time and one match at a time.
What are your immediate plans? You’ve said you’re in India for the next two months so what do you like to do away from the table? Are you following the Shanghai Masters?
Yeah I am following the Shanghai Masters at the moment. You know the more I follow it the more I think oh my god I want to be back playing! I want to be playing in one of those tournaments, my hands are itching, but you do need a break once in a while. My last trip was pretty hectic because it was almost a 50 day trip and England is a beautiful place and I’ve settled down well in Sheffield, but I’m glad to be back home with family and friends and loved ones and feel the warmth. I’m going on holiday tomorrow for the weekend and I’m going to unwind and relax on the beach and in the water, and then after that I’ll come back and start practicing.
Thanks very much for giving your time for the interview.
It’s a pleasure
During the interview we touched on the clash of dates between the IBSF World Billiards Championships and the International Championship at the end of October. Pankaj was clearly in the midst of a dilemma at the time and didn’t know what was happening, however this subsequent article best sums up the current situation. No one reading this interview would blame him for choosing billiards this time around given his ties with the game, but at the same time you’re all secretly hoping he chooses snooker so we can get another look at him.