Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Beyond the Cue: Pankaj Advani’s Insights on Sports, Education, and Success (Exclusive Interview)

Interviewed by – Poulami Ganguly

Written and edited by – Robin Bhuyan (Editor-in-Chief)

Enigmatic Horizon brings you an exclusive interview with the legendary Pankaj Advani (Padma Bhushan), one of the most well-known players worldwide in the field of cue sports. He is a 27-time International Billiards and Snooker Federation (IBSF) world champion. For his contributions to sports, he has received the Arjuna Award and the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award, and also India’s fourth and third highest civilian honors- The Padma Shri in 2009, and The Padma Bhushan in 2018. In this interview, the veteran champion talks about his journey and shares insights on several important issues, such as changes needed in the education sector and health and fitness advice for youths.

First of all, we would like to know how you got attracted to the world of cue sports, and how did you nurture your passion?

As a school kid, I was exposed to more conventional outdoor sports such as basketball, football, etc. It was at the age of 10 when I stumbled upon this game. My elder brother used to go to this small snooker club near our house in Bangalore. During the holidays, he used to go with his friends and play this game. I was intrigued by the game, and I used to follow him to the club out of curiosity. Being very short at the time, I was not allowed to play, but I used to make observations – the stance, techniques, etc. After three weeks of watching, I was allowed to make my first shot, and to my pleasant surprise, the ball disappeared into the pocket. Since then, there has been no looking back, and I got completely hooked onto the sport.

You’ve won 27 world championships and several other honors and awards. Do you feel that awards can be a distraction for young players, or can they push them to achieve something better in their lives?

I feel that sportspersons irrespective of their age, do deserve recognition. Whether one is young, middle-aged, or old, I’ve always believed that awards serve as motivation for players. I myself earned the Arjuna Award in 2004, at just the age of 19, and then the Khel Ratna Award at the age of 21, in 2006. These are the highest awards in the field of sports awarded by the government of India. For me, that was a huge motivation as my efforts in the field of cue sports were acknowledged. It gave me immense joy that I was able to take my country forward in this game and put it on the world map.

What do you enjoy the most about playing pool?

I’m basically into billiards and snooker – both are played on the same table, with few different rules and techniques. The first thing about the game is that I am transported into another world. When I step into the billiards room, there is no other thought that occupies my mind, or any thought that worries me. There is only me and the table – and putting the ball in the pocket is all that I think about or focus on. The game takes me away from everything in the world – which is one of the best feelings to have!

Have you had any funny or memorable experiences in your career?

In 2019, I was playing in the Asian Championships, and there was this one trophy that had eluded me for a long time, although I had won all the other trophies nationally and internationally. Over the last decade, I had reached the finals four times, but I had lost. In this particular game, which was in Doha, my opponent was dominating the game, and what’s worse was that I was down with a 104-degree fever. I went to the office of the tournament director, and he expressed sympathy for my situation. However, I laughed and told him that the game was not over yet, and I would fight till the match was over! Since I had a high fever and I couldn’t even eat anything, I asked them to get me tea whenever I needed, as I am basically a TEA-totaller! With a 104-degree fever, I sipped on my tea and managed to turn the game around, eventually winning the Asian Snooker Championship for the first time. This shows that when someone says something negative to you, and you can channelize your emotion and use it in a positive direction!

Do you feel that changes are needed in our education system to promote art and sports as much as academics?

Recently, I went to an international school as a chief guest, where I got a chance to interact with the kids. I learned that the kids were very well informed, and they knew quite well about what is going on in the field of sports and current affairs. I do agree that we need to change the way we teach our children, and the whole process of education. Back in my days, it was more about learning things that would no longer be applicable after we passed out. It was more about theoretical stuff. I feel we need to include practical lessons in our schools and educational policies. Moral education is very important at a young age. Even things like sex education are also needed. Children need to be equipped well enough to enter the real world with practical knowledge rather than theoretical knowledge.

Why is billiards and snooker not as popular in India as in other countries? And what steps do you feel are needed to promote the game?

Billiards and snooker are definitely played by a lot of people, in different cities across the country. However, if we want to popularize the sport, the best platform is television. I also feel that it needs to be more accessible. There is also a misconception that the sport is for the elite. However, all of us who have taken up the sport have come from middle-class backgrounds. The only issue is the lack of access to facilities, especially if you are not near a social club or association. I feel the federations and state governments have to work together to address these issues.

What do you love to do when you put down your cue?

Since I travel a lot, I love to spend time with my family and then catch up on movies. The games can be quite intense, and they take a toll on you mentally and emotionally. I believe every tournament I play takes something out of me because of the stress of the competition and anxiety to perform. At the same time, this is what keeps me going! So occasionally, I need to take my mind off the game because when I am on the table, I am completely in it! Over the years, I have sort of altered my practice routines and have focused more on quality than quantity. Back in the day, when I was younger, I used to play for over 6 hours. Nowadays, I keep it around 1-3 hours!

How do you handle stress during an important match?

I have to give credit to my brother Shree, who is older to me by around seven and a half years. While it was, he who introduced me to the world of snooker, and similarly it was I who introduced him to his career, which is sports psychology. There was a phase when I was going through a rough patch. He was in Australia, and he flew down all the way to India to help me deal with the problems I was going through mentally. It did help me – I ended up winning the gold medal at the Asian Games in 2006. He realized that if he could help his brother’s mental state, he could work with several other athletes of different sports as well. He got a Ph.D. in sports psychology, and he is working with some of the top players today! You could say I am very lucky to have my brother as a support system!

What would you do if you were not a sportsperson?

Honestly, I don’t have the answer to this! But when I was just 11 years old, I took part in a handicap tournament in Bangalore. I happened to beat some of the top players and ended up winning that tournament. This gave me a great feeling, and it gave a great story to the media people, as someone who was so small and tiny was able to win the tournament without any experience! When an interviewer asked me what I would like to become- I first said that I would like to become a businessman, and then paused and added that I would also like to become a World Billiards and Snooker Champion!

Any advice for aspiring sports persons?

Back in my day, I had to pay attention to both my sporting career and my academics. I had to prioritize both. Even today’s children know what they want. At the same time, there are a lot of distractions today – gadgets, social media, since things are available at the click of a button. There are several more opportunities now, but it also means that it has become very difficult to focus on a particular activity, especially if we talk about sport. Sport requires your mind and body to be in sync, and it cannot just stray. You need to devote your mind and your body to honing your skills and perfecting them, in any particular field. I would say that one should pursue something only if your heart is in it – Don’t do it for name, fame, or money – Those things will follow automatically!

Would you share some fitness tips for mental and physical acuity?

I am having lower back pain right now, and I am not sure if I am the right person to answer this question! But everybody has their way of functioning and their ideas when it comes to health. I would say – Just do your walks and stretching regularly. If you are a sportsperson, then there are few muscles that may need to be targeted more. And it is important to eat right! Avoid junks and foods loaded with lots of calories! Unless your profession demands it, you don’t have to go overboard either and be too strict with your diet, but it is good to balance things! Strengthening your muscles is very important, and this is what I have been doing recently- so that they support me when I am using it!

We hope you recover soon! And best of luck for your next tournament! Thank you so much for your time!

Thank you very much!

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