The IBSF World Snooker Championship returns to India after 22 years as the 35th edition of the annual event commences in Hyderabad on Sunday at the Hyderabad International Convention Centre (HICC) where 20 spanking new tables are laid out in one hall.
The 10-day cue sport extravaganza, that was last held in India at Bangalore in 1987, has fair representation from across the world, but the focus would be on the Indians among whom Pankaj Advani who had won the event in 2003, and billiards ace Geet Sethi, a finalist last year, are reckoned to be the best prospects to win titles in the Men's and Masters (Over 40) categories, respectively.
Advani, at 24, has his best years ahead of him, though he has to his credit seven World and three Asian titles. All his international triumphs, barring the 2003 success, have been in billiards. As such, he would be keen to win the world snooker crown a second time.
"There will be pressure for sure since it is in India, but I hope to do well in front of the home crowd. I have been practising hard, and my immediate goal is to first qualify for the knock-out stage. Beyond that, there is not much one can say," said Advani.
In fact, at the Asian Indoor Games in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam, earlier this month, Advani lost in the pre-quarter-finals while compatriot Manan Chandra, the gifted player from Delhi, made it to the semi-finals, but lost the bronze medal play-off against UAE's Mohammed Mustafa Al-Hashmi.
Advani felt that the major threats would be from the traditional powerhouses England and Wales, besides Thailand, China and UAE. "The Thai players have been performing quite well in the past couple of years, and so also the ones from UAE," he pointed out.
The 2007 championship witnessed an all-Thailand final and last year, another Thai (Thepchaiya Un-Nooh) won the title.
China, who won the snooker gold in Ho Chi Minh city, are still to annex the world title, but their players are always considered potential contenders. At the 2006 Doha Asian Games, China swept all the three snooker gold medals. In the fray here is Tian Pengfei, a double gold medallist (men's doubles and team event) in Doha.
England, though, has not produced a champion since Luke Simmons won in 1998 while Wales have won the title just twice since Darren Morgan potted the crown in 1987, thus reflecting the ever narrowing gap at the international level.
So much so that even Afghanistan, considered minnows, are eyeing the prize in the wake of Nader Khan Sultani's silver medal in Vietnam earlier this month. Sultani said he has been playing well and was hopeful of improving on his Vietnam showing.
Under the circumstances, the 96-player draw that is split into 16 groups for the preliminary league appears wide open, while India, as hosts, have fielded 14 players at the last count.
No player, with the exception of Malta's Paul Mifsud (1985, '86), has won the title twice and that alone should indicate the quality and closeness of the competition.
Apart from Advani and Chandra, the other Indians to be followed are Aditya Mehta who is fast gaining a reputation as a rock solid player and Sourav Kothari, the current India No.2.
Mehta, the 23-year old from Mumbai has tremendous potential and the world snooker championship gives him an ideal platform to come good. The same could be said of Kothari who, however, is prone to inconsistency.
In the Masters category that made its debut in 2004, Sethi, of course, starts off as the firm favourite, but he reckons that Morgan, a former top-10 professional player, and defending champion and thrice winner Deane O'Kane from New Zealand would be the players to watch out for.
"I have been playing well of late, but results (in snooker) have not been coming. This being a home event, I hope to capitalize on the advantage, but then you have players like O'Kane who beat me in last year's final and of course Morgan," Sethi said.
India has fielded seven entries in the 36-player draw and the home list includes former National snooker and billiards champion Arvind Savur, who, incidentally, will be celebrating his 50th year in cue sport, having played his first tournament in 1959.
The Ladies event, which was introduced in 2003, has seven Indians, led by National champion Meenal Thakur, in the fray and also wears an open look in the absence of 2008 winner Reanne Evans (England) and runner-up Wendy Jans (Belgium) who, in fact, was the finalist in every edition and won it in 2006.
As such, the Indians are fancying their chances as the home conditions would be to their obvious advantage.