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Jazz by the baize

Pankaj Advani?s Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna could make all the difference for cue sports in India, writes Abhijeet Kulkarni.

india Updated: Aug 19, 2006 02:03 IST

Twenty-one world titles, more than half-a-dozen Asian crowns and a host of international triumphs! Such achievement in any sport would be enough to make it one of the most popular sporting disciplines in any country.

But not in India. Cue sports, which has given us the highest number of international titles, continues to struggle for corporate patronage, and save the exception of the legendary Geet Sethi, none of the top players are yet household names.

Hence, the selection of reigning IBSF World Billiards champion (point and time format) Pankaj Advani for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award -- the highest sporting honour in India -- for the year 2005 came as a pleasant surprise to the 21-year-old and others in the sports fraternity.

"I was nervous from the day I heard I was nominated," an elated Advani said from San Jose, where he is representing the country in the World Team Snooker Championships. "I thought I had no chance against (Rahul) Dravid and (Mahesh) Bhupathi."

Former Asian snooker champion and joint secretary of Billiards and Snooker Players Association of India, Alok Kumar, expressed similar sentiments, saying, "The award is special since Pankaj beat stalwarts from two popular sports -- cricket and tennis."

Yet, occasional recognition notwithstanding -- Sethi has also been conferred with the Khel Ratna -- the sport is struggling to stay alive in many states, and even where it exists, the response is not exciting.

"One of the major reasons for this is that cue sport is not spectator-friendly," reasoned Billiards and Snooker Federation of India (BSFI) vice-president Ravi Tandon. "It is very technical and the spectators cannot get involved as you have to maintain silence in the hall.

"Taking this into consideration, the International federation (IBSF) has brought in a lot of changes in the format and we are hopeful that things will change in a couple of years."

In order make the sport more exciting, the IBSF has already replaced the traditional time format with points format (in which whoever reaches the set mark first wins) in major tournaments and is now mulling over the idea of curtailing the number of red balls from 15 to six in snooker.

Internationally, the introduction of pool has helped in enhancing the popularity of the sport. But India has failed to play catch-up yet. And Alok Kumar blames the national federation.

"I don't buy the idea of the sport not being spectator-friendly," he says. "Can one explain why it is so popular in England and other European countries despite the same constraints?

"Golf and chess are not very spectator-friendly either. Yet they have grown. That's because of right marketing. But the BSFI has failed in this department.

"The glaring example of this is the way we handled pool. When it came to India in 1998, it attracted the youth no end. Dozens of pool parlours opened across the country but the BSFI made no attempts to cash in on the boom."

In fact, the BSFI did not bother to recognise pool as one of the cue sports disciplines for almost two years. This led to many state governments levying entertainment tax (Rs 5,000 per month, per table) on parlours, thus nipping its growth in the bud.

By the time the BSFI woke up, it was too late as most of the parlours were forced to close shop.

In Maharashtra, the powerhouse of cue sports in India, the situation has gotten grimmer as the state government has extended the purview of its tax to even billiards tables and has sent notices to sports clubs to pay the tax or shut down.

This, despite the sport being an Asian Games discipline and having 10 gold medals at stake!

Tandon admits that the Federation was a tad slow in taking the game forward but said steps were being taken now. "We introduced the sub-junior nationals this year.

We also conducted inter-school tournaments in Delhi and, from next year, we will be conducting them in every state to attract youngsters to the game," Tandon says.

"Not only that, with the help of table manufacturers we have made customised pool and billiards tables that could be kept in schools and even in homes as part of our promotion campaign."

These are nice things to hear. But whether cue sports will really take off will depend on the will of the BSFI office-bearers to put words into action. Meanwhile, three cheers for Pankaj Advani.

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