MUMBAI: Having stacked up winning scores on the cue table, former national champion and Asian Games silver medallist Alok Kumar is not happy with the number of youngsters taking up to the baize in India. Even though the country has a legacy in billiards, the line ends at Pankaj Advani as of now, and snooker, which hasn’t quite captured India’s imagination continues to dawdle in club obscurity.
“Pankaj Advani is not the future of Indian cue sports,” says the 50-year-old Kumar on the sidelines of the 2019 Masters National Snooker Championship in Mumbai. “The federation has to invest in youngsters. It has to begin at the ground level. Unless you have thousands of players playing, you will not get people to come and watch it and get involved. Common man doesn’t know or can’t connect with the game. Maybe, accessibility is the problem; it is still mainly played in clubs. Unless snooker goes to school level, it will not become popular.”
Ranked as high as No 2 in the world in billiards and No 3 in snooker in the IBSF (amateur) rankings, Kumar has been at the pointy end of official indifference. The former ace recalls how despite being ranked No 2 in the country, he still had to pay for his own expenses to compete in tournaments as prestigious as the World Championships. “I was told if I wanted to play at the World Championships, I would have to do so at my own expense,” recalls Kumar. “I used to feel bad that despite being No 2 in the country my federation can’t fund this.”
The financial pressure, Kumar believes, is the main reason why he did not take up snooker professionally. United Kingdom is the hub of pro snooker and the sport is one the most-watched TV events there. But living in the UK for almost six months a year to compete in the circuit comes at a massive price. Yasin Merchant was the first Indian to turn pro in snooker and Aditya Mehta is currently the only Indian plying his trade on the UK pro circuit.
While Pro snooker is at the top of the pyramid in the sport, Kumar believes India’s problems start right at the base. Not even players, facilities or coaches. “The first and only formal coaching I got was for 10 days, with Pankaj’s coach Arving Savur,” says Kumar. “That was in 1991, when I was ranked No 2 in India.” And 23 years of age. The dearth of coaches and formal coaching structures continues till date.
“The federation has been asking me to retire for the past 4-5 years so that I can take up coaching,” he says. “It’s mainly the former players who are doing it in their own way. Yasin is coaching some youngsters here in Bombay and I am training a few youngsters back home. But that’s not the way to do it, and that’s not nearly enough.”