Wednesday, December 29, 1999                                                                                                                                     Indian Express/Daily

Wilson Jones crosses barrier; Chandra at the threshold
ALOK SINHA


Wilson Jones, the story goes, used to play billiards and snooker on the sly. For not only were youngsters discouraged from the game ---- remember the saying, "Proficiency at pool is a sign of mis-spent youth" -- it was also difficult to get an entry in the few clubs that had the facility for the sport. The Pune lad went on to win his first National Championships in 1950, at the cost of the `The Stylist' Chandra Hirjee.

But it was not till four appearances at the World Championships, did the ultimate glory come Jones' way. Interestingly, it came at the cost of Hirjee, Leslie Driffield and Tom Cleary, the top players of the era. The Master, who learnt `top table' play watching the Australian star Bob Marshall, was the first world champion India had in any sport. His success was the prime factor in the sport getting whatever little recognition it did.

Jones, who won 12 National titles between 1950 and 1966, may well have had a third World title, if not for his sporting attitude to agree to an extension to the 1962 final. He had beaten Marshall in the four-hour final, but on spectators' demand agreed to play further, as Marshall recovered and took away the title.

Jones called it a day in 1966, saying young Michael Ferreira was capable of leading India in the years to come. Ferreira justified the faith Jones had in his talent and won three World titles but there were two other talented players, who probably did not do justice to their skills. They were the maverick Satish Mohan and the `blitzkrieg man' Arvind Savur. Savur won the national title in 1967 and Mohan in 1968.

Ferreira got his first title in 1969, but it was Mohan all the way from 1970-73. Ferreira and Mohan finished joint second in 1973 World Championships in Bombay. Mohan, however, succumbed to his love for alcohol and soon vanished from the national scene. He met a tragic death in 1991, as he fell off a public transport bus in his hometown Ahmedabad. Savur, meanwhile, found himself attracted more to billiards' twin, snooker. He was always a treat to watch -- he would run around the table notching express breaks.

Ferreira came into his own in the late 70s and extended his dominance into the early 80s, and his three World titles came in 1977, 1981 and 1983 -- his first two titles coming on foreign soil.

A nagging backache forced Ferreira to cut down on his practice sessions and he was forced to give way to the young Geet Sethi, a natural talent. Sethi had sounded the first warning during the 1976 Junior Nationals in 1976 when he took a double -- the billiards and snooker titles.

Sethi's first National title came in 1981 and he had four consecutive wins between 1984 and 1987. Equally proficient in both events -- billiards and snooker -- Sethi had the maximum break of 147 in billiards during the Guntur Nationals in 1987. He took the billiards world by storm winning titles with amazing ease. Sethi now a professional had two World Amateur titles and four World professional billiards titles. Now after Asian games medals -- he had silver in individual behind team-mate Ashok Shandilya and gold in doubles with him -- Sethi is eyeing pool as his future.

Besides Sethi, others to make an impact in billiards are Subhash Agrawal, Ashok Shandilya, Manoj Kothari and Devendra Joshi. While Shandilya and Kothari did manage one World amateur title each, Agrawal, despite his talent, did not.

While Subhash Agrawal stayed among the best in billiards, his brother, late Om Agrawal, will be remembered as the most prolific exponent of snooker. A temperamental player, Om could surprise anybody on his day. He won the World Amateur Snooker Championships in 1984 -- the first non-British to do -- and beat John Parrot of England in the semi-finals. Parrot went on to win the extremely lucrative World Professional title while Om failed to make much headway after he turned pro. His untimely death in 1995 killed whatever hopes India had in the tough world of snooker pros.

While Om has been the best known snooker player from India this millennium, Shyam Shroff, the winner of seven National titles, has surprisingly got little media attention.

Among the younger lot, the most notable have been Alok Kumar and Yasin Merchant. Kumar, known as the accumulator of breaks, stays in Govindgarh in Patiala, Punjab. He has a table at home and practices alone -- without even a marker for help.

As for talent for the future, it is Manan Chandra. The Delhi player, who made the World junior snooker semi-finals in Cairo, is now planning to train in London under an experienced coach.

Wilson Jones kick-started the billiards movement, but now with a bagful of world amateur titles, the cue sporting fraternity is looking at pool for the future. Generation Next is moving away from billiards and snooker towards the money-spinning Pool. Geet Sethi, Devendra Joshi and Dharmendra Lilly represented India recently in WPA 9-ball World Pool Championships. The popularity of the sport can be gauged by the number of parlours that have mushroomed in every street corner all over the country.

MEMORIES OF ANOTHER DAY

WILSON AND INDIA'S FIRST: In 1958, Wilson Jones, the Pune lad, who came up the hard way, wins the World billiards title to become the first Indian to win a world title in any game.


ENCORE BY WILSON: In 1964, Wilson Jones makes it to a second world title.


FERREIRA PICKS UP: In 1977, Michael Ferreira established himself as the true successor to Jones' legacy by taking the first of his three world title.


FERREIRA GOES PAST JONES: In 1983, Ferreira, who had won his second world title in 1981, goes past Jones with a third world title.