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SNOOKER: TAKING THEIR CUE

July 21, 2019

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Babar Masih (L) and Zulfiqar A. Qadir receive the winning trophy from an ACBS official with the runners-up Indian team looking on after the Asian Team Championship final in Doha
Babar Masih (L) and Zulfiqar A. Qadir receive the winning trophy from an ACBS official with the runners-up Indian team looking on after the Asian Team Championship final in Doha

While all of Pakistan was going mad over the progress and chances of the cricket team to make it to the semi-finals in the ICC World Cup in England and Wales, most people missed the country’s remarkable achievement in another sporting field. The country’s cueists made us proud by fetching half-a-dozen medals — two golds, one silver and three bronze — out of the 16 medals that were up for grabs in four back-to-back snooker competitions that were held at Doha. The gold medals in the tally have a special significance as they came after defeating archrivals India.

Snooker is one non-Olympic sporting discipline very much on the rise in the country. Pakistan’s cueists, despite infrastructural shortcomings, have time and again proved their mettle by returning home from global competitions after winning laurels.

Be it the juniors or men’s world titles, the Asian or Master’s titles, ‘6-Reds’, ‘15-Reds’ or team events played in any part of the world, Pakistan’s players have reached the top while proving that they are second to none.

Pakistan’s snooker players are doing quite well on the international circuit and earning laurels for the country. But they are being let down by their sport’s governing bodies

Just as in boxing, the International Billiards and Snooker Federation (IBSF) and Asian Confederation of Billiards Sports (ACBS) awards bronzes to losing semi-finalists.  

This time Asjad Iqbal, Mohammad Bilal, Babar Masih and debutant Zulfiqar A. Qadir did Pakistan proud. Except for the latter, the trio was quite experienced — they have made their mark in the international arena earlier as well. This time, due to the Pakistan federation’s financial constraints, the players even bore part of the expenses for their trip.

But the trip and their success did change the fortunes of the cueists. With the exception of the debutant, the others fetched approximately a million rupees apiece in prize money; Zulfiqar got about Rs0.5 million.

The financial status of top players on the circuit has improved tremendously in the recent past. Most of them have opened snooker clubs in their hometowns to make ends meet. Half-a-dozen players — the former world champion Mohammad Asif, former world number two Mohammad Sajjad, five-time NBP Cup champion Asjad Iqbal, the promising Mohammad Majid Ali, the former world U-18 champion Mohammad Naseem Akhtar and the talented Haris Tahir — are all employed by the National Bank of Pakistan, the only financial institution here catering to the needs of cueists.

There are other deserving snooker players, however, who are finding it a challenge to focus on their game in addition to looking after their families in their limited resources, or those who need jobs. Most of these players hail from lower middle class backgrounds.

About a decade ago, the Pakistan Billiards and Snooker Federation (PBSF) did a wise thing by setting aside Rs100,000 as monthly stipend for the top eight ranking players and the top four junior players. Under the system, the top ranking player gets Rs12,000 while number two gets Rs10,000. The players ranked number three to eight, meanwhile, receive Rs7,000 apiece. The top four juniors are also given Rs7,000 each.

PBSF rankings are issued thrice in a year — after the National Snooker Championship, the NBP Cup and the Jubilee Insurance Cup. The fourth ranking tournament has been discontinued since long.

A HISTORY OF ACHIEVEMENTS

Snooker rose to fame in the country after veteran cueist Mohammad Yousuf, now 67, scaled new heights, defeating Johannes R. Johannesson of Iceland by 11-9 frames in an epic final to win the elusive world title at Johannesburg in 1994. That was the last year in which Pakistan possessed four world titles (snooker, hockey, squash and cricket).

Mohammad Asif of Faisalabad equaled the feat by getting the better of Englishman Gary Wilson by 10-8 frames in the 2012 final at Sofia, Bulgaria. Then prodigy Mohammad Naseem Akhtar laid his hands on the World U-18 title, defeating China’s Lei Peifan by 5-3 frames in the final at Beijing in 2017. The pair of Asif and Sajjad also did Pakistan proud by capturing the World Team title in Ireland in 2013. Asif teamed up with Babar to win the World Team title in Egypt in 2017 as well.

Asjad Iqbal (L) and Mohammad Bilal after winning the IBSF World Team Cup in Doha
Asjad Iqbal (L) and Mohammad Bilal after winning the IBSF World Team Cup in Doha

Former national champion Hamza Akbar hit the headlines when he carved out a 7-6 frames’ triumph over Indian maestro Pankaj Advani in the final at Kuala Lumpur in 2015. Advani is regarded as one of the greatest cueists, with many world billiards and snooker titles under his belt. The triumph helped Hamza qualify for the professional circuit for two years which was further extended for a similar period on the basis of his performance.

And before Hamza there was Yousuf, who also pocketed the Asian and world Masters titles.

Winning the Asian Games snooker gold courtesy of the England-based Pakistani Shaukat Ali in 1998 — when the baize game become a medal sport at Bangkok — is also among our memorable achievements.

There are many other achievements also at other events and at the regional level. Despite all this, snooker remains low on the radar of sporting fans, the media and the government in the country. One can perhaps put this down to the hype around cricket, which seems to swallow up every other sport in the country, but there are other issues as well.

THE PROBLEM WITH PBSF

Part of the problem, as always, is with the administration of the sport. The Pakistan Billiards and Snooker Federation (PBSF), which was formerly the Pakistan Billiards and Snooker Association (PBSA), continues to flout its own rules despite changing the nomenclature of the game’s controlling body some seven years ago.

While the body was changed into a federation to reflect “national/international requirements” and the term of office of office-bearers was also extended from two to four years at an extraordinary general body meeting of PBSA in 2012, to date the PBSF inexplicably continues to use its old nomenclature in all correspondence.

More importantly, it seems to be beset with apathy. As a national federation, the PBSF has not yet brought Azad Jammu & Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and Fata into their fold which is obligatory. Furthermore, despite repeated tall claims, there’s still no snooker academy in the country. The players who emerge on the national scene, come up on their own after playing the game at commercial parlours and after making their appearance at the provincial cup that forms the criteria for national-level competitions. But the role of the provincial bodies is confined to holding just one event in a year, the provincial cups, and it seems as if they are asleep for the remaining 11 months. It is manadatory for a national federation to have divisional and district level bodies aimed at promoting the game at the grassroots level, but this too has not been done.

Barring some exceptions, the executive committee of the PBSF consists of elderly people, mostly over 60 years, and it is the need of the hour to induct younger blood into it. As it stands, PBSF’s focal person Naveed Kapadia, who is not part of the executive committee, is the only young gun around in the administrative set-up. The incumbents have paid no attention to their responsibility to groom younger people who can carry the sport forward. In addition, a representative of players also needs to be inducted into the executive committee, to avert the kind of disagreements that have arisen before on the signing of central contracts.

The PBSF always laments about financial constraints but, at the same time, it has failed to make the much-talked about Pakistan Snooker League (PSL) a reality. At a time when the government has curtailed grants of many federations and put an embargo on others, the PBSF should be exploring other avenues to generate funds to help keep the game going. Especially one that has already brought so many laurels to Pakistan.

The writer is a member of staff
zuberijournalist@yahoo.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 21st, 2019