x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Indian sport is going to pot

Unless you play cricket it does not seem to matter if you are a world-class performer - as Merchant's treatment proves.

Snooker player Yasin Merchant is a two-time Asian champion and an Asian Games gold medallist who is a prominent performer on the national sporting scene. But he has yet to receive the Padma Shri award.
Snooker player Yasin Merchant is a two-time Asian champion and an Asian Games gold medallist who is a prominent performer on the national sporting scene. But he has yet to receive the Padma Shri award.

One cannot help but sometimes laugh at the state of Indian sport. On one hand, the country's star cricketers such as Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh are lynched by the anti-cricket element for failing to turn up to receive the many honours and awards thrown their way. On the other, there are sportsmen and women who have no chance of getting similar awards they so richly deserve.

And last week, international snooker player Yasin Merchant pulled no punches when expressing how he felt. He came out in the open to blast the authorities for ignoring his claims for a Padma Shri award - which is government recognition of people who excel in everything from painting to banking. Merchant is a two-time Asian champion and an Asian Games gold medallist who is now a prominent performer on the national sporting scene. He has been waiting for this honour since 2001 despite having all paperwork in place.

At one point he has even wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about his pending award and problems with getting it. It's easy to be cynical about Indian sportspeople such as Merchant who are having to beg for recognition. They choose this journey - which has roadblocks and boulders - and at the end of the day doing this only causes embarrassment. Yet, they persist. Wonder why? In my opinion they are suffering from the hurt cricket has caused them. It is only the cricketers who the majority of the sporting public really adore. They are proud people and they want to do something about it. In this case, Merchant was the one who hit them with a backlash.

"I would not like to name names, but in the past there have been sportspersons with far lesser credentials who have received the award," he said. "I don't have any political connections. I feel cheap approaching a politician. It's not my style. I deserve the award on merit." It is hoped by many, myself included, that Merchant gets his reward in the coming months. He'll be a very proud man that day, more proud of the award than some of India's cricketers who have been fortunate to be honoured in similar fashion.

This also shows how cue sports in India need a boost. Snooker and billiards players continue to give India a good name on the international stage. However, when they arrive from their conquests abroad, their achievements soon seem to pale into insignificance. Pankaj Advani's triumph at the World Professional Billiards Championships in September is a classic example. He's young but he's no poster boy and has not managed to get many endorsements to do justice to his achievement.

Granted, he didn't fare well at November's world snooker event in Hyderabad, but that is simply part of the ebb and flow of sport. He deserves more. And when you talk about endorsements it is amazing how often the Pathan brothers - Irfan and Yousuf - are being used at promotional events these days. These two, however talented, are not even in the Indian cricket team. So what can be done to raise that status of cue sports in India?

Who better to answer that than Michael Ferreira, a former world billiards champion and, for many years now, the voice of cue sports in India. "Obviously, it has to catch attention," says Ferreira. "But there are few things that distinguish it from other sports. Cricket is a large canvas where advertisers have so many opportunities to push their message through - replays, intervals etc. That is a unique opportunity for all advertisers to get the maximum. Even football and other major do not have the same advantage."

Ferreira says that although millions follow cue sports, the challenge is to get that spark to capture the imagination of the wider public. "Glamour is one solution. A promoter tried to introduce the glamour quotient by inviting a famous actress for example. "Also, can we make it an exciting format? Professional snooker has gone to a six-ball snooker. The 15 reds are replaced by six reds. But we also have to do something innovative."

The last thing billiards and snooker needs is a pessimistic attitude, but there is an underlying feeling that it won't be brought closer to the hearts of sports lovers even if something dramatic is achieved as in India sport just means cricket. There is a silver lining though. Corporate offices are encouraging their employees to play pool as a break from work. This pool culture could help spark a pool-like format in cue sports which could be made really exciting.

And I know for a fact that cricketers enjoy a game of pool on tours. In Dambulla, Sri Lanka after a defeat in the 2005 triangular series, I was surprised to see Messrs Yuvraj Singh and Irfan Pathan get serious with their potting skills until the wee hours of the morning. Finally, not many of them would know that India's first world champion was not Kapil Dev and 1983 World Cup-winning teammates, but a gentleman in the truest sense of the term called Wilson Lionel Garton-Jones, who won the first of his two World Amateur Billiards titles in 1958. The second came in 1964.

After Jones, India have produced cue sports world champs like Ferreira, Manoj Kothari, Geet Sethi, Ashok Shandilya, Rupesh Shah, Om Agrawal and of course, Advani. If India doesn't wake up and recognise the value of all sports, this list of the "gifted, but not hailed" will grow like a cancer. Clayton Murzello is the Group Sports Editor of the Indian newspaper Mid Day sports@thenational.ae