In a league of his own

In a league of his own

Cue sports

In a league of his own

RAINING SUCCESS: Alok Kumar says the Asian Games pool bronze gave him special hope and confidence. DH PHOTO

Post the monsoon of 2010, it has been raining success for Alok Kumar. While very few would be surprised by the affable Punjabi’s stunning revival, the several firsts he has achieved on his way to glory is what astonishes everyone, including the 42-year-old himself.

It all started on the evening of September 5 in Pune, the 77th National Billiards Championship. Playing the final of the nation’s premier three-ball cue sports event for the first time in six years, Alok had almost everything stacked against him. He was up against the all-conquering reigning World champion Pankaj Advani. Secondly, he hadn’t won a National title for three years, his form deserting him completely and his 10 National titles till then almost forgotten.

But, a fighter and survivor – stories that have been documented time and again – all through his life, Alok saw the title clash against the ace Bangalorean as one more opportunity to return to the summit, the route he certainly knew very well but had just kept losing direction inexplicably. Summing up every bit of skill, nerves and determination, Alok outlasted Pankaj 5-4 to capture the title and become the first person to beat him in a National championship in three years.

That victory sparked a major turnaround in Alok’s life and he hasn’t looked back since. Two months later, at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, he scripted one of the most sensational stories in Indian cue sports history, defeating the supreme and iconic Effren Reyes en route to winning the bronze in 8-ball pool. It was the first time an Indian had won a medal in pool at the quadrennial continental sporting extravaganza, forcing veterans like Yasin Merchant and Geet Sethi to term his achievement ‘equally, if not, much bigger than Advani’s billiards gold.’

Carrying the form and momentum into the new season, Alok’s hunger for history and success kept growing. Just when the highly-anticipated India-Pakistan cricket World Cup semifinal headlined every show, Alok squeezed for himself a space in typical unsung fashion.  In a gripping National 8-ball pool final against Chandigarh’s Sumit Talwar, the veteran fought and tooth and nail to lift the trophy and become the first cueist ever to have captured all the National titles.

If all these isn’t mind-boggling, the Jack of all trades scripted another piece of history at Kish Island, Iran, leaving seasoned champions completely stunned. Switching his trade to billiards – a game totally different from pool and requiring enormous patience and planning – with consummate ease in just nine days, the all-rounder first scalped defending champion Advani, bulldozed past former World champion Peter Gilchrist and then destroyed Thailand’s Praput Chaithanasukan to lay his hands on the Asian Billiards crown and become first person to wear the continental billiards and snooker crowns.

“Ever since my victory in Pune, it has been quite a successful phase for me,” said the shy Alok. “I still can’t believe that I’ve won so many titles in the recent past. The Asian Games medal has instilled special hope and confidence in me. Nobody gave us a chance in pool at China and to have won a medal is extremely satisfying. Similar is the case with Asian Billiards. I was going straight from the National pool championship and with many billiards pros participating, nobody gave me a chance, not even myself.

“It is extremely difficult to switch from pool to billiards. I was initially planning to skip the event and rather play the Philippine Open pool championship happening at the same time, but changed my mind at the last moment.  The gamble paid off and I am really happy, although I’ve not had much time to savour the success.”

While the nation is not devoid of cue sport heroes, what sets Alok apart is his brilliance in all forms of the game and the ability to switch from pool to snooker to billiards in a short span of time. His simple approach of ‘if it’s there to be potted, pot it’ and quick analysis of opponents has held him in good stead too.

Despite pool’s stagnancy, Alok has no qualms playing the sport and is among the select few who practices, plays and competes in all three forms with encouraging success.

“Following the Guangzhou success, I’ve got myself a pool table at home in addition to the snooker and billiards table. I love playing all forms of the game and I will continue to do so. It is a difficult task alright, but I’ve done it for a long time and I don’t see a reason why I can’t do it any longer,” said Alok.

In a career spanning 25 years, the lone trophy missing from his impressive cabinet is the prestigious World Championship. “I never expected to win the Asian Billiards title, but I did it. Having said that, the World snooker is not possible now but I am still confident on winning the billiards event. My best chance to win the World snooker came in 2006. I was actually playing very well and came close to winning it, but the hectic scheduling hampered my chances.

“Winning is all about confidence. When I was losing, nothing appeared right for me, although I was doing the same things. But after the recent successes, I am beginning to feel more confident and in better control of my game. Hopefully, the World Championship crown will come sooner than later,” said the veteran.

Judging by the numerous odds Alok has overcome in the past, his conquest of that unscaled peak can’t be counted out.