Sports, D. B. Gangolli

To any sports-minded Indian the name of Wilson Jones is legendary and synonymous with billiards. The achievements of the twice-winner of the world amateur billiards title at Calcutta in 1958 and at Auckland in 1964 are hard to beat and may, perhaps, remain unsurpassed for generations to come. It need not be gain said that Jones put India on the world map of the cue game. He was the first Indian to win the world title since the countrys participation in international contest in 1938.

The disparity in standards of Wilson Jones and his contemporary Indian cueists was so colossal the past tense is used because Jones retired from the game in 1967, when he was at the zenith of fame that the Indian ace could rarely, if at all be seen playing in a serious vein. But his brilliance, skill and art were in full bloom when he was pitted against an international exponent.

One such epic performance was the dramatic victory Wilson Jones scored by a mere eight points over the former English and world champion, Leslie Driffield. The eight hour battle over two days in the final of the Western India Billiards Championship at the Parsi Gymkhana on November 13, 1958, will ever remain green in the memory of the 200 and odd enthusiasts present at the hall on that chilly Thursday night.

The clash of the giants was memorable in itself for the unprecedented excitement, suspense and hair-breadth finish it provided, but more than that it was a very significant, portentous victory which gave the Indian star the confidence and shot-in-the-arm, so to speak, he needed most at that juncture. This triumph, as it later proved, paved the way for him to notch the coveted world amateur title at Calcutta nearly a month later.

Jones was then knocking at the door of World Fame and the biggest hurdles in his way were Australias Tom Cleary, the defending champion, and Englands Leslie Driffield. Jones beat Cleary first and went on to claim yet another exciting victory over the redoubtable Driffield in his penultimate engagement. The success in the Western India final had given Jones, as he himself later expressed, a distinct psychological advantage over the Englishman. Jones, remained unbeaten in the series, it will be recalled, and was crowned the world champion.

Coming back to the Western India final, it was a death-or-glory struggle with an Alfred Hitchcock touch of suspense between two noted cueists of the time with a contrast in their styles and techniques. Jones showed a gargantuan appetite while piling up his century breaks with his delectable and impeccable top-of-the-table technique and a wide repertoire of eye- filling shots executed with fluency and rhythm while Driffield proved to be a studious, serious, methodical campaigner for whom a tussle was, for all purposes, a war in which no tactic or guile not infringing the letter of the law, was unfair to unsettle the concentration of his rival. He relied more on the losing hazard for his big runs, and often would leave his rival mercilessly sitting cold and concerned on the curbside for long spells.

What a thunderous ovation rent the air when the referee at the Parsi Gymkhana Hall called time! Wilson Jones had won the title by the skin of his teeth at 2747-2739. Never in the annuals of the major competition had there been a finish so close and exciting.

At the end of the first four-hour session the previous day Jones led 1470-1273, and there was little in the play to indicate the unexpected turn of events that followed. In fact, even after the interval on the final day when Jones enjoyed a lead of over 400 points few, if any, could have entertained any hopes of the British Champion staging such a magnificent rally and giving his opponent an anxious time. But such is the stuff and grit world champions are made of that they never say die.

Driffield, who had been digging like a prospector the previous day, suddenly and sensationally struck the rich gold of form in the last hour and coming within striking distance in the dying minutes, did everything but snatch victory on the post, so to speak.

Jones had registered breaks of 160, 85, 220, 193, 63 in the first two-and-half hours, playing some out-of-the-ordinary shots one masse shot in particular be executed with full confidence and courage at a time when the faint-hearted would have thought it suicidal and foolish; it was to the delight of the adventurous.

Driffield was slowly and steadily covering ground; with the help of runs of 73, 286, 150 and 142 he trailed 2179-2553 an hour before close. Time was not in Driffields favour, but Lady Luck was. Jones played with the wrong ball after making a run of 65. This was the turning point. From that slip of his rival, the Englishman went on to make a break of 279. It was a lapse that threatened to prove fatal to Jones, but the India wizard was not altogether out of Fortunes book.

If only for the magnificent fighting spirit he prevailed. Driffield deserved the break. With half an hour left for the close the English ace reduced the margin to 2483-2605. He got yet another chance when Jones broke down on a simple pot to terminate a big run at 107. A determined Driffield brought into play several spectacular shots which seemed impossible to the uninitiated but were thrilling to the knowledgeable.

Driffield made a 69 and eventually forged ahead of his rival after a long spell by a slender margin of five points when he chalked up a break of 90.

Excitement reached its peak as five minutes were left and victory which looked like going Jones way was drifting slowly towards Driffields.  The clock, ticking steadily and quietly on the wall behind the baulk, held the key to the riddle as the pendulum of Fortune swayed tantalizingly from one end to another. Both the stalwarts, playing under great tension and using safely tactics, tumbled with easy shots. The gravity and suspense of the situation were, highlighted by the scores on their final three visits to the table, with, Driffields scores first: 2724-2733, 2732-2744, 2739-2747.

A repetition of that dramatic development would be a miracle beyond any cueists powers to arrange. It was a memorable match and I will think gratefully of its spirit; its endeavor and achievements during those dour periods; the gauntlet thrown down and picked up with chivalry; cleverness, craft and imagination of the contestants; the game at its bravest and most beautiful!