By Yasin Merchant - India's ace snooker player
· You don’t discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.
· Think big: whoever heard of Alexander the Average
Since the very first day that I got a chance to see Jimmy White in action in Kolkata at the National Championship, I would dream of being able to rub shoulders with him or the likes of him – and that too, in their own backyard. I had just begun my career as a junior and I was already planning a fairy tale journey into the kingdom of the stars. The thought was a little too ambitious to even discuss it with my mentor, my very own father. So I tucked away the dream into a safe corner of my heart, so that every time I took a breath I was reminded of my aspiration. I never allowed that wish of mine to die and fed it constantly with motivational thoughts and drew inspiration from champions of other sports.
Life with its funny twists and turns offered me the opportunity and I grabbed it as if that that was the last life line on sale. The path was demanding and demoralization was always within sniffing distance, but I pegged along, and when I actually did walk on the same ground as my hero, Stephen Hendry, it was like floating on seventh heaven. When we were both being announced for the UK Open (although facing different opponents), I felt that this was what I longed for – to belong to the privileged group.
This was the final stop in my journey and I had made it. I was now being counted amongst the top few players of the World’s best. The thrill of being able to write your name just below Hendry, or Ronnie O’Sullivan in the practice Arena, as you prepare for the event, was only bettered by the actual practice sessions that we had together. This was no ordinary practice – we were getting ready for the tournament. And the icing on the cake – to face them as opponents in these celebrated tournaments that one only saw on television.
I dared to dream and achieved it – more was possible if circumstances were different. But that’s another story. The million dollar question however is – when will there be another dreamer like Yasin Merchant, who will want to risk everything that he has and take the plunge, only to emerge not only as a threat to the domination of the Englishmen, but in the process develop as a champion in his own right and prove to the Dings of the world that India is right behind you and catching up faster than you think.
For I believe that in the likes of Pankaj Advani, Manan Chandra, Aditya Mehta, Sourav Kothari and another favourite player of mine, Lucky Vatnani, we have the potential to challenge the best. Why are we then holding back? We have nothing to lose except our fears. The young cueists of today have a lot going for them, besides their immense talent. So why not build on our strengths and march forward.
All we need now is for the flame of desire to burn a hole within our hearts. Only then will we experience the pain of missing out on destiny.
By Yasin Merchant - India's ace snooker player
· The more you sweat in practice, the less you bleed in battle. ~Author Unknown
· The more I practice, the luckier I get. ~Jerry Barber, about golf
· The man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there.
Tenacity, Doggedness, Fortitude, Commitment – words which seem right out of a dictionary for many ordinary mortals. But ask an achiever and he would stake rights to all of the above words. Champions are not made of supernatural stuff – it’s just that they have taken the plunge and work tirelessly towards their goal. En route they encounter impediments, but they march on, taking in their strides their victories and failures. A common trait amongst legendary champions - they toil for hours honing their talent.
Let me narrow down the discussion and talk about the merits of unrelenting practice with regards to Cue sports. But before I move further, let me relate an interesting episode which adds weight to my thoughts and exposes the mind of a champion.
The year was 1992. I had just turned professional and was really excited about going to snooker country (UK) and mingling with the who’s who of the game. A particular gentleman that I wanted to renew ties with was none other than Steve Davis, Mr. Snooker himself, and Six times World Professional Champion. Just a year earlier, during the infamous 555 invitational snooker event at Delhi, I was fortunate to be introduced to him and had more than an occasional interaction with him during his stay.
Fast forward to Blackpool in 1992. By virtue of my winning 11 rounds in my first season, I had qualified to join the main draw of an event where the top 32 ranked players joined the qualifiers.
A day before the match, during the practice sessions, to my surprise I saw Steve Davis’ name written just below mine for practice on the same table. Having wrapped up my practice in eager anticipation of meeting the legend again, and also the pride of introducing him to a friend who had accompanied me to Black pool, I waited patiently.
In walked the 6’4” tall gentleman escorted by his father, who aided him in every practice session. Steve looked at me and to my horror, looked through me. I offered a sheepish smile of recognition, but got just a glazed look in return. So much for the stories of the humility of the man. I turned to my friend in despair and embarrassment, feeling just a wee bit miniaturised in stature.
Whilst all this drama unfolded on this table, there was a hustle around the arena and chants of Hi, Jimmy, Hi John – Hi Barry, Hi Neal…. filled the air. The New People’s Champion, Jimmy White had just graced the venue. (Alex Higgins was the original People’s Champion).
Returning to my story of anguish, despite the discomfiture, I stayed back for over an hour to watch the legend improving his already perfected technique with various practice routines and exercises. With his scheduled time now ending, I got up to walk away, only to hear ‘Hey Yasin – would you like to join me for a cup of tea?’
I almost tripped over my own feet as I turned around to see Steve Davis addressing me. ‘But I assumed that you had not recognised me’, I blurted out almost apologetically. ‘Don’t be daft; of course I did recognise you. Come let’s talk over tea’. I followed Steve, baffled about the sequence of events, at the same time curious to read the mind of this marvel.
Steve Davis’s explanation: (not his exact words but similar in meaning to) ………’my practice time is sacred and limited. If I squander it away in social interaction, then I am not doing justice to my profession, myself and the spectators, who having paid to watch good snooker, expect to be rewarded with a quality performance. I can only try and provide them and myself with a good display of snooker, but for that I need to keep constantly working on my skills. Once the serious business of match preparation is over, or the tournament itself is over for me, then I have all the time in the world to fulfil all social obligations’.
We spoke for almost two hours after that and I attempted to extract every detail about the magic behind this super achiever. And let me also mention that Davis won that tournament and Jimmy White was eliminated in the 2nd round. Moral of the story - Davis was preparing to win the tournament and White was just there to make up the numbers. Or, so it appeared.
When it comes to practising long hours to stay in shape, many of us find excuses and reasons to avoid the tortuous act of dedicated practice. Probably out of laziness, social commitments and/or complacency we skip our practice sessions and then blame the conditions, luck, or even the weather when results do not go our way in matches. Michael Ferreira, India’s world Billiards Champion many times over and the former National Coach, once said to me – Inconsistent practice leads to inconsistent results.
My advice to the aspiring champions of Indian Snooker and Billiards is to cast everything aside and practise as if your very existence depended on it. If you have the skill and the will, then only practice will trigger your growth. Talk to a knowledgeable player and take advice as to what and how one should practice. If you are not making headway, then you need to do something different to progress. Just working hard doesn’t help, working smart does.
If you keep doing what you always did
You will keep getting what you always got.
By Yasin Merchant - India's ace snooker player
· Don't go into something to test the waters, go into things to make waves.
· It sometimes seems that intense desire creates not only its own opportunities, but its own talents – Eric Hoffer.
· Nothing splendid has ever been achieved except by those who dared believe that something inside them was superior to circumstance.
Achievers thrive on passion. Their insatiable desire to excel is so great that it envelops their mind, transporting them into a world where nothing else exists, except their objective. In order to achieve their goal, they are willing to forgo a lot of what this world has to offer. Their obsession with their ultimate target clouds their senses, making everything else seem hazy and immaterial, but their purpose.
When a champion is going through such a stage in his life the world waits with bated breath, for the extra-ordinary is about to be unveiled by him/her. And then….the ease with which the final product is delivered, it appears that the outstanding performer was born to do just that. Nothing could be further from the truth. Think Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Stephen Hendry, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Mike Russell and even our very own Geet Sethi, to name a few legends, and all one can think of is the effortlessness with which they execute their art. Each performance of theirs seems like it is played out to perfection, and even in their rare defeats the greatness of the artiste shines through. To the outside world they appear to be well-oiled machines going about their job with mechanical consistency.
All this was not achieved overnight and certainly not without the usual grind. We have all seen their grace and grandeur when going through an event and walking away with the winner’s cup, without breaking into a sweat. But what we have not seen is the blood, sweat and tears that oozed out of every pore of their body when they were toiling through day and night attempting to improve their yesterdays. What we did not see is the intense desire in their heart that fuels every act of theirs; the never-say-die attitude that pulled them through every exhausting day and the yearning in their eyes, every time the thought of the ultimate prize crossed their minds. That my friends, is what an athlete goes through before the world can label him a champion.
Most, if not all snooker players have heard of James Wattana, the Thailand wonder-boy who shot onto the scene like an Asian storm, who did more than just ruffle the feathers of the British dominated Snooker scene. ‘Thai-phoon’, as he was nick-named did not just take a flight out of Bangkok, challenged the Davises or the Hendry’s of the world and go on to become World No. 3.
His entry was quite different. In fact the first time, I heard about this wonder-kid, it was at Hastings, UK, where I had gone to play the inaugural World Junior Championships. It was an open event then and all could participate. Wattana was a first round casualty, losing 0-3 to some English kid. When I went to meet him, he sat sulking in one corner, refusing to even pose for a photograph. We had a few meetings on the table after that, with honours shared, and we went on to become good friends.
However the Wattana of 1988 is who I wish to present in my story. Geet Sethi and your truly were representing India in the Sydney World Championship, 1988, which also happened to be my first World men’s event. Midway through the tournament, just before the knock-out stage, the organizers had arranged for a scenic Sydney Harbour cruise for all the players. For those of you who have not yet experienced it, it is a must-see.
From the 64 players in the draw, 63 were on board the cruise, including the hot favourite, Martin O’ Neil, who was representing UK. The man missing was none other than James Wattana. The story that did the rounds was that Wattana was unwell and could not make it.
The next day, on meeting Tom Moran, Wattana’s manager, guide and constant companion, I enquired as to why James could not make it. Tom replied, “We are here to win the tournament. James has been dreaming of this moment since the time he picked up his cue. Cruises can be done even after the event. And luckily, since all the players were away, James had the entire table to himself and he practiced for seven hours non-stop.”
Needless to add, Wattana’s aching desire to win paid dividends and he walked away with the title of World Champion in 1988.
And yes – Tom did take him for the Harbour Cruise as promised.
Success attained by great men
Was not achieved by sudden flight
For they, while their companions slept
Were toiling away in the night.
By Yasin Merchant - India's ace snooker player
· A goal without a plan is just a wish. -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
· I hope that I may always desire more than I can accomplish -- Michelangelo.
· A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for -- John A. Shedd.
So many of us dawdle through life waiting for the next big thing to happen to us … waiting and watching, as if we are God’s chosen ones and have been appointed for something special. Some of us do have some extraordinary skills, while some do not, but we all are expecting the big phenomenon. And then amidst all this waiting and watching life whizzes past us, and we are still left wondering as to when that special thing is going to hit us.
Being reasonably familiar with the scenario in Cue-sports, I would confine my thoughts to our sport and scrutinize the inadequacies that plague so many of our cueists. Barring a handful, not many of us are clear about our status in the game, both presently and in the future. In fact, so many of us are even contemplating quitting it altogether and pursuing other career options to ensure a comfortable future. For the sake of discussion, I would like to eliminate all such unsure people and focus purely on those that have committed themselves for a life in Cue-sport.
Addressing those committed sportspersons, I would once again pose this question to them and ask them to look deep within their souls and figure out if they do know about their chosen career path. Do they just intend to keep playing the sport from tournament to tournament without any special effort to make the next tournament better than their previous one? Does the word advancement ever figure in their life’s dictionary? Does a plan actually fit into their scheme of things, which is going to transport them into the realms of greatness, or are they just loitering around expecting greatness to fall from the skies and right into their laps?
It actually pains me to confess that this is what I see happening within our sport. There are so many of us who are sitting on the threshold of immeasurable success, but are unwilling to give it that one final push that will take us over. Apparently we seem to be content with the given state assuming that this is all that we could have achieved and we have achieved it. Nothing could be further from the truth than this dismaying thought. For all those who have reached their achievement levels (read stagnation point), you need to change your plan. If good things are not happening to you, then you are probably not making them happen. Plan to move ahead and chart out a path accordingly. Winning an occasional tournament is not what you want to aim for; you are targeting dominance over the sport and over the competition.
Speaking of dominating the sport, even the top guns of our country need to revisit their plans and plug all the holes within their armoury, in order to regain control over their peers. I address all the young stars of today who have made their mark but are finding it extremely difficult to hang on to their success. Remember ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there. Build on your flaws, work on your weakness and conquer all inner demons. This will build an indestructible character.
How many of us are bending our backs and troubling our minds to transcend us into a different level? What have we done to work on our skills and get them at par with international standards? Why do we swallow the bitter pill of contentment without making an effort to cure the ills of complacency that have gripped us like an epidemic? It’s about time that we bring out our thinking hats from the closet, and then put those thoughts into action.
Before I conclude, as has now become customary, I must relate an interesting episode, which I read about in ‘snooker scene’ magazine many years ago, to tie in with my thoughts. It was the time when Stephen Hendry was barely sixteen and Steve Davis ruled the roost. Hendry’s manager, Ian Doyle organized a series of exhibition matches between Davis and Hendry – six to be exact. These were best of 11 matches to be played over six different venues in U.K.
As expected Davis won each of those, with scores like 6-2, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 and 6-3 (not exact scores but somewhat close). When Hendry was asked about this whitewash and his experience in general, he replied, ‘Now I know how to beat Steve Davis’. An invaluable gem from the man who would dominate the sport for more than a decade. Ian Doyle’s plan had worked. He had taken the fear of losing out of Hendry’s mind and subsequently Stephen Hendry went on to beat Steve Davis many times over after that, and eventually broke all of his records.
This is what planning and strategy is all about in championship sport.
To quote another of my favourite legends, as I switch off my brain for the moment …
Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them: a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill. -- Muhammad Ali.