(But do we really deserve him?)
The drill is almost eerie in its familiarity. Pankaj Advani wins yet another medal. Makes historians and custodians of the sport shake their heads in disbelief. Repeats feat a few days later.
The routine played itself out unfailingly a few days ago, when Pankaj returned home after winning his 19th World Title. No other mortal has come even close. Anywhere else in the world, that piece of breaking news would have been enough to bring traffic to a standstill. You couldn’t rule out riots. Google’s mail server could come close to crashing.
For Pankaj, though, it will be business as usual. The man will simply place the trophy next to the countless other honours he’s picked up over the years, and move on. To the next one he needs to convert into a souvenir.
Sure, history was made. Yes, jaws dropped. But could there have been a few more laddoos to go around? Could we have blasted a few more crackers? Folks, we probably could. After all, if the Indian cricket team or Brazil’s football team had done anything even remotely close to this, there would be a week-long national holiday in each country.
Let’s pop the question: When was the last time a nation missed celebrating a feat of this magnitude? The mind fails to remember. Pankaj, of course, will tell you exactly when. All those other 18 times he won the World Championships. And every other time he won the Nationals. Not to mention a host of other championships in between.
For a nation that is born and bred on hero-worship, this inertia is puzzling. Paradoxical, actually. Much like the man himself. Yes, Pankaj Advani is many men, many mind-numbing paradoxes, in one.
Here’s one for you to wrap your mind around.
Pankaj supports the PETA passionately and is, by his own admission, driven by deeply spiritual callings. Yet, pitted against an opponent with cue in hand, this humble, soft-spoken vegetarian will turn bloodthirsty in the blink of an eye – and go for the jugular (the fact that he’s reached a level of clinical flawlessness where defeat is bloodless is a different matter altogether).
As a kid, Pankaj was considered too short for snooker. His school mates would make fun of him, offering to get a stool so that he could stand on it and play. In fact, his coach and inspiration, Arvind Savur, had to make him do stretching exercises so that he could be ‘tall’ enough to play. Today, as the only player ever to win world titles in both the long and short formats of snooker and both formats of English billiards, Pankaj stands heads and shoulders over his opponents. Without the stool.
Or you could mull on this delicious irony.
That Pankaj is at his most dangerous when he is playing ‘safe’. Pun intended. Yes, his favourite strategy is ‘Safety’, which, in technical parlance, means to snuff out the opponent’s life by leaving practically no room to play a shot. His Paki opponent Mohammed Saleh captured the instinct perfectly: After Advani blew him out at the World Snooker Final in 2003, Saleh quipped, “Aapne safety khelkar mujhe maar daala” (your safety play killed me).
You can even marvel.
At the apparent anomaly of Pankaj’s relinquishing a highly lucrative career at the Professional circuit (where the winner gets to pocket a cool $465,375) just so that he could stay close to his family. This, when sponsorships, endorsements and League Fees can make youngsters fly their nest without as much as a ‘See you soon, ma!”
But the real big paradox about Pankaj is his anonymity.
Where ordinary folks find it hard to excel in one sport, Pankaj Advani has been lording over two – Billiards and Snooker (since, well, we can’t remember). Where ordinary people would run out of steam after constantly having to stave off foes – Pankaj betrays no signs of fatigue (despite being at it since 12). When ordinary guys reach the climax of their careers by 30, Pankaj is just starting out.
Yes, this one-in-a-millennium icon has given us enough opportunities. To exchange not just boxes – but truckloads – of laddoos. We just haven’t been grabbing them. Not as much as we should have, at any rate.
Could it be because his are niche sports (he plays two, remember)? Or that the world championships aren’t sufficiently amped-up in the media? Or that billiards and snookers are not on the Olympic list ( if they were, Pankaj’s name would have been spoken in the same breadth as legends like Usain Bolt, Michal Phelps, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens and Nadia Comaneci)?
Or could it be that Pankaj’s crazy consistency has simply taken the unpredictability out of the equation – turning it all into a pattern that makes you go “Whoa!”, but doesn’t necessarily surprise?
Honestly, it’s probably a mix of all of the above.
Make no mistakes, though: It is in his anonymity that the greatest paradox of Pankaj Advani’s life lies. Because at a time when dark scandals are cornering far more than their fair share of headline glory, Pankaj is the white knight in sparkling armour the world has been waiting for. The hero we truly need.
To make us value the worth of humanism, not just perfectionism (did you know Pankaj supports a plethora of causes, including childrens’ ones?). To make us remember that the game is played for the love of the game – not the glory (if you’re good enough, the glory part will happen on its own). To make us realize that not just cricket, but every sport is – first and foremost – a ‘gentleman’s game’.
Had he turned pro, Pankaj could have become a cult. But Pankaj knows he doesn’t need to. Not just because, to true lovers of the discipline, he already is one. But because he doesn’t need the fame. Because he has his passion to keep him going. Because he’s perfectly happy to keep winning, even if we aren’t watching.
Because that’s what a true hero does.
Yes, Pankaj Advani – medal collector, boy-next-door and legend extraordinaire – is the quintessential last action hero.
Not one a callous world deserves, perhaps. But one it desperately needs right now.
To restore our faith in values, in gut, in brilliance. The stuff true champions are made of.