Jammu, January 2003. There's a question mark over the national snooker championships, to be held in the city, following the terrorist attack on a local temple two months previously. The attack had left 14 dead and, despite the organisers' assurances, security concerns prompt a clutch of senior players to pull out. The weakened draw throws up an unlikely final: Pankaj Advani, not yet 18 years old, against Asian champion Yasin Merchant.
The result was even more improbable. Advani upset Merchant 7-5 to become the youngest player to win the national snooker title, equalling Geet Sethi's record of three national titles (the other two were junior titles) in a single year. "Pankaj has arrived," a nonplussed Merchant exclaimed in the aftermath.
The result, however, was disputed by some of Advani's seniors in the sport. At that time, national champions gained direct entry to international competitions and, following Advani's win, some senior players questioned the rationale behind the practice. They pointed to the time lag between national championships and international meets and proposed, as an alternative, selection trials to determine entries for international competitions from that year onwards.
"When he heard of the storm that was being kicked up over his win, he broke down," Advani's mentor Arvind Savur tells ESPN. "That day I promised him that I'd make his game so perfect that he'd beat the hell out of everyone."
Savur kept his word. At the selection trials in Hyderabad later that year, not only did Advani defeat all the top players, he did so with remarkable conviction. "I then said, 'Go tell everyone now that your Jammu win was no fluke'," says Savur, who had accompanied Advani to Hyderabad.
In November 2003 he became only the second Indian player -- after Om Agarwal in 1984 -- to bring home a world snooker title. At 18, he was also the second youngest ever in the world to do so.
Since then, the count has swelled to 17 world titles, the maximum number in any sport by an Indian. In both snooker and billiards, two cue sports that appear similar but have subtle, though important differences in how they are played.
Along the way, he's also been the first player to complete a 'grand double', winning both the time and points format of the World billiards championship; scripted a world record in 2014 by winning the 'grand double' for the third time; and is the only player in history to have both billiards and snooker world titles apart from the world professional billiards championship to his name.
Earlier this month, he defended his World Championship billiards 150-up format title with a 6-2 win over Mike Russell and followed it up with a bronze medal in the long-up format.
If that isn't impressive enough, try the Google translator option for 'cueist'; the Hindi result you're likely to get is 'advani'. Tell Advani this and he is embarrassed. "My god!" he exclaims, dropping his usually inscrutable visage.
Part of his incredulity is probably because, for all his success, Advani is almost invisible in Indian sport. Rarely does he make it to newspaper headlines, television talk shows or glossy magazine centre spreads. His relentless winning has become his own enemy, lessening the element of surprise and ensuring the news is greeted by a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders.
Advani's life story begins in adversity. Born in Kuwait, he lost his father when he was just two and, four-odd years later, his family was forced to flee the country in the wake of the Iraqi invasion during the Gulf War.
They shifted to Bengaluru and that gave him his first break. His older brother Shree had started playing billiards and Advani was drawn to the coloured balls, as any child would be. Then, as a 10 year-old, Advani watched him play the sport for three whole weeks -- observing the rules and techniques -- before placing his bridge on the table. "The first shot I played," he recalls, "the ball went into the pocket and disappeared. The thrill of actually playing a successful shot is something that I can continuously be high on."
That's when he was spotted by Savur, a former national snooker champion, at the Karnataka State Billiards Association. Savur noticed that the 10 year-old had a 'good eye for the ball'. "I sought permission from his mother to allow me to coach him free of cost," says Savur.
"When I brought him home though, I saw he was too small to reach the table. I realized that if I coached him when he could barely reach the table, he could develop a faulty action." To mollify the disconsolate boy, Savur gifted him a cue and asked him to come back in a year's time after he'd gained a few more inches.
Determined to gain height quickly, Advani tried everything within his means, including regular pull-ups at home and basketball during school PE classes, and the results began to show in a year's time. He had added four inches and was ready to be coached.
"Though I was training a number of children at that time, what drew me to him was that he was a really fast learner -- you just had to demonstrate a shot for him to reproduce it in the very next attempt. I was convinced that he would go a long way," Savur adds. His faith wasn't misplaced.
Advani went on to win the junior national billiards title a few months before his 12th birthday.
Growing up in Bangalore, Advani didn't have too many peers in the sport who could pose a challenge to him in the state circuit. The hubs were Maharashtra, Bengal and Gujarat, where Aditya Mehta, Sourav Kothari, Dhruv Sitwala and Rupesh Shah were climbing up the ranks.
"Had Pankaj not been around, I would have probably won many more titles," Sitwala, a former Asian billiards champion, admits with candour. It's a predicament that holds true for some of Advani's other peers too.
He cost seasoned specialists Sethi and Devendra Joshi two world titles each, beating them in the IBSF billiards world championships finals in 2005 and 2008 (in time and point formats) respectively, while Sitwala was deprived of what could have been his first world title in 2007. Sitwala hasn't made the final since.
Though the defeat still rankles, love for his 'younger brother', as he refers to Advani, overrides it all. "We often share a room during tournaments and have a common interest in religious and self-help books", Sitwala says. "He has a positive vibe about him and his spirituality rubs off on me. Two years ago, we played each other in the Asian billiards championship final, which I went on to win, and though we were roommates, nothing between us was awkward."
In a bid to test pro snooker waters, Advani moved to England in 2012. It lasted all of two years. In hindsight, Advani says it was an opportunity he's 'glad to have taken a shot at' but not something he's keen on repeating anytime soon. "I've had too much of travel over the past five years. It's extremely difficult for Asians to go to England, fund themselves, stay away from their families and actually go out there and perform at the highest level."
He gave up his pro status in September 2014, a decision that Savur tried to talk him out of. It was one largely spurred by the challenges of being a vegetarian away from family and friends in an unknown land, Savur feels. "I know it was tough for him, but he could have persisted a little longer. The money in the pro circuit is huge and he was faring well too."
To put it in perspective, the winner of last year's IBSF world snooker championship, a premier non-professional event, took home around $6,400 (40% of the men's Championship minimum prize fund of $16,000), while the pro snooker world champion was richer by $409,530. The prize money for all rounds of this season's World Championships (pro) have witnessed an upward revision, with the winner's share now being pegged at $465,375.
So what makes Advani so good? First, one must understand the difference between billiards and snooker. To the layperson, they might appear similar -- the green baize, the white starched shirts and bowties that are de rigueur -- but they are vastly different in terms of the method, approach and skill sets needed.
Even the cueing involved in both is quite different -- while billiards needs a pronounced follow-through from start to finish, snooker requires a short follow-through and short drawback. Very few cueists are able to juggle both but Advani has managed to switch back and forth at the highest level -- and with astonishing success.
"I can't even begin to explain how difficult it is to manage billiards and snooker at the highest level," says Advani. "It's a challenge I feel I need to take on as it keeps me motivated and sharp and I love doing what I'm doing right now. Yes it's going to affect my games and I may not get the same results each time or win every time but what's life without risks and a little bit of fun?"
His core strength is probably safety, which in cue sport parlance essentially means leaving the opponent little or no room to play a shot. After his win in the 2003 world snooker final, his Pakistani opponent Mohammed Saleh admitted, "Aapne safety khelkar mujhe maar daala" (your safety play killed me).
Advani was 18 then. Today, that facet of his game is impenetrable and its genesis can again be traced to the Jammu nationals.
Ahead of the selection trials in 2003, Savur realized that if Advani had to subdue an experienced field his safety techniques had to be foolproof. "We worked hard on it in each session. Against accomplished players, once you leave an opening, they can completely devour you; so I wanted to ensure that he gave them no chance at all," Savur says.
If safety is his game-time weapon of choice, his pre-match routine revolves around visualization. In sport, the practice of mentally rehearsing one's performance helps the player execute, in actual play, the pattern of responses needed for a shot/movement in the same rhythm and tempo.
It's common among top sportsmen -- golfer Jack Nicklaus is known to have imagined every shot in his head before actually playing it and studies have shown that when we repeatedly imagine ourselves carrying out a particular task we condition our neural pathways in a manner that it feels familiar when we actually perform it. "So even when I'm taking a shower before a match, I just visualize myself playing the best shots," he says.
It's not without its risks, as Shree, a sports and performance psychologist, explains. "Outcome-driven visualization, imagining yourself on top of the podium for instance, can actually prove detrimental because you're taking focus away from the process and in your mind you've already declared yourself the winner. But to win you have to perform well, which this kind of visualization doesn't prepare you for."
Advani is careful to steer clear of such traps. "If you start thinking about the outcome, you're in trouble. I've learnt to enjoy the process. The more you do that, the easier the game becomes. I keep reminding myself why I started playing the sport, the reason being I'm passionate about it."
Ask him about his strengths and for once Advani avoids self-deprecation. "I think I'm more talented than hard working. Natural ability, particularly in sport, is essential. While it's important to be hardworking and disciplined, it's crucial to have the flair and rhythm," he says.
India cricketer Robin Uthappa, who's been a close friend since their college days, speaks about his "clear and focused mind" and "extraordinary attention span" even as a teen. "During our college years most of us encouraged him to work out and build muscle but he was very clear about not doing anything that could jeopardize his flexibility on the table. When we're 18 or 19 most of us don't have that kind of understanding. Pankaj, though, stood apart."
Few see the other side of Advani -- witty, fun-loving, quirky. "His sarcasm can be deadly," another of Advani's close friends, squash star Joshna Chinappa says, cracking up. "When we hang out together I end up looking look like a ruffian because he's always so well put together!"
Advani says he hardly attended college since he was busy playing tournaments and when he did he felt like a misfit in his peer group. "I was often tempted to join my friends after college hours but I knew to gain a life in sport I had to let go of something. It's not that I was a nerd. I just wanted to be really good at what I did."
Well, he's got there. Now there's the small problem of letting the world know. The sport's pitiable following in the country, compounded by its absence from all big-ticket events like the Olympics, Asian and Commonwealth Games, means Advani is barely known in his own country.
"Shooting, for instance, is far from a spectator sport but being a medal hope in the Olympics changes the whole dynamics," says Neerav Tomar, MD & CEO of Infinity Optimal Solutions (IOS), a high-profile sports talent management company that pitched Vijender Singh as a professional boxer. "Advani's achievements have been outstanding but being representative of a sport that finds little resonance in the country has been damaging for his popularity. You can only sell what sells."
Santosh Desai, advertising professional and social commentator, looks beyond the sport's relatively niche character and its lack of scaled-up international events to a third, more compelling factor for Advani's relative anonymity. "A lack of story-telling, I would say. All heroes are forms of stories to us but in Advani's case there seems to be an absence of context, understanding and therefore an inability to put his achievement into some kind of perspective.
"Barring a couple of sports, the rest are largely names to us, those whom we've not really seen in action. Take Mary Kom, for instance. Very few among us have even seen a bout or two of hers. Advani belongs to a tucked-away sport where victory and the meaning of victory may not be sufficiently clear to us."
It often crops up during their conversations, Uthappa says. "I tell him that we've got to do something to put him out there a little bit more. If you look at it, he makes winning world titles look so effortless that people feel it's no big deal. Maybe when he wins 32 world titles, he'll finally get his due."
For Advani, there is some disenchantment, even some hurt, but no bitterness. "Anyone would expect recognition for achievements," Advani says. "It's not that I'm desperate for attention but if one has achieved things that few others have then it's probably something that one deserves. Only when there is a deeper understanding of sport, will people appreciate."
The relative lack of acknowledgement does bother Advani, but it isn't enough to cut through his motivation. "When at the table, I'm transported to another world. It takes care of all my worries, gives me peace, joy and something to look forward to every day. As long as I have that I don't need anything else to feel fulfilled."
Age is not an important factor in cue sports and Advani, now 32, knows he has plenty of gas in the tank. "I don't look too far ahead. Prefer to live in the moment," he says, "I'm 32 and single. So obviously a lot of people ask me about marriage and I tell them that it's not time yet and that right now I'm married to my game. But that said I want to do two things for sure. One is to, of course, marry and the other is give back to the game through coaching and promotional activities."
In a country short of sporting heroes with a similar trophy cabinet, Advani remains behind a smokescreen -- indistinct, amorphous, enigma-like. Will he ever be the Big Star? Or even part of a high-level sporting think-tank like Abhinav Bindra, equally intense, intelligent and reserved? Advani shrugs his shoulders and continues his business with sage-like calm, defeating players across countries and continents, picking up world titles at will and returning to empty airport terminals.