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Queen of the green baize

August 29, 2006 13:07 IST

It is the sort of birthday present every sportsperson dreams of.

Anuja Thakur, who turned 24 yesterday, will be conferred the prestigious Arjuna award on Tuesday.

The first woman cueist to win the Arjuna Award and first Indian to win the World women's billiards championship, Anuja says it is a perfect opportunity for double celebration.

What started as lukewarm interest in the sport after watching her father play has resulted glory for the Mumbai youngster.

"I got into the sport at the age of 14 because of my father [Prakash], who used to play and still plays. I saw my father playing and that is what motivated me to take up this sport. He was the one who initially taught me," she told

Taking up the elite-class sport, mainly played by men in India, was not much of a problem for her, unlike other women who take up snooker or billiards. Her father and sister, Meenal, played the game and she soon got hooked on to it.

"Since my family was in the sport, the road to the World title was easier for me. It was a ready background for me. The cake was basically ready in front of me and I just had to make an effort to eat it.

"But there are lots of people who face a few problems, I have heard. They don't have a proper environment to practice or even the tables to practice on.

"I have heard that girls especially are not really encouraged, maybe by their families or their state associations, to take up the sport. They don't really get a good environment to practice their skills," Anuja said.

The National ladies snooker title in 2001 proved to be a turning point in her career. It made her believe in herself and that is when she decided to take up the sport seriously. She followed up that triumph with the National billiards' title in 2002 and 2005 along with the snooker crown in 2003.

And it was no surprise when she announced her arrival on the international circuit by winning the World women's billiards championship last year.

"It is the greatest achievement of my life so far. It was the first world title that time and I was really happy to win the gold medal."

Apart from the individual billiards title, Anuja won the doubles snooker title and World ladies snooker Plate crown. She is also credited with posting the highest break, 298, in the one-hour billiards format, and the highest breaks - of 52 and 62 - in billiards and snooker respectively.

Anuja credits her success to a coaching stint under the late former World champion Jones Wilson and constant guidance from her father.

"I was taking coaching from Sir Wilson Jones. Initially, when I started, my father was guiding me, but after that I took up his [Jones's] coaching. His coaching stint helped me a lot and I think my fundamentals are really strong because of him.

"The entire coaching under Jones was really good and useful. He taught me billiards, which was important for snooker as well. Initially, I was more interested in snooker, but he was the one who forced me into billiards and taught me billiards, which is the base for snooker as well and which proved to be very important," confessed Anju.

Wilson, who passed away in 2003, was the first Indian World champion in cue sports; he won the World billiards championship in 1958 and went on to claim a second title six years later.

The 24-year-old Anuja is now looking forward to taking part in the eight-ball pool event at the Asian Games, in Doha in December.

"I will be playing eight-ball pool. I chose the event because I find that eight-ball pool is closer to snooker, as it mainly depends on your potting ability and is all about positioning. Nine-ball pool is more of a quicker game and there is a lot of the luck element involved," she said.

But she admits that winning a medal at the Games would not be easy.

"The girls from China and Thailand are very good. Also, apart from that, pool is a new discipline for me and most of the Indian women as well. I would try my best to go for a medal, but it will be very difficult for us."

Adding to her woes is the lack of pool tables in Mumbai, because of the Maharashtra government's decision to levy taxes on them. It has not only discouraged clubs from having pool tables on their premises, but it is also depriving Anuja of vital practice.

"At the moment we don't even have pool tables in Mumbai, so I am not really getting any practice. I am looking forward to a change in the government's decision of levying taxes on pool tables. If they waive off the taxes, most of the clubs are willing to have them. But because of the taxes, at the moment, they don't want to keep them.

"And without the tables it is not possible to keep improving, because nobody is born a champion. Everybody has to put in the hours at the table and improve constantly."

Despite cue sports having produced seven world champions Anuja rues the lack of interest in billiards and snooker among Indians.

"To an extent there is a reason for it too. In India, as much as cricket has got into the masses, no other game has. Most of the people do understand cricket quite well and accessibility to the game is also much easier," she says.

She feels that the infrastructure needed for playing games like cricket are easily available and cheaper as compared to sports like snooker or pool.

"Snooker, pool are still among the elitist sports. Cricket is easily within the reach of everyone in India. That is the reason I feel why cricket has gained so much importance as compared to others sports in our country," said Anuja, hastening to add that interest in billiards and snooker is slowing beginning to build up.

"But it has changed more or less now. People are showing interests in others sports like tennis. Because of Sania Mirza a lot of people in India have started following tennis. Football, hockey, cue sports are also being followed nowadays. People do follow Pankaj Advani and today people do recognise me; so definitely there is a change as far as following others sports is concerned in our country," she added.

The Mumbai ace herself is a keen sports buff.

"I love music and reading, so I am mainly into it, besides following other sports like tennis, football, cricket; basically I follow each and every sport. Whenever I read a newspaper I start with the sports page."

And who are her favourite sportstars?

"In cricket, it is Sachin Tendulkar. I am a big fan of Steffi Graf and I follow Ronaldinho in football," comes the reply.

"And in snooker my idols are Yasin Merchant and Geet Sethi."

"However, I also admire a female player called Alison Fisher. Now she has stopped playing snooker or billiards and has switched to pool completely. But she was my idol; she was the only woman who entered men's professional snooker," she added.

Having won a world title, and now the Arjuna award, Anuja hopes that one day she'll emulate Fisher and give the men a run for their money.

Harish Kotian