Geet Sethi: Driven by the simple thrill of playing billiards

They do not make too many champions these days who are educated, enterprising and innovative, are suave, wonderful ambassadors of sport, great humans and believe in ploughing back to sport in their own way. In fact, you can say that billiards legend Geet Sethi, with eight world championship crowns to show in a glittering career, is one of a kind.

Yes, even in a nation that has produced world cue sports champions like Wilson Jones, Michael Ferreira, Om Agrawal and Pankaj Advani, not to speak of shooter Abhinav Bindra, chess legend V Anand, wrestler Sushil Kumar, sailors Homi Motivala and his ilk, badminton maestro Prakash Padukone and many cricketers, Geet Sethi is unique, not just for his longevity at the top but for his contribution to the evolution of sport in the country in the past decade.

From someone who complained about the way sport was run in India, he has morphed into someone who more than chips in with his support. Today, the Olympic Gold Quest foundation he set up with Prakash Padukone has grown to be one of India’s largest sports NGOs, supporting scores of athletes realise their dreams of pursuing dreams of winning Olympic medal.

DIBYANGSHU SARKAR / AFP

He speaks with a number of Indian sportspersons, guiding them to keep their minds in the present and not let them wander either to the past or the future. His 2005 book, Success vs Joy, is a valuable read for anyone who is prepared to understand the beauty of keeping the mind in the present and in handling the ups and downs of life.

A friendly frown masks his face when Geet Sethi is asked to recollect an instance when he dealt with stress and emerged on top. “You cannot go into a match with stress on your mind. There have been times initially… actually stress is perhaps not the right world,” he says. “I think sportspersons deal with it in a simple manner, just accepting the reality of the situation as reflection of how well the opponent has played.”

Geet Sethi, now 54, does not have to dig deep into his memory to recount a situation in which he was trailing in the 1993 world championship final by 740 points. “My opponent (Mike Russell) was playing fantastic. I was enjoying his game. There was absolutely no stress in it. It is just the reality and not a life and death situation,” Geet Sethi insists.

“When I got a chance, I made a 700 break and Russell also realised that. The act of practicing for six hours every day for 20 years and consistently making 500 breaks every day in practice gives you the subconscious confidence that a break of 500 is always eminently possible. That is the positive attitude which every athlete has. I think achieving a high level of competency in your particular discipline gives you the mindset,” he says.

When the world billiards championship was not held for a year, Geet Sethi stepped up to ensure that it would not go off the calendar by organising the event in his home city in September 1998. His intense powers of concentration came to the fore when he beat the defending champion and top-seeded Russell 1400-1015 to win his fourth professional crown.

When you remind him of the doubles final in the Asian Games in Bangkok in 1998, he is quick to confess that it was the first time he almost panicked, the first time he felt pressure of expectation. “Usually, I never felt the pressure since I was always playing for myself. But since India’s returns were not very good in Bangkok, Ashok Shandilya and I were under pressure to deliver,” he says.

The Indian pair, making its debut in the Asian Games, was up in the final against the home team of Praput Chaithasukun and Mongkhon Kanfaklang. “We were much ahead of them by far in terms of competency, capability and historical record on a one to ten ratio. We found ourselves trailing 1-4. For the first time in my life, I felt pressure at the start of the match itself,” he says candidly.

“There was so much talk of definite gold for us. It was freaky and we both panicked. The beauty of panic is such that it erodes concentration completely. The mind is gone, thinking of the consequences of letting people down. The mind wasn’t on the ball as all thoughts, other the most important thought of getting a good stroke, came to the mind,” he says, fidgeting in his chair.

“We took a break and hurried to the change room. Ashok Shandilya told me that he could lift his game up and told me ‘Boss, you manage the rest of it’. His honesty reduced the pressure and helped me get my focus back. I realised the value of partnerships. I sat, tense but had the lovely influence of our coach, Michael Ferreira. One good stroke and then suddenly the confidence and focus came back. We were on a roll and won 5-4,” he says, a bright smile lighting his visage.

DIBYANGSHU SARKAR / AFP

He did not set the three world titles that Michael Ferreira won as a benchmark for himself. “If I had done that, I may not have gone past four titles. But the fuel that drove me all my career was the simple thrill of playing billiards,” he says, indicating that he chose early on in life to be joyously passionate about his game.

Ask him about what he learnt from his contemporaries in cue sports and beyond, he ponders but only for a moment to gather himself as he names Steve Davis, James Watanna, Prakash Padukone, Anand and Amitabh Bachchan.

“From six-time world snooker champion Steve Davis, I learnt professionalism. He showed me how to view sport once a certain expertise was achieved, how to see and conduct myself as an ambassador of sport and retain the work ethic throughout my career. He has not won a world title since 1989 and yet his work ethic remains exactly the same even now.

“From James Watanna, I learnt the actual meaning of the word concentration. The power of being in the moment. Watanna shared how his mind travelled from NEC in Birmingham to a Bangkok street during a final, diluted his concentration and the match slipped away from his hands. He was the epitome of Swami Partharasathy’s definition of concentration as the intellect supervising the mind to remain in the present.

“From my friend Prakash Padukone I learnt the value of hard work. I remember he told the Indian cricketers ‘You think you are fit but you will discover that you are not’. Prakash spoke of how he worked the hardest he could but when he went to Indonesia he realised that he did not compare well with the home players and that motivated him to work harder.

“From Anand, I learnt how he can zone in on concentration when he needs it the most. We have interacted a lot and my conversations tells me that he builds himself for a big event, cocooning himself and preparing well to understand all possible patterns on the chess board. He doesn’t take himself too seriously and point out that we need to lighten up.

“Away from sport, it could be people as diverse as legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan or my maali who has worked diligently for over a quarter century now. “Mr Bachchan is just like Steve Davis in his professionalism and the ability to work hard. He has no airs and remains grounded to the point of being self-effacing despite sustained activity for 45 years and more,” he says.

Geet Sethi may not have not picked a cue up in two years but continues to stride Indian sport with grace and dignity, ensuring that the Tricolour flutters with pride in distant lands and in a variety of sport. Indeed, the 54-year-old is one of a kind, drawing from his education and enterprise, innovation and industry to plot India’s rise in the world of sport.

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