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Thursday, April 12, 2001

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Russell shows why he is favourite

By G. Viswanath

MUMBAI, APRIL 11. It is deemed a typical Indian trait, but in recent times, when Indian sportspersons have had a whale of a time and refreshingly changed the mood of their supporters, an excuse, lame or otherwise from a beaten man would not be acceptable. But then Ashok Shandilya - beaten 469-649 by the favourite Mike Russell in the first match of the World professional billiards championship - might as well say he was not really complaining.

It was another case of a lost opportunity for an Indian sportsman to conquer a champion. Shandilya appeared to be neither offering an excuse nor complaining, but strongly protesting to himself. ``It was a good opportunity lost to beat Mike. I have beaten him in the 50-up format and in a time frame of two and three hours. I did not expect this to happen, especially after I had cracked a 300 plus break while practising yesterday,'' said Shandilya.

Calls came on his cell phone, one after another, to know his fate against the World No. 1. Shandilya, who lost by 180 points, became the first player to be knocked out of the championship.

Shandilya was not good enough to hold onto the lead and nerves in that crucial two hours on Wednesday morning to beat a man who has held the trophy four times before and collected 60,000 as prize money.

The `good opportunity' which Shandilya said he lost came in the first hour of the match. The two players - Russell and Shandilya - entered the C.K. Nayudu Hall, Cricket Club of India, with the sponsors, officials, players and media people contributing to the impressive attendance. And, Shandilya got into his rhythm right away, building breaks of 68 and 79 when his famous rival's highest score in half a dozen visits was six points.

Shandilya was up 166-17, 50 minutes into the championship opener. He left the table, following a foul shot, leaving the balls on top of the table. Russell was grateful to his opponent, and made a workman-like 84. A foul shot ended his profitable seventh visit, the same way Shandilya finished his sixth. The balls appeared to be rolling well for Shandilya when he missed a cannon. This was the first major lapse by the Indian.

Russell got a second opening to bridge the gap. He made his first century break (141) that turned out to be the first act of the coupe de grace. He manoeuvred the balls to the top of the table, achieved the baulk-line crossing challenge and seemed set for a big break, but broke down missing a red pot. But the 141 helped him lead for the first time in the match at 253- 214.

The good thing was Shandilya sustained the fight which kept Russell under enormous pressure. The lead changed with Shandilya building a break on his 11th visit. He appeared to be playing faultless billiards, controlling his shots, but once again he missed a red pot. ``I could not believe it. This was the turning point. I could not convert the 100-point lead into 200 points and more,'' said Shandilya.

By the second hour Russell had come close to a level of performance that turned out to be ominous for Shandilya. He played two great shots - in-offs once each on the red and white positioned close to the side cushion and his hand ball (yellow) placed diagonally - and compiled a break of 187 that virtually sealed Shandilya's fate. And not once did Russell appear keen to go `North' and manipulate play there and pile up points; he played from all around the table. The last eight visits did not really matter after Russell moved up 597, establishing a lead of 220 points.

Russell will now play countryman Roxton Chapman in the quarterfinals. The 28-year-old cueist, Chapman began with a solid 83, but made errors that did not see him make another big break in the next half a dozen visits. But Ian Williamson, who is one of the three qualifiers from England, was not in good touch either. His highest score in 14 visits was a 35. By then Chapman had run up a lead of close to 300 points (420-126). Williamson struck form late, but he was always going to run short on time. He made 152 in his 15th and an unfinished 111 in his 17th, but these two splendid efforts still saw him go down 389-473.

Shutt ousts Alok Kumar

The tall Chris Shutt seemed a busy player in his match against Alok Kumar, the second Indian in the fray on Wednesday. Shutt was introduced by host Michael Ferreira as the `World Cup winner' and who has to his credit a break of 887 in the baulk-line rule. But both Shutt and Alok Kumar disappointed. In the two-hour session Shutt made 51 visits and Alok Kumar 52. Shutt's best was a 168 in his 33rd followed by a 90 in the 35th.

After a lacklustre match between Shutt and Alok Kumar, two Englishmen, David Causier and Peter Sheehan arrived on the scene. Within minutes of the start, Causier was visibly restless, because Sheehan was collecting small breaks that was contributing more to the total than his own six visits of zeros and a couple of 11s. So it was refreshing to see Causier carve an 83 and trail by four points at 145-149.

There was no significant sign of improvement as the match entered its second hour with Causier down by 66 points. It was on the 34th visit that Causier struck form with a 98; the 40th which fetched him a good 123 points virtually made his position safe. Sheehan lost the match in the last 30 minutes. Causier became the fourth fancied player to make the quarterfinals. He will play Shutt in the round of eight.

The first day of the championship began with a well contested match between Shandilya and Russell, the latter breathing freely only late in the second hour. But the matches that followed produced little thrill. Hopefully there will be bigger breaks when the championship is played over a four-hour format from the quarterfinal stage.

Russell and Shandilya were lucky that there were quite a few discerning people to see them fight it out. It was quite different in the fifth match of the day between Peter Gilchrist and Paul Bennett; the two scorers and the match referee took the head count to double digits.

lThe results (first round): Mike Russell (Eng) 649 (84, 141, 98, 187) bt Ashok Shandilya (Ind) 469 (68, 79, 77); Roxton Chapman (Eng) 473 (83, 64, 72, 79) bt Ian Williamson (Eng) 389 (152, 111 uf); Chris Shutt (Eng) 728 (54, 168, 90, 58) bt Alok Kumar 529 (80); David Causier (Eng) 732 (83, 60, 98, 123, 63) bt Peter Sheehan (Eng) 569 (80); Peter Gilchrist (Eng) 738 (124, 172) bt Paul Bennett (Eng) 337.

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