Pakistan snooker is on the march on the international stage. Its future looks bright with a constant influx of talent and skill. It is a lonely beacon of hope on the otherwise darkening skies of sports in Pakistan.
While the general standard of sports in Pakistan has declined alarmingly over the last decade, snooker has been one of the few success stories to brighten the horizon. Pakistan snooker has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, establishing a strong reputation for itself in the amateur game.The Pakistan Billiards and Snooker Association was formed in 1958 and staged the first National Snooker Championship in 1960. Pakistan’s snooker odyssey gained momentum when Karachi was chosen as the venue for the 2nd IBSF or World Amateur Snooker Championships held in 1966. Pakistan’s cueist in this tournament was Hamid Karim but then came a long wait of 16 years before the country participated in this event again, through Tanveer Dada in Calgary, Canada, in 1982.
Over a decade later, in 1993, Karachi again staged the IBSF World Snooker Championship and also hosted the inaugural Asian Under-21 Snooker Championships organized by the ACBS or the Asian Confederation of Billiard Sports. Pakistan’s Farhan Mirza was the runner-up in this tournament, losing 8-6 to Anan Terananon of Thailand in a keenly contested final.
The next year, in 1994, Farhan again made it to the Asian Under-21 final before losing 6-4 to another Thai cueist, Phaitoon Phonbun. Farhan’s fine performance was, however, overshadowed by Pakistan’s first major international success in the snooker world that year. In the 1994 IBSF World Snooker Championship held in Johannesburg, South Africa, Pakistan’s Mohammad Yusuf had a remarkable run of eight successive victories in the earlier stages of the competition, that enabled him to head his group. This was followed by wins over Andy Sharpe of England, Kristjan Helgason of Sweden and Andrew Hicks of Australia in the pre-quarter final, quarter final and semi-final stages. The final, played against another Swede, Johannes Johannesson was a closely fought affair in which Yousuf prevailed by 11 frames to 9, to be crowned world amateur snooker champion. Pakistan snooker had arrived.
Yousuf who was born in Mumbai in 1952 and had migrated to Pakistan in 1965. He was Pakistan’s first true snooker star and would go on to earn many more honours for his country. He won the ACBS Asian Snooker Championship of 1998 which was held in Pakistan, edging out Thailand’s Prasom Ritthiprasong 8-7 in a see-saw battle in the final. Yousuf’s successes in both these tournaments came after the age of forty which was a testament to his commitment and fitness.
Pakistan also took part in the snooker competition of the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games. Shokat Ali won the gold medal in the singles event before pairing up with Saleh Mohammad to win the bronze medal in the doubles as well. The Pakistan team, comprising Shokat Ali, Saleh Mohammad and Farhan Mirza also won a bronze medal in the team competition.
Shokat Ali, who represented Pakistan in these games, was born in England and is settled there. He also played on the professional circuit, recording victories over legendary players like Ronnie O’Sullivan and Jimmy White.
Farhan Mirza carried his good form into 1999. He reached the semi-finals of ACBS Asian Snooker Championship losing to the eventual tournament winner Noppadon Noppachorn 6-4. The following year it was Saleh Mohammad’s turn to shine in this competition. He was narrowly beaten 6-5 in a very closely fought semifinal but comfortably won the 3rd place playoff 5-1.
After successfully representing Pakistan, Farhan moved to Sweden where he had a second major successful career winning the Swedish national championships six times, and also represented Sweden internationally.
In the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, South Korea. Saleh Mohammad and Naveen Perwani paired together to win the bronze medal in the snooker doubles event, while the Pakistan team consisting of Saleh Mohammad, Naveen Perwani and the veteran Mohammad Yousuf got a bronze in the team competition. Saleh Mohammad was again in sparkling form in the 2003 IBSF World Snooker Championships, in Jiangmen, China. Victories over future professional stars Liang Wenbo and Mark Allen in the quarter finals and semi-finals respectively, won Saleh a place in the finals where he faced Pankaj Advani of India. Advani, however, proved to be the better player on the day winning by 11 frames to 6.
Saleh Mohammad has an interesting history. He was born in Afghanistan but then migrated to Pakistan and initially lived as an Afghan refugee. Here he developed an interest in snooker and took up playing the game competitively. His successes earned him selection for Pakistan whom he represented with distinction on the international stage. In the 2008 Asian Snooker Championships in Dubai, Saleh also became the first Pakistani snooker player to make a maximum break of 147 in an international tournament. By 2010 Saleh had migrated back to Afghanistan to help in developing the game there. He represented Afghanistan in international competitions, reaching the quarterfinals of the Asian Snooker Championships in 2012. A year later he did even better. The 2013 ACBS Asian Snooker Championships were held in Karachi, his previously adopted country, and Saleh won the tournament while playing for his motherland Afghanistan. The circle was now complete.
Pakistan’s next major international success came in the 2006 IBSF Seniors/Masters World Championship in Amman, Jordan. Pakistan’s hero was once again Mohammad Yousuf who beat England’s seasoned ex-professional Gary Wilkinson 5-4 in a pulsating final. This was Pakistan’s first big international success in a Masters event.
Further success came when Khurram Agha reached the semifinals of the Asian Championships in 2007. Khurram performed well in 2008, too, reaching the quarterfinals of the Asian Championship and the pre-quarterfinals of the World Championships.
The year 2010 saw the beginning of a wonderful decade for Pakistani snooker. In the ACBS Asian Snooker Championships held in Thailand that year another Pakistani talent, Mohammad Sajjad, was in fine fettle. He won all his group matches, including a victory over his ex-colleague Saleh Mohammad, who was now representing Afghanistan. Continuing his good form into the knockout stages, Sajjad progressed to the final where he was overcome by Issara Kachaiwong of Thailand. More success came through the Asian Games of 2010 held in Guangzhou, China, where Pakistan’s team of Imran Shahzad, Sohail Shahzad and Shahram Changezi won the bronze medal.
Further triumphs awaited Pakistani snooker in 2012. Participating in the IBSF World Snooker Championships in Bulgaria, Mohammad Asif easily won all his group matches and carried his excellent form into the knockout section of the competition. Nine straight victories brought him to the final where his opponent was England’s Gary Wilson. Asif began well and had a 6-3 lead at the halfway stage of the best of 19 frame final. Gary Wilson fought back to equalize the score at 8-8, but Asif kept his nerve to win the next two frames and the match, to become the new World Champion.
Pakistan won yet more laurels in 2013. At the IBSF World Snooker Championship in Latvia, the defending champion Asif fell early in the knockout stage, but Mohammad Sajjad picked up the mantle and made his way to the semifinals, where his run was halted by the teenage Chinese prodigy Zhao Xintong, who recovered from 3-5 down to win 7-5.
Pakistan also won the 2013 IBSF World Teams Snooker Championship held in Ireland. Pakistan’s team of Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Sajjad overcame India 3-1 in the quarterfinals, beat Ireland 3-2 in the semi-finals and defeated Iran 5-3 in the final.
On the Asian circuit Pakistan’s challenge in the 2013 Asian Championship in Karachi ended in the quarterfinals with Sajjad and Abu Saim both bowing out at this stage. However, in the Under-21 section of the championship Mohammad Majid Ali made it to the final before narrowly losing to his Thai opponent 6-5.
Pakistani successes continued in 2014. In the Asian Under-21 Championships held in Chandigarh, India, Hamza Akbar progressed to the semi-finals while in the 2014 2nd Asian Team Championship staged in Karachi, the Pakistan duet of Sajjad and Asif reached the finals before losing 3-1 to India.
In the 2014 IBSF World Snooker Championship, staged in Bangalore, Sajjad gave a stellar performance and reached the finals. Leading 7-6 against Yan Bingtao, he was on the very verge of victory but his Chinese opponent took the last two frames to lift the coveted trophy. In the 2014 IBSF World Team Championship in Egypt, Pakistan again performed creditably, with Sajjad and Asif taking Pakistan to the final where they lost to Hong Kong.
Pakistan’s success story continued in 2015 when a Pakistani was again crowned as Asian Champion after a gap of 17 years. Hamza Akbar won the Asian Championships in Kuala Lumpur beating India’s Pankaj Advani 7-6 in the final. In the 2015 3rd Asian Team Championships, held in Iran, Pakistan entered two teams and both reached the semi-finals. Pakistan ‘A’ had Asif and Sajjad while Pakistan ‘B’ comprised Hamza Akbar and Shahram Changezi.
Pakistan did even better in the IBSF World Team Championship of 2015. Playing on home soil in Karachi they again fielded two teams for the main event. The Asjad Iqbal/Shahid Aftab pair lost in the finals, while the Babar Masih/Shahram Changezi duo made it to the semifinals. The veteran team of Mohammad Yousuf and Naveen Perwani also performed exceptionally well to secure 2nd position in the Masters category of the team event.
A new tournament called the 1st Asian Billiards Sports Championship was organised in Al Fujairah in 2016. Pakistan won the team event with Asif and Babar Masih, while Asif reached the semi-finals of the singles competition. The 4th Asian Team Championship held in Abu Dhabi in 2016, saw further success with the Asif/Babar Masih team managing a semi-final place.
Pakistan was by now a well-established snooker power on the amateur circuit. 2017 brought a further string of successes. On an individual level Mohammad Bilal reached the semi-finals of the Asian Snooker Championships in Doha but the limelight belonged to Naseem Akhtar who won the Under-18 event at the IBSF World Championship in Beijing and progressed to the semifinals of the Under-21 event at the Asian Championships in India. In team competitions, in the 5th Asian Team Snooker Championships in Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan Team ‘2’ with Mohammad Bilal and Babar Masih reached the finals, while Team ‘1’, composed of Sajjad and Asjad Iqbal made the semi-finals. In the IBSF World Team Snooker Championship Pakistan again entered two teams and the final was an all Pakistani affair with the Asif/Babar Masih team prevailing over the Sajjad/Asjad Iqbal combo.
Pakistan continued to excel in 2018. Mohammad Bilal again reached the semi-finals of the Asian Snooker Championship, held in Tabriz, Iran. In the Asian Snooker Under-21 Championships in Yangon, Myanmar, Harris Tahir got to the final and Mohammad Shahbaz the semifinals. In team play, Pakistan’s Team ‘1’, the Asif/Babar Masih pair, won the 6th Asian Team Championships in Doha, while Team ‘2’ with Majid and Bilal reached the semi-finals. The Asif - Babar duo also won the inaugural 1st IBSF World Team Cup again in Doha.
This was another wonderful year for Pakistan snooker. They won the 7th Asian Team Snooker Championship in Doha when Zulfiqar Qadir and Babar Masih of Pakistan Team ‘2’ beat India 3-2. In the IBSF Snooker World Team Cup held at the same venue, Pakistan again prevailed over India, when their team of Bilal and Asjad Iqbal won the final 3-1.
In individual events Asjad Iqbal and Babar Masih both reached the semifinals of the Asian Snooker Championship. However, the crowning glory of the year was Mohammad Asif’s performance in the IBSF World Snooker Championships held in Antalya, Turkey. He beat Jeffrey Roda of the Philippines 8-5 to become the first Pakistani to win the World Snooker Championship for the second time.
Pakistan’s snooker is on the march on the international stage. Its future looks bright with a constant influx of talent and skill. It is a lonely beacon of hope on the otherwise darkening skies of sports in Pakistan.
Dr Salman Faridi is a senior surgeon, poet, sports aficionado and
an avid reader with a private collection of over 7000 books. firstname.lastname@example.org