Padma Shri and Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna awardee Geet Siriram Sethi won the 1992 World Professional Billiards Championship on 3 October, achieving a world-record English billiards break of 1276 under the three-pot rule, giving India a new sporting hero. One of the greatest sporting talents India has ever produced, he won the title again four times — in 1993, 1995, 1998, and 2006.
Sethi was born on 17th April 1961 in Delhi, although his family soon moved to Ahmedabad, where he grew up in. He took to the sport when he turned 13. Within two years he won the first of his five junior billiards titles. He did well in snooker too, though he has always been his most brilliant at billiards.
Sethi entered the National Billiards Circuit in 1979 when he was 18 years old, clinching both the Junior National Billiards Championship and Junior National Snooker Championship the same year. He first made an international mark in 1982 at the Indian National Billiards Championship, defeating Michael Ferreira. Sethi won the National Billiards Championship (which is an international event) again for four straight years, from 1985 to 1988. He won the title again in 1997 and 1998.
Sethi, who holds two world records in billiards, won the professional-level World Championships six times and the amateur-level thrice. In 1985, he defeated Bob Marshall to claim the IBSF World Amateur Billiards Championship. He reclaimed the title in 1987, and won another amateur title in 2001.
During the 1989 National Snooker Championship, he officially became the first person to have achieved a maximum amateur break of 147. Finishing as runner-up in the World Professional Billiards Championship in 1996, he brought glory to India in the Bangkok Asian Games in 1998 by winning gold in the doubles event, in which he partnered with Ashok Shandilya. He lost in the final round at the 2002 IBSF World Billiards Championship. In the 2002 Busan Asian Games, he won two medals — a silver in the doubles and a bronze in the singles event.
Again in the 2006 Doha Asian Games, he won a bronze in the doubles. He won the Irish Open Billiards Championship in 2007.
Sethi who grew up on “a diet of billiards”, as he once put it, became the first Indian world professional billiards champion in 1992 by defeating the title holder, England’s Mike Russell, with a very convincing score line of 2529-718.
Months before he reached the summit of world billiards, Sethi had a conversation with snooker star Steve Davis about basics such as stance and cueing, which he used to his advantage. By the time of his 1992 triumph, Sethi was no longer consciously thinking about the basics — they had become a second nature.
Russell memorably called the Indian’s decisive victory a “feat of genius”. The first hour of the game promised a keen contest, but soon Sethi took charge and though Russell tried to stage a comeback, the Indian’s “control, confidence and artistry” — as one sports writer put it — put the game beyond the Englishman.
Russell opened with a 77 break in his third visit, and early in the game had a 100-point lead. But Sethi dazzled after that, with a break of 576 in the ninth visit and at interval time was leading 1156-323. Starting more slowly after the interval, Sethi soon dominated. At the end of four hours when the game ended, a new champion was crowned.
“I am sure no one in the world could have beaten Geet today,” Russell said. “He was absolutely brilliant.” Sethi, however, said that the famous victory came after he put in a lot of hard work, concentrating especially on his technique. The rivalry between Sethi and Russell, an eight-time World Billiards Champion, was a riveting feature of billiards after that.
For his outstanding contribution to sport, Sethi received India’s highest sporting award, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, in 1992–93. He was also awarded the Padma Shri and the Arjuna Award in 1986, and the K.K. Birla Award in 1993.
Sethi, who has a degree in business management, lives in Ahmedabad with his wife, Kiran, and two children. In 2005, he wrote a book titled Success vs. Joy. Explaining his intention behind writing the book, the champion cueist said that success was defined by society as “money, fame and power” but these three factors were not necessarily the road to joy — and this was what he wanted to explore.
Following the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Sethi and Indian badminton legend Prakash Padukone co-founded Olympic Gold Quest, an organisation which seeks to promote sports in India and train and support select athletes for the Olympics. Besides raising funds, Olympic Gold Quest is seen by Sethi as a movement where ordinary citizens get a chance to help Indian athletes win a medal at the Olympics.
In a cricket-obsessed country that craves for sporting glory but is poorly informed about other sports, Sethi — with his measured, calm persona — is a role model for his achievements inside and outside the sporting arena. As he continues to remain an active sportsman while helping create an ecosystem that nurtures young Olympic talent in the country, he is a champion in more ways than one.
Also on this day:
1949 — J.P. Dutta, Bollywood producer and director, was born.