Abhishek’s big England break

A University of Sheffield student represented the England Universities’ Snooker Team at the Home Nations Championship and Home Internationals in Ireland last weekend.

Abhishek Raj, originally from India and who trains at the renowned snooker academy in Shirecliffe, reached the quarter-finals, but his display in the earlier rounds of the competition won him admirers, and it was enough for him to be called up to England captain Michael Walsh’s team which travelled to Carlow, near Dublin on April 1 and 2.

In that tournament he was part of the England side that won the Home Nations, against Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, they lost out to the Republic of Ireland in the Home Internationals tournament, where they had to settle for a silver after taking on the champions and their other opponents from the Home Nations tournament, which was played in a round-robin format with each match being played first to two frames. Raj conceded that the Irish team were “better”, and “that they deserved their gold medal.”

“It was a whole new experience for me, and I felt very proud of what I did. You always aim to be in the top  one but getting the silver is not a bad achievement. Overall the team performance is satisfactory, but at times the standards of performances didn’t get up to the mark”

It is not a bad achievement, considering Raj is the first player to represent the Univerity of Sheffield in the sport, a little ironic when the World Snooker Championship has been held in the city’s Crucible Theatre every year since 1977.

“I got to know (of being the first University of Sheffield snooker player) in November because I was playing at national level for the last eight to ten years and was very willing fo play snooker for the University and trying to get into the professional circuit here.”

Raj made a solid start on the opening day in Leeds, winning his first match with a mature performance before a 2-0 victory meant he progressed to the round of 16. There the matches became more competitive.

He met Tom Foley of the University of Southampton.. Foley laid down the gauntlet with a break of 50 in the opening frame and went on to take it. In a best of three match it would be a tall order for Raj to overturn the deficit, but he did it, producing two dominant frames to bounce back and make the last eight.

In the quarters he took on Cardiff’s Huw Carpenter. Raj made some errors initially but nonetheless managed to overcome the early setbacks and win the first frame, but his luck went against him in subseqent frames and he fell to a 2-1 defeat.

Although he was proud to be Sheffield’s first representative at the BUCS Championships, he insisted he could have done even better, saying, “I performed not to the best of my standards, but I still did enough to impress people around.”

And he is excited about the upcoming trip across the Irish Sea. “It’s a lifetime experience. I’m looking forward to perform to the best of my standards. I want to make the University feel proud. I’m pretty much delighted and feel fortunate I’ve created history. If we win the title as a team, there is nothing better than this.”

Raj would like to see more invested in snooker at the University, pointing out the fact that there are pool tables at sites across the University and Union, but nowhere to play snooker, and his aim is to see a University snooker club in order to leave a future legacy.

“I’m passionate about snooker. This is my love. I was a bit sad when I came here and realised there was no snooker team in Sheffield, the holy place for snooker. Since I’ve walked around the Uni with my snooker polo shirt, people have asked me if we have a snooker team, but I tell them I’m the first one.

“I’ve found a few students who play snooker and are willing to play, but don’t have the platform to do it. I’m playing to a decent level but they are doing it just for fun. That can change if you get the proper infrastructure.

“I was asking to have at least one snooker table on campus, like we do with pool, in Bar One there’s so many pool tables. Cardiff and Southampton have a very nice infrastructure. Students can practice in the university, with five or six tables, and that reflects in their abilities.”

He has also achieved something reaching celebrity status in his home city and state of Uttar Pradesh (colloquially referred to as UP), where local newspapers have put him in their sports pages, with his face stood next to images of global sporting icons such as golfer Tiger Woods.

Recently The Times of India took photos of him in action and a number of local papers have requested details of his recent achievements here on the British snooker scene.

“For the last seven or eight years I have been treated at times like a celebrity”, he says. “I give autographs at times. There’s one line which I love the most. ‘What is success? When your signature becomes your autograph’. The media in my home town and in UP state kind of know me, and in my home town I have a good fan following. They love me and admire me.

“I wouldn’t say I’m as popular as Sachin Tendulkar or any kind of Bollywood star! But to an extent, in my town, everybody knows me.”

He aims to play  professional tornaments after he finishes his MBA in Business Administration this summer. He says he is happy  to be focusing on his degree  for the time being, before taking on the PTC2 tournaments.

If he realises his ultimate ambitions, Abhishek Raj will be a name known not just in his home country, but beyond.

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