Thai Snooker: IBSF World Under-21 Championships, Montreal, 13-23 July

Thanawat Tirapongpaiboon

The eyes of the snooker world may well be firmly on Bangkok this week for the World Cup, but Thai fans will also be following the fortunes of the next generation at the IBSF World Under-21 Championships in Montreal, Canada, in the eternal hope of unearthing the next James Wattana.  (For details, click here)

Thailand currently stands proudly in first place on the IBSF’s ranking list of snooker playing nations thanks to consistently strong performances in all categories, and they have every chance of adding another trophy in Canada after the final on 23rd July. Three young players make up the Thai delegation – Thanawat Tirapongpaiboon (Man), Noppon Saengkham (Moo), and Akani Songsermsawat (Sunny) – and while two of the trio might be well known to many fans, the third name on the list may be less familiar.

Noppon Saengkham

Thanawat, now 17, already has a year of main tour professional snooker under his belt, and although he failed to keep his place, he did show great promise in reaching the venue stages in Germany and becoming the youngest ever player to compile a 147 in professional competition. He will certainly be among the favourites for the title and a swift return to the main tour. Noppon, who will celebrate his 19th birthday in Canada, also has a year’s main tour experience, having earned his place by winning the World Under-21 title two years ago in Iran. His professional results may have been disappointing, but he should still be among the contenders in Montreal.

Akani, at 15, is the youngest of the three, and he agreed to share his thoughts with PSB after a Saturday afternoon practice session. It was a practice session which was cut a little shorter than usual because he was due to meet the other players at Suvarnabhumi Airport at midnight, ready to board the Qatar Airways flight to Doha and then the long, long leg on to Montreal. No shortage of dedication though as he still put in a solid five hours despite the building excitement about his first overseas trip. As for his chances when he gets to Canada – his recent form has been sound, winning the Thai Under-21 title, and then reaching the last four of the Thai Six Red Championships with wins over Atthasit Mahitti and Phaitoon Phonbun before losing out to James Wattana. This season is also his first on the Thailand Professional Circuit, on which he is the youngest participant, and he has already risen to number 42 in the rankings.

Akani Songsermsawat

A fifteen year old might normally be thought to be lacking experience, but Thailand’s administrators had the foresight to give him some early exposure on the senior international stage when the country hosted the 2007 IBSF World Championships. With eleven places going to Thai players, one spot was handed to the then twelve year-old Akani, who performed solidly to finish several spots above the bottom of his qualifying group. Bolstered by that promising debut, he then earned an invitation to Thailand’s inaugural international six-red event a year later, where he beat Matthew Selt and came within a whisker of upsetting eventual champion Ricky Walden.

However, in spite of all his undoubted potential, Akani explained that he thought the standard required to actually win the title in Montreal will be something close to main tour level, and he felt that at present his game is still developing so he would still be the underdog if he reaches the knockout stages. He said it was difficult to pinpoint any particular strengths in his snooker at the moment, describing his game as being in a bit of a “Duck Situation.”  A duck can fly, though not particularly well. A duck can swim, but again it’s not really a strong point. A duck can sing, but nobody wants to listen. I would be inclined to agree with him; it seems that a duck would have a pretty solid all-round game, which Akani certainly does, while admitting that some refinement is still needed. He knocked in a bewildering 102 clearance during the course of this chat in which he rarely looked in full control until the last four colours and yet at the same time never looked like missing at any stage either. Technically he is very solid and methodical, but the quality he possesses that might finally be the most important is his patience and match temperament. When you look at him in the middle of a match, it is impossible to tell from his general demeanour if his winning or losing. He is equally happy to attack or defend, and never have I seen him at all flustered or rushed into unwise shot selections.

 Group G
Rhys Clark (SCO)
Akani Songsermsawat (THA)
Mohamed Hamdy (EGY)
Jurian Heusdens (BEL)
Bogdan Cozmaciuc (ROM)
Kurt Brown (AUS)
Ehsan Heydarinezhad (IRN)

I asked about the group draw, and Akani admitted he knew very little about any of his opponents, but the Scottish flag had caught his eye. Although it would be dangerous to underestimate any of the players based on their nationality, he expected the players from the UK and China would always be particularly strong. Should he progress to the knockout rounds, he reckoned that the players who had already played on the main tour, like the Chinese pair Anda Zhang and Li Hang, the Irishman Vincent Muldoon, or indeed his own two compatriots would be the toughest to be drawn against. Obviously Akani will be trying to go as far in the tournament as he can, but he clearly has a realistic view of the challenge that lies ahead.

Akani Songsermsawat

When he returns from Canada, his immediate future is unclear. He has been home-schooled for several years, which allows for five or six hours of daily snooker practice, fitted in around his studies and helping with his father’s cake business (Mr Songsermsawat makes exceedingly good cakes), but there remains the need to continue to develop his game to a higher level, which will require more practice with better players. He may well start playing at the National Academy, which has recently produced the likes of Thanawat and Noppon to follow in the footsteps of Thepchaiya and Passakorn. Their government supported program allows young players to receive a basic income while they spend their days practicing under the guidance of the coaching staff. Academy players are then first in line for selection for international competition and the chance to earn a main tour place. While Akani might not quite be ready for the professional game just yet, it could well turn out that instead of discovering Thailand’s next James Wattana, in a couple of years we may be watching the next Mark Williams.