The loudest sound heard in the great arenas of sporting competition is sometimes that of silence.
Even the wafting of cigarette smoke from the stick up the ceiling can have the effect of sound as the apparition of the unrepeatable final plays games with the faculties of perception and the transported spectators, unable to know where the great contest is headed, their nerves taut and eyes fixed on the contestants, are seated a universe away from anything taking place outside their confined space.
Such was the scene at the Aga Khan Sports Club Hall in April, 1984 as Hafiz Ramji, the greatest snooker player to brandish the cue in Kenya, faced off with another prodigy, Nizar Kanji, in the final of the Diamond Trust championship. It was a seven-hour marathon. And it sapped the energies of player and spectator alike.
Ramji was the defending champion. But in the nine-frame final, he was four down - meaning the first four. Kanji needed just one more frame to clinch a famous victory and improve his bank balance by Sh70,000. If this amount of money is not chicken feed today, you can imagine what it was in 1984.
Hafiz Ramji, Soni Gold Cup winner, in action in this undated file photo.
Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group
And so Hafiz Ramji, East African champion and champion of almost every tournament in Kenya, faced his moment of truth. How much gas was left in his mental tank? He unhurriedly strode around the table, studying every ball. Dead silence reigned in the packed hall. From some seats in the stands, dense clouds of cigarette smoke morphed into thin streams and wafted upwards, making dancing shapes.
If the thought of game up crossed his mind, his face did not show it. And if it was the thought of victory playing in Kanjis mind, maybe his radiant face, getting brighter like a polished diamond with every passing frame, announced it. And you couldnt begrudge him his confidence; he was playing very well.
But what happened next was the stuff of legend. Great sportspeople know, not by theory but by the reserve power embedded in the deepest recesses of their minds, that it isnt over until it is over. And Hafiz Ramji is a great sportsman. With only one option in his playbook to use attack, attack and attack - he started clawing back. He threw any notion of defensive play out of the window. And winning frame number five announced his return to contention and the possible defence of his cherished title. Even the vastly experienced Kanji was thrown off balance by the champions visible resolve.In time, the relentlessness of Ramjis comeback levelled the scores to 4-4.
Now the final frame could go either way. The silence in the room grew louder.As in all such situations in any sport, the momentum is always with the comeback player. An advantage so huge whittled away for whatever reason imposes an enormous mental strain on the one who is fighting to recover. And at the Aga Khan Hall, things inexorably went bad for the richly talented Kanji.
Former Kenyan snooker star Hafiz Ramji poses with a TV showing a snooker match at his base in Vancouver, Canada, in 2020.
Photo credit: Pool
He started off with an in-off. Four points lost. He repeated the same foul shot. The cue-ball rolled into the pocket. Another four points lost. There was now no stopping to it. He attempted to bring the cue-ball back to the D, but it only kissed the black. He watched in despair as the black rolled into the pocket. Another foul. Seven points lost.
The champion took full advantage of these blunders. He raced to a handsome 28-point lead. After small breaks, Kanji fitfully came back into the game. At the green stage, he needed all balls (green, brown, blue, pink and black) to win. Could he pull it off?
After three attempts each, Ramji left the green on the edge of the pocket, but the cue-ball was just 20mm from the blue. Kanji called for the spider rest. He strolled around the table, looking at the angle. He remained undecided for a couple of minutes, pondering whether to attempt to sink the green or play it safe.
It was do or die for Kanji. He went for a pot, but left the green on the mouth. Ramji shot up from his seat like an arrow released by its archer, sank the green and positioned himself for the brown. That did it; Nizar was in the hunt for snookers. He could not make it and sold the blue, which Ramji thankfully accepted before sinking the pink.
And finally the great champion could savour his victory; he threw his cue in the air in unbridled delight. He retained the title 45-53, 46-69, 47-57, 47-80, 74-51, 57-38, 94-34, 62-31, 60-30, bringing the curtain down on the 45-day long championship. The burst of applause in the hall returned sound to its normal quality: audible, even ear-splitting.
I should have had no chance at all of coming back into the game, Ramji said of his moment of victory. I was completely demoralized after trailing 0-4. But I had to go for my shots. I had no choice. And it paid off. On the road to the final, he had left great men on the wayside, players like Alnoor Gilani and Latif Nazerali.
Hafiz Ramji (right) with a collection of his trophies came back when nobody thought he would dominate the Kenyan snooker scene in the 1980s.
Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group
In all his career, Hafiz Ramji was not only a champion, but he looked and acted as one when he walked around the snooker table. He was cool and collected, confident, tall and sported a moustache that made him handsome and forbidding in equal measure. He was a child of Mombasa, where he was born in 1956, and where his father also played snooker and passed on the skills to him by both genes and coaching. In the years that followed he would multiply his fathers modest achievements many times over.
He first had the feel of the cue in 1972. His father, Mohamedaly Ramji, better known as Mamu was a well-known cueman at the Coast. But the son moved at a much faster pace than the old man could have anticipated. Before settling in Nairobi in 1975, he made headlines by winning the prestigious Soni Gold Cup in the same year at the age of 19. He had defeated the then East African Open champion, Mohammed Tariq and the great Tim DSouza along the way.
Zoeb Tayebjee, the legendary cricket and snooker correspondent for Nation Sport, once wrote of Ramji thus: When he appears in a final, he is dressed in that elegant, formal and correct manner that only he can: a black suit with a waist-coat, frilled white shirt and white shoes the ultimate man of billiards.Behind his moustache lurks seriousness; a seriousness that speaks much of his style. Cool, contemplating, chopping his cue deliberately fully in control of his temperament. What if he blunders? Ooops! He makes faces and fans fear he might pull off his hairs. If there is a man capable of being cross with himself, it is this one. Happily for him, his blunders are few and far between.
For all his prowess that resulted in the relentless destruction of the best opponents in Kenya and East Africa, his strategy really was a simple one: sitting while it was his opponents turn and pondering each move with the concentration of a chess grandmaster. Concentration would really have been his middle name. Yet the true mark of his character was doing what distinguishes great sportspeople from ordinary ones: going over and above the call of expectation.
He worked extra hard at his craft. Five frames is a must every day, he said of his training. I spend at least three hours daily in the week before any tournament commences. I have achieved my success in this game because I train seriously, concentrate hard and think about the mistakes I may have made before going to bed.
This attitude put him atop an impressive list of snooker players that Kenya was blessed with in the 1970s and 80s. Such a list must include men like Mohamed Tariq, Nizar Kanji, Latif Nazarali, Alnoor Gilani, Shaukat Ezmail, Rueben Waweru and Abdi Dahir. Winning against players of this caliber was never easy, he says. In many cases, the final was very tough and victory only comes at the last moment. The beauty of sport is that the greater the opponents, the better your performance will be.
Nothing feels better than fulfilling ones goals. When he first burst into the national scene at the age of 17, he set a lofty goal for himself: to become champion of East Africa. Given the company he was in, that was ambitious. But he saw it threw to have the pleasure of telling the Kenyan sports media:I have now achieved what has always been my long sought childhood ambition to be the snooker champion of East Africa. It started when I was a little boy accompanying my father to snooker parlours every evening. My father was then a prominent player at the Coast. I started my career at 17 and my enthusiasm got me to win the Coast Open Snooker Championship the following year.
The final was played against my elder brother Shiraz, who was also the defending champion of the tournament. I partnered with him to win the doubles category of the competition. I began to gain more experience while playing constantly with prominent players like Madat Hansraj and other club mates like Diamond Haji and Nashir Kassam. The top player of the lot was Madat Hansraj, whose game I really used to admire.
For over 17 years now, Hafiz Ramji has lived in Vancouver, Canada, where he continues to play snooker. His most recent competition was the BC Snooker Championship where he went out in the semi-finals. His wife Ruby and daughters Shazia and Sabeha are his biggest fans, constantly reminding him that he is Kenyas eternal snooker champion. This, he says, makes him very nostalgic about the land of his birth with its great childhood memories such as the beaches of Mombasa.
Hafiz Ramji won a title every other year between 1973 and 1984.He turned up in 33 major finals of which he lost only six. Below is a summary of the champions trophy haul:
1973 Freeds Open
1975/79/82 Soni Gold Cup
1976/77/84 East African Open
1976/78 Kenya Open
1977/78/83 Kenya Open Doubles
1977/79/82 Jamal Pirbhai Open
1980/81 Westlands Sundries
1983/84 Diamond Trust Open
1984 Kenya Billiards Open
1984 Nairobi Gymkhana Open
1984 Westlands Supermarket Open
Roy Gachuhi, a former Nation Media Group sports reporter, is a writer with The Content House.
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