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In Support Of Snooker

Posted: 21/09/2012 12:36

As the furore over our relentless medal-winning at the Olympics/Paralympics dies down, the excitement at Murray vanquishing his Serbian foe in the US open (thus guaranteeing himself a slightly chavvy range of trainers in 70 years time) extinguishes, the sports enthusiasts among us will have sombrely returned to our weekly diet of soulless corporate Premier League action/ gradual hope draining International football. But before you put the football blinkers back on, ignoring every other sport in the world unless it happens to force its way into the BBC schedules: please, take a look at snooker.

Snooker (and pool) have traditionally been the reserve of the athletically-challenged, sports enthusiast kids, like table-tennis and darts. You might not win any races on sports day, but with a little practice you can easily rise to become unofficial parlour games champion of Year 9. Lower years will stare in awe as you pass in the corridor, whispering mythical tales of impossible long pots. Girls will titter excitedly round the table-tennis table, as you forehand smash the Chinese kid with his expensive bat.

Later on, familiarity with the felt proved useful in the pub; helping you win money off mates, impress grizzled old regulars and providing a talking point with girls.

I suppose snooker's long-standing association with drinking houses has harmed its credibility as a serious sport. People think if a game can be played whilst holding a pint it can't be very taxing. Which is fair enough, snooker is not the most physical of sports. It's rare to see players break into a sweat, unless they have a fever or the air-con is broken. They sit on comfy chairs between points, lest the leather on their dinner shoes scuffs. It's the only professional sport played wearing a suit.

And yet I hold the same spectator affection for snooker as I do for football, and tennis. It occupies a unique position in a world of frenzied, fast-paced, instantly gratifying sports, and it should be cherished. Contrast the gladiatorial football stadiums, with its rabid tribal fans baying for blood, wingers leaping five feet into the air to con the referee, defenders tugging shirts and whispering obscenities into strikers' ears, and managers hurling abuse at officials, players and anything that comes into their line of view, with the almost monastic tranquillity of a snooker arena.

Football is a game to arouse emotion but snooker is too, in a different way. There's something hypnotic about its infinite stillness, gently punctuated at intervals by an audience cough, the commentator muttering something about a double kiss, the soft clacking of ball on ball and the satisfying swish as a colour drops lightly into the pocket.

As you slowly become enveloped in its calming embrace, you'll begin to notice who's playing and what the score is, and like any other sport you'll begin to engage with the competition. That's when it's got you.

Because snooker is an exciting, relentlessly unpredictable game when you start to follow it. A player may be striding confidently around the table one minute, having stroked in a lightning break of 52 and seemingly on course for an easy frame, when the next he's missed an straightforward pot and his opponent clears up. Momentum swings back and forth with violent force. At virtually any stage of a match, it's impossible to pick a winner.

There's no question the gameplay takes time to pick up. You soon realise that each pot is part of a bigger strategy; players are thinking three or four moves ahead at all times. Failure to get the white ball into a good position for the next shot can spell disaster for the entire match, even if the coloured ball is successfully potted. Snooker is a game of precision, subtlety, and unwavering nerves.

Snooker has its legends, heroes and villains like any other sport. The tempestuous, prodigiously talented Ronnie O'Sullivan, his unmatched natural gifts tempered by a destructive capacity for self-loathing. The brash upstart Judd Trump, a fearless long-potter from unlikely angles, his youthful impishness married with the mature safety game of a seasoned pro. Steady John Higgins, the consistent champion who perseveres with a cool head when those around him are losing theirs. And the unknown quantities creeping in from China: ruthless break-builders like Ding Junhui and Liang Wenbo, schooled in severe snooker training camps from the age of 3, where failure to apply enough side on a midtable pink results in your identity being wiped and forced exile to a Siberian Yak farm.

Sure, snooker matches tend to last around six hours, many players have the charisma of a root vegetable, and recently it's been mired in continuous match-fixing scandals. It's not a perfect sport certainly. But a lovable one despite its faults.

So please Barry Hearn, have faith in its reclusive, misfit charm. Don't turn it into some bastardised, Americanised corporate farce, where players are forced to enter the arena to the sound of detergent jingles, skate round the table on rollerblades, and sip energy drinks demonstratively between points ("The new Lucozade 'Max Fresh' really seems to have perked up his cue action, John!"). Thank you.

Go watch.

 
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