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Arena: Elegant stage for high drama: Stephen Brenkley samples the atmosphere of world snooker's symbolic amphitheatre

BEFORE the Crucible there were halls. Some were grimmer than others. In 1972, just as the swanky new establishment in Sheffield was opening, John Spencer lost the World Snooker Championship at the Selly Oak British Legion on a Birmingham ring road. It was a bleak, forbidding sort of place, but he thought nothing of it. That was where he expected to play.

Five years later, he won the title in the more elegant confines of the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. The two venues were a measure of snooker's progress from back street to high street, from austerity to prosperity. If this sounds high- falutin, Spencer, the first winner in the swish new world, lends it credence.

He can remember little of his final victory over Cliff Thorburn except that it was close (25-21) and that they were in surroundings so plush that you would consider wearing a black tie in the bath. 'The effect of the place hadn't hit me then,' said Spencer, whose third and last world title that was. 'It hadn't hit anybody. But the next year and every year after I'd leave home in Lancashire, get into Yorkshire and there would be butterflies in my tummy. I'd be worked up even if my first game was three days away.'

Similar feelings apply to all the young professionals who have followed in Spencer's wake. To a man, or, sometimes, to a boy, they aspire to walk towards a table at the Crucible, and soon afterwards wish they were anywhere else on the planet. The sweat pouring from the faces of those who are sitting down doing nothing more strenuous than watching an opponent pot balls testifies to that. Such is the status of the event, but the Crucible's reputation as the first perfect venue of snooker has brought extra pressure.

This reputation was consolidated when it was the scene of the greatest of snooker finals and one of the most memorable matches in all of sport. Dennis Taylor beat the overwhelming favourite, Steve Davis, 18-17 by potting the final black in the final frame. It was the first time he had been ahead in the match and he had pulled back from 8-0 down.

Taylor not only took part in the best final, he is now the only player to have featured in all championships at the Crucible. Like Spencer, he is in no doubt that the place is a natural home. 'Catastrophic might be putting it a bit strongly,' Taylor said, 'but it wouldn't be far away from that if they ever took it away. It's ideal in terms of size, and the atmosphere is something really indescribable. That makes it. And of course, the place will stay in my memory for as long as I live. I've got to play a qualifying game for the first time next year, but I intend to be back.'

For all such desire, the present contract in Sheffield between the theatre and the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association has only two years to run. Others who think they can cope with the physical disruption and a change in audience personnel which, for instance, sees the number of mobile phones brought in increase tenfold, are casting envious eyes. But the Crucible, for all its peculiarities, should be safe.

The cramped changing areas and the occasional difficulty of getting on the practice table could never diminish it. It is a combination of the intimacy - its 1,000- seat capacity is held to be the maximum manageable audience - and the comfort.

For 48 weeks of the year the Crucible is a theatre (its next big production in June is an adaptation of The Three Musketeers, which will not feature Hendry, Davis or even White) and it was in that guise that it was first seen as an integral part of the British sporting year. The wife of the snooker promoter Mike Watterson went to see a play there and immediately noted the advantages for staging the game. Every year since 1977 the Crucible's thrust stage has been painstakingly lowered almost six feet, piece by jigsaw piece, simply for the tournament. The physical preparation takes two weeks; it is four days before everything is back in its proper place. Backstage, even office doors are changed.

It is not quite to the liking of everbody. One theatrical type in the marketing office said, a touch theatrically, that it was 'a pain in the arse'. But for two weeks each year the Crucible - it got its name not from the Arthur Miller play but from a steel-manufacturing system invented in Sheffield - is the melting pot for a sport. It put a theatre, unprepossessing in grey breeze-block, in newspapers that would otherwise give it huge side- spin.

The Taylor-Davis final apart, the other image which is framed in the memory is of Alex Higgins bringing his wife and baby into the auditorium to share his tearful triumph in 1982. There may never be anything quite as emotional again but each year the place seems to provide a story of odds defied or misfortune overcome. It is perhaps not what the burghers of Sheffield had in mind when it was opened but the Crucible continues to take theatre to the people.

(Photograph omitted)