Remember those tales of people raised by wolves that seemed to be common last century? Untainted by human contact, they were held up as objective mirrors to our culture, puzzling at our plastic-packaged food and the strange boxes of flickering light that transfix us.
Imagine introducing them to snooker. Once used to TVs, remote controls and sport, they would see a hushed arena where two men dressed as waiters circle a bright green table then bow, brandishing a pointy stick to knock brightly coloured balls into small nets. They’d shrug, at best.
Say they were put in front of the TV for Saturday evening’s coverage of the first round of the World Championship, featuring a bloke called Ronnie playing another called Robin. They’d feel their eyelids grow heavy, as John Virgo called the shots in the voice of Lancashire’s answer to a late-night smooth jazz DJ.
They might perk up a little as Virgo and his co-commentator Steve Davis say things that could be construed as innuendo like “he’s gone for the screw rather than the run-through,” or “he’s left a few loose reds”. They might snigger at Virgo’s impersonations of a drug intervention counsellor when he warns “that took his mind off the pot, that’s for sure”.
Then, somewhere around frame 13, they would have realised that, although it would be a travesty to call snooker a sport, they were hooked on every clack of the balls.
Why does snooker suck us in? There is even less physical effort than in golf, no sweat or exertion, few climactic roars from the crowd, nor even many mid-game crescendos. The long silences and images of overwrought “thinking” expressions render it closer to performance art than sport. And it is all commentated on in voices barely above a whisper.
Yet it is simple to lose hours – days, even – watching a match unfold. How? It could be the geometry of the shots; the impossibility of the angles. Perhaps it is the furrowed brows of the players as they miss seemingly easy pots or, even more agonisingly, as they watch helplessly as their opponents clear the table. It may even be the garish green of the playing surface.
Even mediocre games are watchable, such as the aforementioned match between Ronnie and Robin (O’Sullivan and Hull, respectively). It was mesmerising.
O’Sullivan, who makes snooker look so easy while giving the impression that he couldn’t give two hoots, was rattled at eight frames to four. There were near misses, rash shots and some efforts which appeared to break more than one of Isaac Newton’s laws. All relayed to us by Virgo’s “Barry White from Clitheroe” delivery, offset by Davis’s Essex half-whisper.
Then, as O’Sullivan scrapped through the last two frames to win 10-4, viewers were left howling with excitement – whether they had been raised by wolves or not – yet no doubt a little puzzled as to why they’d lost so many hours snared by this odd game.