Gladiators of the green baize

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ODD THINGS are happening to sport - odd, strange, dangerous things. Look at wrestling. Once, Saturday afternoons were all but defined by the weekly spectacle of fat men in tight briefs grunting and hopping around and snarling, while elderly women were dragged from the arena after having one of their turns.

And then one day a man with a beard behind an enormous desk decided that wrestling was too 'downmarket' for ITV - an interesting comment from a network that also broadcasts Baywatch. Overnight, Big Daddy, Mick McManus, Jackie 'Mr TV' Pallo and all the other wrestling worthies vanished into a sort of fameless limbo, where all the failed chat show hosts and disgraced ex-ministers float, unmissed and unloved. Wrestling, for the vast majority of the population, essentially ceased to exist.

Until, that is, a few months ago, when it re-emerged, reupholstered, relocated and renamed as WWF Wrestling. This was not, of course, wrestling as we knew it. Mick and Jackie weren't there, but loads of vast muscle-bound Americans in silly outfits were, snarling at cameras and beating up referees. A sad, rather dowdy old sport had been transformed by American showbiz pizzazz, and ITV weren't talking 'downmarket' anymore.

But could this be the thin end of an exceptionally large and fearsome wedge? Now that first-class cricketers are preparing to spend their Sundays dressed in a range of hues that makes the Arsenal away strip look tasteful, you get the feeling that sports administrators have suddenly changed their tune on the issue of creeping Americanisation. Once, they looked upon it with unforced contempt. Now, they smell cash. They look in toy shops, and see small plastic models of WWF wrestlers selling in huge numbers to eight- year-olds. They think, OK, so it's vulgar, but who cares? Where do we sign?

And so, if wrestling can be made to look cool, it can't be long before similar treatment is meted out to Britain's other declining sports. The future's so bright, we'll have to wear shades.

Bowls. To be launched in March, the new World Bowls Federation will completely update the sport's pipe-and-slippers reputation with a new prime-time bowls-related television spectacular. Cheerleaders will throw pompoms in the air as the new host Linda Lusardi disports herself all over David Bryant. Only young hunks doused in body oil will be allowed to take part.

Darts. Coming in June, the World Darts Federation will completely update darts' traditional booze'n'snouts image with a new prime-time darts-related television spectacular. Cheerleaders will mime to a heavy-metal version of 'Roll Out The Barrel' as a new slimline Jocky Wilson (now in California, undergoing extensive plastic surgery) introduces the evening's contenders. Eric Bristow, Phil Taylor and Co will then appear in their new multi-colour outfits, complete with grilled helmets, armour and padding (in case of body checks). To attract more spectators, the board will be 9ft across, and the darts themselves 2ft long. Paunch advertising will be encouraged. The man in the hired velvet dinner jacket who says 'WonhondredandEYEtee' will be fired, and replaced by an ex-TV- AM weathergirl with enormous breasts.

Billiards. Considered the hardest nut to crack, as the game takes days to play and is hell to watch. But a number of minor rule changes are now being considered, and 'Billiard Gladiators' can be expected to make its debut before the autumn.