Hot shots on the table and pot shots on ice

Sport on TV
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The Independent Online
YOU don't necessarily expect to be surprised by snooker. In few other sports is the sense that you've seen it all before quite so overpowering. This is not intended as a slight to the game, whose pleasures depend on a sustained background of low-key activity, of routine angles and known physical odds, out of which dramas slowly rise. Even so, after a long week of frame-by-frame coverage on BBC 2, as Jimmy White broke in the twelfth frame of his semi-final against Stephen Hendry on Thursday, the question in most viewers' minds was probably not "will this be the frame in which I see history made?" but, more likely, "will this be the frame in which I finally nod off?"

There wasn't even anything promising about the earliest stages. Hendry was, John Spencer informed us from beside the table, "hampered by the pink" at 32. But then he shaped up to split the pack. "He'll be forcing this in," Spencer said, "spreading the reds ..." And with that, Hendry was away and nodding off was not an option.

What followed was, obviously, a shining testament to Hendry's brilliance and his virtually absurd cool at the table. But for those watching at home, it was also a testament to John Spencer's ability to read the game, to sense a storm brewing way before the gale forecast. When Hendry moved his score to 40, Spencer could already see the big finish looming. He stopped referring to "Stephen" and began referring to "Stephen Hendry", a sure sign that something important was up. "I'm certain now we'll not see Stephen Hendry take any other colour than the black," he whispered. Hendry eased his way to 63.

Clive Everton, too, could sense something extraordinary in the air. He now ominously produced the statistics: only two players had managed a maximum break in World Championship history. Maybe, now, a third. If Everton had been Murray Walker, this would have been the cue for one of the table- legs to fall off or for Hendry to miscue horribly, sink his cue-tip into the table and scoop a square metre of baize right off the surface. But it didn't happen. Instead, Hendry headed confidently into the 70s and suddenly we were looking at the very real possibility that each of the points displayed beside Hendry's name at the foot of our screens was going to be worth £1,000 by the time he had finished.

It was right here, with the atmosphere tautening almost by the second, that the producer thought we might enjoy a shot of two people in the audience dressed as pantomime Arabs. They were in swathes of robing and wearing false moustaches. It was hard to know what these images were intended to bring to the gathering suspense, but they failed to distract Spencer or Everton, who let the Arabs pass unremarked upon. Still, it was interesting to reflect that whenever this piece of sporting history is re-run, people will be treated at an oblique moment to the sight of two unexplained men wrapped in towels.

Virtually the only other times the cameras dared stray from the table, it was to check up on Jimmy White, whose services during this frame were made to look graphically redundant. Most often he was seen nervously checking his shoulders for fluff, thoughtfully stroking his cheeks with the backs of his fingers. White was, Spencer felt safe in assuring us, wishing Hendry the best all the way, but he couldn't help but look something like a jilted bride.

At the end, though, with 147 on the board, White was out of his seat to congratulate his opponent. Inaudible above the shouting crowd, White seemed to be saying, "Fantastic pot!" but it's just possible he said, "Fancy a pot?" because the two of them disappeared rapidly behind the curtains. Hendry, presumably, will have needed a bit of a sit-down, while White will have been wanting to shake off the pins and needles in his buttocks. Both of them deserved a break, as it were. Even re-watching the sequence on video, it made your palms sweat.

Fair Play (Thursday) a new series of sports documentaries on Channel 4, might be worth seeing through to the final ball as well. In the opening titles, Greg Dyke, our bullish presenter, forcefully closes the door on a metal sports locker - an image intended to convey that his investigations will brook no nonsense in their pursuit of the unwashed jock-strap of sporting corruption. Last week, peeled off the shower-room floor, were the judges of ice-dancing, alleged to favour their own national representatives and even to make their minds up before competition starts. This, evidently, is the way it goes in what Dyke referred to as "the hothouse world of international ice-skating."

In one of several grippingly confrontational moments, Dyke pointed out to Mary Parry, a British judge - alone in awarding Torvill and Dean a perfect six for their hotly disputed Olympic routine - that at least one of the pair's moves had transgressed the rules. She claimed it happened right at the end of their dance, "and things which happen at the end of the programme, I just discard". A peculiar approach to judgement this, though it could work well if adopted by the police in the regulation of traffic offences: "We'll overlook the fact you were doing 85 mph, sir, given that you were nearly home at the time."