Players breathe life into Crucible

Guy Hodgson says snooker may never have been in better shape

It seems a long while since Barry Hearn, the manager of Steve Davis and Ronnie O'Sullivan, prefaced the start of the Embassy World Snooker Championship by mourning the lack of characters in the game. Everyone, he said, seems to have "undergone a charisma bypass".

Seventeen days later, snooker could sit back and feel it had not just answered that criticism, but set up the Championship for the next five years. Characters? The Crucible has not been the focus of so much of the nation's attention since the heady days of the 1980s.

The BBC has announced that initial audience research points to a 55 per cent increase in viewing figures for the first week, and that was before Ronnie O'Sullivan took the tourn- ament from the back pages of the tabloids to the front by assaulting a press officer. Even if the 20-year-old from Chigwell goes to church every day for the next year, he will still be the "bad boy of snooker" by the time the Championship rolls around next year. People not normally interested in the game will turn to their television sets.

Add Peter Ebdon, whose waistcoats would not look out of place on Gary Glitter, and the increasing profile of another prodigy, John Higgins, and the event appears more secure than it has done for some time. That is also true in financial terms because Imperial Tobacco has agreed to sponsor the tournament and keep it at The Crucible until the year 2000.

Small wonder, then, at the post-final dinner that John Spencer, the chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, described the tournament as the best ever.

Such was the excitement of encounters like O'Sullivan's matches against Ebdon and Higgins that the progress of Stephen Hendry to his fifth successive final went almost unnoticed. Except at the end, of course, when the stone face cracked as the Scot won his sixth title, beating Ebdon 18-12 in the final, to match the modern record held by Ray Reardon and Steve Davis.

Hendry did not play that well - his safety play and long pots were, in his description, "shocking" for most of the tournament - but at The Crucible he has such an air of invincibility he wins matches before he gets off the chair.

1996/97 SEASON: Provisional world rankings: 1 S Hendry; 2 J Higgins; 3 P Ebdon; 4 J Parrott; 5 N Bond; 6 A McManus; 7 K Doherty; 8 R O'Sullivan; 9 D Morgan; 10 S Davis; 11 D Harold; 12 J Wattana; 13 J White; 14 A Robidoux; 15 T Drago; 16 M Williams.

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