Pool makes big splash

Keith Elliott says the US may have won nine-ball pool's Mosconi Cup, but commentator Syd Waddell stole the show
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The Independent Online
It cannot be long before Barry Hearn patents his unique style of sports promotion. After all, it has the inestimable benefits of being cheap, TV-friendly and applicable to every sport.

Here's the basic formula. Take loud rock music, a pack of dry ice and a Close Encounters-style unveiling of participants. Mix in appropriate accessories and a partisan audience who would lose an ear for a glimpse of themselves on television. Hey presto! You've got prime time on Sky.

It's proved a winner for boxing, snooker, fishing and darts. Over the past four days it has worked to perfection in the Mosconi Cup ("Nine-ball pool's version of the Ryder Cup", the press release claims), which was won 15-13 by the United States last night.

In keeping with a game born in the US and reinforced by Bruce Springsteen (to hammer it home), the arena at Dagenham's Goresbrook Leisure Centre was decorated with plastic Statues of Liberty, flashing lights, New York skylines, fake American advertising signs and the pretend front ends of 1958 Cadillacs, as if a Harlem Ramraider had crashed the proceedings.

The players wore stars and stripes or glowstar waistcoats so even the dimmest viewer knew what side they were watching. Only the singing waterfall was missing.

Well, not quite the only thing. The atmosphere was undeniably heated. On several occasions, referees warned the excited crowd. "We would not want the fair name of Dagenham smudged by ungentlemanly behaviour," shouted the inimitable Syd Waddell. Live nine-ball is all very well but what the audience missed was Waddell himself.

He is master of the painful pun, stretched simile and mauled metaphor. If Waddell was a parent and his offspring the English language, he would be arrested for word abuse.

For television, nine-ball needs spicing up because it is almost too simple. Pot the balls in numerical order, unless you use canons. Whoever pots the nine-ball wins (and that can happen from the break). Even a full game rarely lasts more than a couple of minutes, which makes it ideal for people with low attention spans and advertising-led TV. Wham bam thank you ma'am - and you'll miss it unless Waddell's on air.

"These Americans want it as much as they wanted the tea chest in Boston," shouts Waddell, speaking about "the night the Mosconi Cup runneth over". Here are more of his gems.

"He took the cue away like Sir John Barbirolli"; "This lad can pot them from anywhere, even standing on a hammock"; "As the Borgias know, fine cuts can hurt"; "Like laying a trap in the path of a blind rabbit"; "More angles than Euclid could think up in a year"; "It couldn't be more exciting if Elvis walked in and asked for a bag of chips." And, best of all: "If I could play like that, I wouldn't be sitting here mauling the English language."

He describes himself as "a working-class lad, one of the fans". But don't be fooled by his cruelty to language. He came close to an athletics blue at Cambridge and worked on a PhD at Durham. He had been nominated for Royal Television Society awards as a director, for a documentary about death, and as a writer for a children's drama series. Loud he may be, thick he is not.

"I have a photographic memory," Waddell admits. "I have total recall if I read something three times. I see myself shouting on top of a rock, going `Come and look at this'." But who wants just to watch when they can listen to him?

Waddell is playing a key role in nine-ball's growth. And the sport is exploding, claims Doug Gordon, chairman of the UK American Pool Association. "In the last three months, 40 clubs have opened in this country," he said.

"It will be part of the 2004 Olympics and it could be in the Commonwealth Games before that." His association has 64 professionals, and 400 players competed for the one UK place in the seven-man European team for the Mosconi Cup.

Mindful of TV appeal, two of the others on Hearn's roster were snooker players Ronnie O'Sullivan and Steve Davis. Gordon is convinced Davis would be one of the best nine-ball players ever (perhaps even on a par with the legendary Willy Mosconi, after whom the event is named) if he switched to an American cue.

Or three cues. Each player carries a break cue to whack the starting diamond of balls at up to 30mph. Jump shots are legal so you need a special cue for that. And, of course, one for shot-making.

The rest of the European team comprised two Germans, including reigning world champion Ralf Souquet and the 1995 champion Oliver Ortmann, a Finn and a Frenchman. "The UK was well behind the rest of Europe but it's rapidly catching up," Gordon says. Europe has also caught up with the US.

The American captain C J Wiley, director of operations for the Professional Cuesports Association and the man whose $88,500 is the largest single win in the sport, says: "I think England is right for this game. There are a lot of similarities with snooker."

Wiley, who was the best player in Green City, Missouri (pop: 600) when he was only 11, reckons the Mosconi Cup shows the best of nine-ball. "At the top level, there is a lot of technique, a sharp eye - and nerves of steel."

There was also a time limit that proved crucial. Because of TV demands, the contest had to finish at 6pm, though two matches have still to be played. Losing 12-9 overnight, the 15-13 final result was a great recovery by the Americans. It moved Waddell to hyperbole. "Like the great Jesse Owens coming back in the 100 metres," he shouted. Nine-ball couldn't have asked for more.