Pot comes to the boil

World Snooker Championship: Soap opera becomes real theatre as young pretenders line up to turn tables on the old masters Eamon Dunphy looks forward to an exciting battle in the heat of the Crucible
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The Independent Online
SINCE the World Professional Snooker Championship moved to the Crucible in Sheffield in 1977 and benefited from extensive coverage by the BBC, the event has established itself as one of the highlights of the sporting calendar. The 1995 tournament, which began on Friday, promises to be the most enthralling ever.

Although there is something special about watching it live in the arena, there to fully appreciate the game's aesthetic appeal and to be intrigued by the contrast between the brutality of the psychological battle being waged and the courteous demeanour of the combatants, snooker is well served by television.

Much of what is so compelling about this sport is captured by the magic eye: the precision required; the toll exacted as the result of a minor error of judge- ment, the slightest failure of nerve, a momentary lapse in concentration, that might in other sports pass unnoticed but here is cruelly exposed and punished. The sentence is a lonely spell in your chair, time for bitter reflection as your opponent turns the scoreboard tormentingly in his favour, and the camera watches.

Matches are won at the table, lost in your seat. The converse is also true. At the highest level, snooker is a game for strong minds and stout hearts; a game that rewards intelligence, imagination and the grace under pressure that Hemingway defined as courage.

Only the sports editors of our newspapers doubt that this is great sport, and their kindred spirits in television scheduling who frequently consign snooker coverage to the midnight hours, pleasing only insomniacs. The BBC is different, for the next two weeks at least, devoting to the World Championship a measure of the prime-time coverage it deserves. And in contrast with other televised sport, snooker's expert analysts contrive to be informed, rigorous, unacquainted with hyperbole or clich, providing what expert commentary should do, objectivity delivered in real English.

Snooker commentary as provided by John Spencer, a former world champion, John Virgo and Clive Everton is, when compared with the banalities of Trevor Brooking, Saint and Greavsie and others of their ilk too numerous to mention, an indispensable part of the pleasure derived from following this championship at the Crucible.

This weekend, the great players gathering in Sheffield belong to a generation inspired by televised snooker, inspired in particular by glorious images transmitted from the Crucible's unique atmosphere over the past two decades. Memories of Alex Higgins, Jimmy White, Steve Davis, Dennis Taylor, Cliff Thorburn, Kirk Stevens, Eddie Charlton and Ray Reardon have left an indelible mark in sports folklore. The epic contests late at night, outrageous misfortune, triumphant escape from seemingly inevitable defeat, men rising heroically to the occasion, others withering, fallible as a drunk on a working-men's club table, as the acid demands of this game breach the defences of even the most accomplished professional.

Of the latter, there is no more cruelly vivid example than the climax of the 1985 championship, when Davis missed a relatively simple black to allow Taylor to claim the title. Sport doesn't get to be any more dramatic or accessible than that. Significantly, 18.5 million people, BBC2's largest- ever audience, were watching at that moment.

For much of its televised life snooker has, like soap opera, appealed by virtue of its characters, with whose strengths, weaknesses and eccentricities we identify, in whose fate we imagine we have a stake. Thus Davis was at once respected and despised for his Olympian imperturbability. Was he always going to be inhumanly, indecently immune to folly and error? For several years in the Eighties as he collected six world titles, it appeared that he was indeed a superior being, an affront to com- mon humanity. That was great fiction while it lasted.

Would drink and demons destroy Alex Higgins? Could he win while being so palpably prey to human folly? What joy when in 1982 our enfant terrible prevailed, a victory for all life's troubled children.

When would White's genius be justly rewarded? Would the alluring wildness of Jimmy's spirit, his beautiful defiance of the laws of life and snooker always ultimately perish on the sterile rock of Davis's implacable reason? Jimmy . . . the very mention of his name resonates for snooker lovers, his glorious failures a desperate metaphor for ours, his lot the lot of any who dared to defy The System which Davis came to personify.

On reflection, one should acknowledge the magnificent service Davis rendered his sport. During the Eighties, Britain's supreme professional sportsman amassed over 60 major titles (the score is at present 70), setting extraordinary standards of excellence in the process.

If Bill Werbeniuk, a large, jolly, lager-swilling Canadian, could accurately be compared to a character from Coronation Street, Davis belonged to that select group of great British sportsmen; men such as Fred Perry, Stirling Moss, Sir Stanley Matthews, Sir Bobby Charlton, performers of rare accomplishment by whose incredible deeds a sport is known and celebrated by the world at large. Men who were, it should also be recorded, intelligent, civil and decent, epitomising the best in their nation's character, men who were not Eric Cantona or Paul Gascoigne.

Watching Davis set the standard in the Eighties, a young lad in Edinburgh learnt precisely what he would have to do to realise his dreams. Although it seemed inconceivable that anybody would match the incomparable Davis, Stephen Hendry has done that and more. Hendry, like the other exciting contenders gathering in Sheffield this weekend, is a product not of the seedy clubs that spawned Higgins, White, Willie Thorne and the rest of yesterday's heroes, but a man whose love of snooker was nurtured by the captivating Crucible images of the past two decades with which we are all familiar.

While grannies clutched their armchairs watching Davis, Higgins and White, small boys asked their dads for 8 x 4s: junior snooker tables that would fit into the humblest back room. Hendry is now The Man, dominating the Nineties as Davis did the Eighties, four times world champion, bidding this year to become the first player to win four consecutive titles at the Crucible.

Mere statistics cannot convey Hendry's majestic pre-eminence, his sense of the great occasion, his ability to reach, as all great champions can, new levels of concentration and composure under pressure. Davis was magnificent. Hendry at his best is awesome.

Yet the champion is by no means a "good thing" this year. Two teenagers, Ronnie O'Sullivan and John Higgins, have amply demonstrated that they possess in abundance the ability to command a place alongside Davis and Hendry in some future snooker Hall of Fame. The Irishman Ken Doherty is also made of the right stuff, although Mark Davis yesterday ensured that this will not be his year.

Peter Ebdon, at 24 another child of snooker's television age, is another real contender. Ebdon has twice come from behind to beat Hendry in recent months. He proclaims himself "as good as" The Man, an assertion which may well be tested in the coming days.

O'Sullivan, Higgins, Doherty, Ebdon - all have attained the standard set by Davis, or at least can reasonably claim to have done so. Davis, Hendry and White will, of course, be there, as will the former champion John Parrott, the only player other than Hendry to win at Sheffield in this decade.

If a sport should be known by its champions, snooker can point to Davis and Hendry. Now the contenders command as much respect as those they seek to succeed. They are ready and worthy. Great soap has become great sport. Character still prevails.

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