Snooker: Cruel quest consumes White's art: The World Championships start in Sheffield today. Guy Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
THE spectators were fed up with the formalities. They were straining to applaud and did not wait for the compere to finish. 'Here he is, the whirlwind of Lon . . .' the rest was drowned out by the noise. To be among an audience watching Jimmy White play snooker is to be a bystander at an act of worship.

The venue was Crawley but it could have been anywhere in Britain as White, an almost suicidally attacking player in his youth, was the people's champion even before Alex Higgins framed the phrase. A little boy, not yet three, sat in the audience transfixed by his hero, decked up in a Whiteish bow tie and waistcoat. 'He loves Jimmy,' his mum said unnecessarily.

Most snooker people do love him. Even those who have enough contact with him to have first-hand knowledge of his many faults are complimentary. 'You've got to like Jimmy,' is said so often you think it has been learned parrot fashion. He is a rogue, yes, but obviously likeable with it.

You suspect the only harm he has ever done is to himself. Even his headmaster, a man whose patience was tried to sainthood and beyond by White's truancy, came to an agreement with him. The boy went to his south London school in the morning and a blind eye was turned to his disappearing to play snooker in the afternoon.

When he was 13 he asked to borrow pounds 5 from his father, was given 30 shillings and came back later that night with more than pounds 1,000. Needless to say, the money did not last long and White was soon hustling again. If Alex Higgins had not captured his imagination, Arthur Daley would probably be his role model. And, like 'Arfur' he would get away with it.

'We receive hundreds of letters,' Steve Reynolds, White's managerial overseer, said. 'Mostly women, their ages anything from 30 to 80. He's good with the public and he's the most exciting player to watch in snooker, but the attraction goes beyond that.' One woman of 90 follows White round the country just in the hope he will have half an hour after his games to discuss snooker. He usually does.

'Women see a vulnerability in Jimmy,' Reynolds continued. 'They want to mother him.' At no time more urgently, you suspect, than 12 months ago when White suffered the type of defeat that leaves mental scars deep enough to make sportsmen wonder whether it is worth carrying on. Leading 14-8 in the World Championship final in Sheffield and on the brink of winning the title he craves, his ambitions suddenly caved in on him. Stephen Hendry won 10 frames in succession to snatch the title.

White could do nothing but squirm in his chair as his opponent played with demonic ruthlessless. White's chiselled features grew more pallid, his fidgeting with his cue and thinning hair more frantic, but he was powerless, impotent. His visits to the table had a desperate urgency, too short to halt his opponent's flow. For the most part, he had to endure watching an object of desire that he thought was his being stolen away. The hearts of a thousand would-be grandmothers were broken that May evening.

'The ultimate prize,' he said, reflecting on what had gone. 'After that match I didn't play for about four months and I haven't done that since I was about 10. I'd had enough. I'd done so well and that happened. It was frustrating even to play in exhibitions. I didn't enjoy them. I felt dreadful. I didn't want anything to do with snooker.

'I had the game won about three times but I had a lapse in concentration. I missed a couple of easy balls and he punished me. He got better and better and I got worse. It was the most devastating defeat of my career. I was sick, but I love the game. It's my career. I just had to knuckle down and get over it.'

White, now 30, returns to the scene of the defeat today, the Crucible, and then he will discover in his first-round match against Joe Swail if his assertion 'it's all history now' is correct. 'I won the first ranking tournament of the year when I came back,' he said, 'so that sort of cancelled out what had happened against Hendry.'

He knows it did not and neither did his win in the UK Championship later in the season, even though it was his first victory in the big two tournaments. He was English amateur champion at 16, the world amateur champion at 18, but the chance to be the youngest world champion slipped him by in the early Eighties. Now his age and the rising generations behind him are adding greater weight to Barry Hearn's words: 'The boy who would be king, but probably won't be.'

Later, White exposed his true feelings. 'I know when I go to Sheffield I'm going to feel it again. The disappointment will hit me. I'm just going to have to wait and see how I react. If I could play that match again I wouldn't have tried to rush the pace. My pace level went up with the excitement. I was playing very slowly for three sessions and in the fourth I played at 100 mph. Snooker's like golf, if you don't compose yourself you miss putts.'

At Crawley he was compsure itself, rattling past Peter Ebdon even though the match was being played on a Sunday afternoon, a time he said he found difficult. Afterwards, he spent more time than was required signing autographs. 'I don't know what it is with the public,' he said, 'but they seem to like me. It started with the way I play and has sort of grown.' One of the entourage in his dressing- room chipped in: 'It's his charisma, he's got more of it than Davis or Hendry will ever have.'

White smiled.' Overall, I enjoy mixing with people.' He would enjoy it more with the title 'world champion' appended to his name. 'I'm going to win it,' he said emphatically. 'Not just once, but three or four times.' Today he will begin to learn whether his words were more than mere bravado.

(Photograph omitted)