Snooker: Green baize, eyes glaze

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The Independent Online
FOR vitally important medical reasons, this column is being written a week before the beginning of the 579th Embassy World Snooker Championship, live from the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. Snooker-related catatonia is not a widely acknowledged condition, but it certainly affects me at about this time every year. Eyes glazed, mouth agape, nostrils flared, all brain activity put on hold - yes, Eddie Charlton's just played another safety shot.

In fact, I'm not sure Eddie's playing this year, having been brushed aside with all the other oldies by hordes of pasty-faced young hotshots with combination skin and dead, unseeing eyes. Snooker, as everyone seems to agree, is not what it was. Nowadays there are millions of ranking tournaments - the Walker's Crisps Classic, the Peppermint Aero UK Open, the Heinz Alphabetti Spaghetti International Masters - most of which are played in places like Greenland or Liberia in pathetic attempts to widen the sport's appeal. No one cares much.

In Britain, snooker has become like tennis - people are only interested in it for two weeks of the year. The World Championship remains pre-eminent, the game's showpiece. But for the rest of the time the sport seems to languish in an almost darts-like obscurity, with Dennis Taylor's silly specs a fond but distant memory.

Yet the risks of snooker-related catatonia remain. Only the other day I was watching a game on television, when suddenly, without the slightest warning, I woke up. It was a bit of a shock, I have to admit. I had been out for hours. Worst of all, while I'd been asleep, someone had managed to gain entry to my flat, and recarpet the whole of the inside of my mouth.

Well, you might say, sport has that effect on many people. But snooker- based catatonia is unique, in that it only attacks people who like snooker. Snookerphobes just sit there and complain and get itchy and eventually turn over to Celebrity Squares. But for snooker fans, prolonged television coverage has a profound effect on the central nervous system. The clack of the balls, the neutral tones of the referees, the unbelievably dreary tones of the players-turned-commentators, the embarrassed coughing of the audience (most of whom are desperately hoping their bosses won't spot them when the match is repeated in the evening's highlights), the tumultuous applause given to flashy but routine shots, the strange silence that greets genuinely good shots - and before you know it, it's up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire.

Perhaps such power could be used for the good of mankind. If a mere nine-framer on a cold February afternoon can knock me cold, imagine what you could do with a full best-of-37 World Championship final. Old tapes of Cliff Thorburn's matches could reduce the NHS's anaesthetics bill by millions. And insomniacs would be laughing. Why count sheep when you can count Steve Davis's perfectly executed safety shots back to baulk?

And yet I sense a dark side to this. Look at all those young players, with their terrible pallors and paranormal skin problems. The poor mites have the look of creatures who have sold their souls to the Devil - or, failing that, Barry Hearn. We mess with the unknown at our peril. No one should underestimate the unearthly power of the green baize. It is for this reason that I have booked a holiday abroad to encompass this year's tournament, and I advise you to do the same. Otherwise, if you wake up on 3 May to find that you have missed a fortnight of your life, don't say I didn't warn you.