Snooker: Higgins struggles hard to stay in touch: Guy Hodgson reports from Sheffield on a long shot for the world title

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The Independent Online
A MAN in the crowd could not contain himself any longer. As the compere, Alan Hughes, was introducing Alex Higgins, a high- pitched scream echoed round The Crucible. The Hurricane was back and so was the draught of disorder that comes with him.

Not just with his supporters, either. With Higgins, there is always an undercurrent, the fear he might lose the restraints most of us can take for granted. The Embassy World Snooker Championship welcomed back its 1972 and 1982 winner yesterday but it braced itself, too.

An unbridled talent at his best, he also has the genius for anarchy and the last time he was here, four years ago, he assaulted a press officer. That and other offences landed him with a one-year suspension from events run by the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association.

But there is no denying his appeal to the people. The auditorium was packed on his side of the artificial divide, even though the alternative attraction was another man who harked back to the age when television and snooker were in the first throes of their affair: Cliff Thorburn.

For the Canadian, there was warm applause; for Higgins, there was near pandemonium.

The crowd, a baying collection of unapologetic Higgins supporters, could hardly have been readier but the object of their standing ovation was not. His complexion has always had the grey rinse that suggests he is not a morning person and yesterday, against Ken Doherty, his first- round match starting at 10.30am looked several hours too early.

It was a nervy, tetchy Higgins who tried to recall the days when his eye and arm were so true that his shortcomings in technique could be forgotten. In 1982, he was carried to the championship on a wave of support; yesterday, at first, he found the interruptions from the spectators an intrusion.

'Don't. Please,' he urged when the umpteenth voice offered encouragement, and he needed everything in his favour. His visits to the table were feeble - an 18 here, occasional bursts of eight and nine there. Only sporadically did he show that the flame had not gone out entirely, most notably when he clawed back from 4-0 to 5-3, and again in the 12th frame, when he compiled a break of 83.

The temper was smouldering, too, and it burst alight in the evening session when he had an argument with the match official, John Williams, before succumbing, 10-6. Higgins asked him to move while he played a shot and when he refused, a heated exchange followed. 'Just play,' Williams said. 'Don't tell me how to referee.'

Controversy was stalking Higgins again, the difference being that it was not compensated for by his erstwhile, wonderful talent. Inevitably, he was urged on by the crowd in his confrontation with authority but it was a petty gesture rather than an out-and-out rebellion: as diluted as his play.

(Photograph omitted)