Snooker: Invasion of the teeny-potters: Guy Hodgson charts the irresistible rise of snooker's young generation and the pressure imposed on the game's not so old senior servants

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IN 1981, the Scottish Daily Record had the prescience to feature a boy of 12. He was Stephen Hendry and he made it to the back page because he had completed his first century break on a full-size snooker table. Eleven years on and there are dozens of pre-teenage boys and girls hitting hundreds every week. Sports change, but few are racing helter-skelter towards a new age quicker than snooker.

Hendry, indisputably the finest player in the world, is already reflecting on the next generation, the children of the computer-games age for whom snooker is a passport away from poverty; a sanitised passage less barbaric and brutal than the traditional escape route of boxing. At 23 Hendry's supremacy is not a gift to enjoy for a decade like it was for Steve Davis and Ray Reardon before him, but rather a temporary blessing that will be snatched away sooner rather than later.

The all but closed shop of the past that preserved players in the world's top 16 beyond their time has been prised apart by the game's going open last year. Since then the under-20s have poured in. Today children embrace the idea that they can be world champion almost as soon as they stop believing in Father Christmas.

At The Hexagon in Reading this week John Higgins became the youngest player to figure in the last 16 in a world-ranking tournament. At 17 it was a hugely meritorious achievement, but he is part of a phenomenon rather than one in his own right. Most players who reached the televised stages of the Rothmans Grand Prix had barely brushed past 20; the new faces of a few years back are becoming old hat before they have the chance to develop worry lines.

Behind Higgins, chronologically but not superlatively, is Ronnie O'Sullivan, a talent so refined at 16 that bookmakers have imposed odds of 20-1 against him winning the world championship before 1997. In the three-month qualifying stages at Blackpool this summer he won 74 out of 76 matches to reach the final stages of all but two of this year's ranking events, an achievement that is staggering in terms of stamina as well as consistency. He already holds the record for century breaks by a first-year professional and has overtaken Hendry's record of consecutive victories with 38.

He is in the vanguard of the youth movement. 'I felt like the underdog,' Gary Wilkinson, the eighth-ranked player in the world, said before meeting O'Sullivan at Reading. On that occasion Wilkinson held back the teenage tide; in his next match he was John Higgins's victim.

The saying goes, 'Old snooker players never die, they simply lose their balls', and the evidence revealing why can be accumulated at any snooker hall. The tables that were once populated by the middle-aged when the game was the province of working men's and political clubs now have the under- aged framing their futures in establishments that open their doors to anyone. At one time you had to be over 18 and male to play regularly; now if you are good enough then so is your money.

The Ilford Snooker Centre exemplifies the breed. Established in 1982 in the former offices of the London Electricity Board, it was born amid the explosion of interest created by television. It has played host to a number of burgeoning careers, including O'Sullivan's, and 15 professionals are based there. O'Sullivan first stood on a milk crate to play on the tables and children as young as nine are members at Ilford, beginning the hopeful ascent to the world's top 16.

'It's a physical game,' Ron Shore, the owner of the Ilford club, said. 'And youngsters are fitter, stronger, have better eyesight and are more dedicated. When you get to 30 it's difficult to maintain the enthusiasm for practice. To stay at the top you need to spend the hours on the table. Youngsters will do it. When you get older, other things become more important. Families, other commitments.'

Dennis Taylor, the world champion in 1985, admits he finds lengthy sessions on the practice table a torture. Terry Griffiths believes he lost the 1988 world championship final against Steve Davis partly through exhaustion. 'I don't think I've ever felt as tired in my life as I did against Steve,' he said. 'People don't realise how stressful it is to play 17 days at The Crucible. It's very hard physically. I know we older players have the advantage in experience but it helps to be young and strong.'

The money, too, is getting higher as the average gets lower. O'Sullivan accepts he could not have turned professional so soon but for the pounds 5m-plus on offer on the circuit. Higgins won pounds 5,500 for reaching the fourth round at Reading, while Griffiths was an apprentice blacksmith, postman and insurance salesman before he joined the paid ranks at 30.

'The incentive is there,' Shore continued, 'and so is the knowledge. In the past young players could pot but they didn't have the safety game. Now they've been watching Steve Davis on the television for 10 years so they've got a good grasp of the tactical side of the game. You can't just be a good potter. Jimmy White learnt that. He's much more a percentage player than he used to be.'

White and Davis, veterans in a rapidly younger world, are potential early victims of the generation gap. The year Hendry made his first century break, the average age of players in the second round of the world championships was 37. Next April it will be at least 10 years younger. The days when youth was not an essential job specification are going.

(Photograph omitted)