Snooker: Sethi settles for local heroism

Billiards graced the green baize in Liverpool this week but few wanted to watch the British Open. By Guy Hodgson
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The Independent Online
YOU DID not need to know that billiards is the poor relation of snooker, the venue told you. A converted Victorian terrace guarded by a large, loud and lethal-looking Alsatian was pleasant enough but no one would put it on a par with The Crucible. Come to think about it, the practice area in Sheffield is bigger never mind the arena.

The crowd, if you could call it that, told a similar tale. Forty souls had wandered in off Liverpool's busy Derby Lane to watch Chris Shutt beat Rex Williams 1319-210 in the semi-finals whereas 20 times as many at least would have been attracted if the Strachan British Open swapped the name billiards for snooker. Not to mention the couple of million glued to the green baize on the television.

Pay-per-view did not come into what was on show at the Liverpool Billiards and Snooker Club because apart from a local Merseyside cable station which turned up for a news report yesterday, television was not interested. Even the spectators were allowed in free. The sport has not died but you do have to shake it ever so often to make sure it has merely dozed off.

In the 1930s Walter Lindrum, the greatest billiards player ever, was as famous as Don Bradman in his native Australia and banner headlines would celebrate his every move. "Lindrum meets the Queen" was one which was useful because some were too bedazzled by his presence to be sure of the identity of the woman he was pictured with. If the current world champion, Geet Sethi, met the monarch she would assume he was an Indian diplomat while the great British public would be wholly non-plussed.

It is the supreme irony that Lindrum - "We're not fit to even lick his boots," Michael Ferreira, a four times would champion, said yesterday - was also the architect of the game's decline, simply because he was so good. The billiards he played surpassed Joe Davis, never mind what Joe Public could aspire to, and the world largely turned its back on a sport to which they found hard to relate.

Hence the pounds 200,000-plus first prize the snooker world champion will pick up in Sheffield in May compared with the pounds 10,000 Sethi collected in Ahmedabad last September and the pounds 6,500 at stake for the winner in Liverpool last night. Considering that billiards is the senior partner, something has gone drastically wrong somewhere.

"It's the way things are, so there's no point fretting about it," said Sethi, who lost in the third round at Liverpool. "The sports are similar yet totally different, so it is like comparing what billiards players get to what footballers or golfers earn. Of course we'd like more money in the game but I don't think it has been marketed that well in this country."

Sethi is from a nation where the indifference displayed towards a billiards tournament this week would not be comprehensible. Television audiences are around 100 million for tournaments in India where he is a household name and a frequent target for autograph hunters.

Indeed, nothing illustrates the chasm between snooker and billiards more in this country than the fact that he and Ferreira supplement their winnings by slipping in and out of The Crucible in April and May to report on snooker's world championship for the Hindu and the Times of India, respectively. Funnily enough, John Higgins and Stephen Hendry were not in Liverpool yesterday knocking out reports for the Times and Christian Weekly.

If they had been they would have focused on Shutt, who three days ago set the tournament's highest break of 827 - the second best ever under current rules. At 21 he represents the future of the sport just as the 65-year-old Williams, the world champion for 14 years in the 1960s and '70s and the last player to play both cue sports at the highest level, is a throwback to billiards' great days.

To put that 827 break in perspective Shutt, from Stockton-on-Tees, required 53 minutes to compile it and potted more than 300 balls. A snooker maximum 147 took Ronnie O'Sullivan a little over five minutes to compile at The Crucible two years ago and he had to pocket 36 balls. Works of art require patience as well as skill but while the finished product might be inspiring, watching it being created rarely is.

Which is billiards' problem. It is a more skilled sport than its rich, flash kid brother but not as watchable and although that ought to suggest billiards players could fit in a quick frame of snooker whenever they need a quick pound or two, the high levels of competition means the opposite is true. Sethi, 37, is in the Guinness Book of Records as the first amateur to make a 147 in competition, yet he estimates he would have been a top 64 player at best if he had stuck with the more lucrative game.

"The pressure element makes a difference," said Sethi, pinpointing the reason why. "You are facing pressure all the time in snooker whereas in billiards, in a four-hour game, for the first three hours you play free and easy because you always have time.

"The cue action required is different, too. In snooker you hit the ball hard, in billiards there is more delicacy, spin and side to manoeuvre the balls to continue the break. The knowledge required to play billiards at the highest level is greater."

Yesterday it was youth rather than wisdom that prevailed as Shutt built an early advantage with a break of 350 on his seventh visit and then was uncatchable. A win by 1,100 points is a massacre and given Williams' stature as chairman of the governing body for snooker and billiards, the WPBSA, would have guaranteed headlines if he had done it in the 22 rather than the three-ball game.

Instead the feat went almost un-noticed. Still, the Alsatian seemed impressed.

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