Green baize takes on the green-fingered

Brian Viner bravely enters the snooker vs gardening row, and explains to the mystified why he is mesmerised

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The Independent Online

Every year, on the first May bank holiday weekend, as snooker's world championship approaches its climax, the nation divides into those who are mystified by the game, or the appeal of it, and those who are mesmerised. And there is usually some kind of confrontation between the two camps, which this year has revolved around Gardeners' World, pulled from its usual BBC2 slot on Friday evening to accommodate the semi-final action from the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.

A highly entertaining ding-dong ensued, between some blunt-speaking followers of snooker, the kind of people who call a spade a spade, and, in the opposing corner, the kind of people who call a spade vital for cultivating the soil.

The green-finger brigade is ably led by Monty Don, the posh but rugged presenter of Gardeners' World, who has not shied from biting the hand that feeds him, lambasting the BBC for "a total lack of interest" in the programme and its audience, and for favouring the snooker because it is cheap.

"Can't see football being randomly dropped," he tweeted, huffily and perhaps a tad disingenuously, but also bravely. Britain's gardeners, already bedevilled by a series of wet summers and an unusually long winter, have been left in no doubt that here is a man who will stride with them, in his wellies, to the barricades. But in the green baize brigade, judging by the many online responses to the brouhaha, the gardeners may have met their match. The battle between cues and pitchforks is about even, and the only truly measured contribution has come from someone called John, in Leek, Staffordshire.

"How about a celebrity gardening-snooker challenge match?" he ventured, on one newspaper's message board. "Both subjects would benefit from an injection of new ideas. The snooker table could have small water features and bonsai trees, and the players could wear each other's clothes. Well, this is the only way to get me to watch snooker or gardening."

On the flip side of the coin, there are doubtless millions who enjoy both kinds of potting, especially among the over-65s. It is many years since I realised that snooker and the aged were almost perfect bedfellows, and for that I have my late great-uncle Lew to thank.

As a child I sometimes used to sit with him watching Pot Black of blessed memory, and for the entire frame, just before the referee announced the score, Uncle Lew would get there first. So if, in a match between John Spencer and Graham Miles, Spencer potted a red, Uncle Lew would say "one". A second later, the referee said "one". Then Spencer might bag a black. "Eight," said Uncle Lew. "Eight," said the referee. And on and on it went, which at the time used to drive me mad, but later, more generously, I realised that for the elderly, televised snooker offered reassuring certainties in an increasingly bewildering world. Indeed, my wife's late grandmother was an even bigger fan than Uncle Lew. At pushing 100, Grandma Nellie would sit in her armchair riveted by the action from the Crucible, and expounding in detail on the differences in technique between Steve Davis and John Parrott.

It was Pot Black that started all that; a Friday night half-hour programme with a relatively small but devoted audience, rather like Gardeners' World now. It began in 1969 when most of us still watched the box in monochrome, and yet against all the odds televised snooker prospered, even if commentator Ted Lowe unwittingly summed up the inherent problem with his famous clanger that "for those of you watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green".

With the benefit of colour TV, and at least one charismatic, enigmatic player per generation, from Alex "Hurricane" Higgins to Jimmy "Whirlwind" White to Ronnie "The Rocket" O'Sullivan, snooker as a televised sport has made it safely into the second decade of the 21st century, although there have certainly been times when its popularity dropped sharply from the heights of the mid-1980s, and its days seemed to be numbered.

Its saviour is Barry Hearn, the irrepressible entrepreneur, brought up on a council estate in Dagenham, who has also revitalised darts. But Hearn on his own is not enough. Snooker needs colour as much as it ever did, and while it helps that its leading players have names such as Judd and Marco where once they were Johns and Grahams, what it needs above all is the man commonly believed to be the most outrageously talented player of all time.

Just as modern golf fans are blessed to live in the age of Tiger Woods, and tennis fans in the era of Roger Federer, so are snooker fans lucky to feast their eyes on O'Sullivan, the ambidextrous wizard whose many personal demons only add to his appeal.

However, those demons have also conspired to drain The Rocket of fuel. He does not appear to cherish the game that made him famous, withdrew altogether for most of this season, and returned to the Crucible only, he says, because he needed money to pay his children's school fees, which were two years in arrears. Not for the first time, he has threatened to quit the stage permanently once this world championship, during much of which he has glittered like rarely before, is over.

The Rocket is 37 now, so whether he refuels or not, snooker must start to look elsewhere for its personality, and in young Judd Trump, the man O'Sullivan played in an absorbing semi-final, it might just have the answer. Nicknamed the "Juddernaut", the 23-year-old Bristolian is a brilliant potter, and almost as entertaining at the table as O'Sullivan. But more promising for snooker than any of that, he played in a tournament earlier this year wearing a pair of spiked loafers, which turned out to be Christian Louboutin "Rollerboy Spikes" costing £845. That is just the kind of fashionable, sexy, spendthrift image the game requires.

Ironically, since briefly becoming the world's top-ranked player, Trump has been outspoken about the "pitiful" amount snooker players are paid. "It's embarrassing," he said. "You're not earning anything. Look at the average earnings of the top 32 players. If you're in the top 32, you earn about £30,000. You've got to take into account that there's five tournaments in China. You're spending £20,000 a year just on flights. Then you've got hotels, petrol, accommodation. People inside the top 48 are literally struggling to make a living. They're probably on less than minimum wage."

Whether The Juddernaut was sporting his £845 shoes when he issued this plaintive cri de coeur, who knows? He can't deny that snooker has filled the pockets of many top players, though it's also true, in several unhappy cases, that those pockets have been quickly emptied. One problem is gambling, always a fixture in snooker halls. One former top-16 player, Silvino Francisco, ended up working in a fish-and-chip shop after gambling drove him to bankruptcy. Another, Mark King, has admitted that he considered planning a robbery to resolve his £100,000 gambling debts.

Ten years ago, King also had to deal with the trauma of his mother being jailed for life, for killing her cousin. O'Sullivan's mother has done time, too, for tax evasion, and his father served 18 years for murder. Francisco himself was jailed for three years for smuggling cannabis. It's no great surprise that snooker sometimes struggles to overcome its seedy image, but that needn't worry us, those of us in the mesmerised rather than mystified camp, as we settle down today to watch the opening frames of the world championship final, while only briefly pondering whether a pair of Christian Louboutin Rollerboy Spikes might be rather useful for aerating the lawn.

'Live Snooker: The World Championship' is on BBC2 tonight and tomorrow night, from 7pm