The recent BDO and PDA darts championships were undeniably glorious. Ronnie O’Sullivan is arguing that snooker needs to learn from darts by introducing shot clocks and power play to speed things up. Perhaps another way of boosting snooker’s status would be to bring in an element of hooliganism. John Wells was delighted when a Jamaican crowd started ‘lobbing bottles of Auntie Emily’s Home Town Goulash at the soberly clad riot police’ at a cricket match in 1968.
In carrying sporting violence into Test cricket they have triumphantly invaded yet another cherished sanctum of peace and fuddy-duddy ritualised conflict…Violence is here to stay. As I stood and roared myself hoarse at the breathtaking climax to last year’s FA Cup Final, when referee Bert Entwhistle was dismembered and eaten by the crowd within seconds of appearing on the field, as I…listened to that exhilarating exchange of small-arms fire between the rival supporters’ clubs, my heart went out to the deprived spectators of old-fashioned, stuffy sporting events, still groaning in the shackles of petty restrictions and head-in-the-sand reactionary rules. But have no fear. Their day will come. Already heroic innovators like the Wild West Indians of Sabina Park are breaking new ground and hammering away at the shape of things to come.
I give you eighty-four year old Sam Elphinstone, thrice holder of the Surbiton Darby and Joan Club Snooker Truss and Badge. After an astonishing thirteen-minute break in the final, during which packed oldies in the benches held their wheezy breath as ball rolled across the emerald baize to click against ball and to fall with a thud into the pocket. Sam Elphinstone went for an apparently immaculate black. The ball nudged the cushion, teetered on the brink, and stayed there. Hardly had the pent-up sigh of disappointment begun to escape from a thousand withered lips than it was interrupted by the throaty ripping of dusty baize. Sam Elphinstone was taking the law into his own hands. And a long triangular piece of the cloth with it.
Within seconds the man they call Mad Sam Elphinstone had shivered his cue into a thousand fragments over the polished dome of his opponent, the Rev Sid Crocker, MA. The pensioners went wild. It was then that the crutches began to fly. Mrs. Althea Pontifex, ninety-two, the first woman snooker player on that historic occasion to throw a heavy pink through a stained-glass window at the end of the Memorial Hall depicting Temperance feeding at the breast of Charity, told me: ‘Suddenly it was all happening. I do not know what came over me.’ I can tell her. It was a bath-chair belonging to one-hundred-and-eight year old amateur accordionist Ringo Delarue, and wielded on that particular evening by Mr Hugo ‘Fruity’ Tremayne, ninety-four. It was a great fight. Snooker will never be the same again. Nor will Mrs Pontifex. That is what sport is all about.
Admittedly, snooker has yet to gain a reputation for violence but actually it’s exhilarating enough without missiles and rioting. For some, like Simon Barnes writing in 2001, a hushed and dignified snooker hall is the best place to get a glimpse of frustrated, fragile genius.
Alex Higgins began the tradition, Jimmy White continued it, for a long time, Ronnie O’Sullivan has been the third, and on Monday he at last became world champion. There was a gorgeous period in the final when he played snooker of sumptuous perfection, the coloured balls dancing at his direction and the cue ball on a string.
Then it went wrong. The lesson you learn from periods of perfection is that you are never more vulnerable than when the moment of perfection has passed and you haven’t quite realised it. O’Sullivan played some excruciating misses before his opponent finally slipped up, and he was able to squeak home.
This trio of geniuses stands quite separate from the normal run of players. Each is capable of playing his game in a fashion that is beyond the reach of the rest, but all are acknowledged neurotics, having problems with drink, drugs, depression, wives, life.
It is as if this high level of neurosis were a constituent part of genius with the little clacking balls, that genius in this strange sport is only given at the price of chaos in life.
Oddly, the geniuses didn’t seem to win very often, which, Barnes thought, made it more romantic to watch them at work.
The great champions win because of qualities like personal control, tactical nous, knowledge of their opponent. They are chessmasters. These geniuses send their knight into single combat with the queen and rook combined. They are fish out of water, talents too high for the job: Marcel Proust as a football correspondent, Michelangelo as an interior decorator, Mozart writing advertising jingles. A champion is always prepared to go slumming for his victory; these are stuck for ever in their ghetto of perfection.
If you’re not already keen, now is a good time to get into snooker; the Masters is only just getting going. The highlight so far has been Ali Carter’s 6-1 victory over Barry Hawkins last night; Carter has had testicular and lung cancer and got the all-clear less than a month ago. He’s playing again on Thursday night, so between now and then it’s worth practising some shots yourself, as Geoffrey Wheatcroft has advised.
A knowledge of how the ball bounces is almost essential if one is to enjoy watching a sport…With snooker, those of us who are neither natural athletes nor natural ball-players can not only acquire some modest proficiency; you quickly learn, in a way which is not true of other sports, that almost all things are possible — even if you can’t do them yourself.
The casual snookerite is closer to knowing what a miraculous stroke by Eddie Charlton feels like than the casual footballer is to knowing what it feels like for Dalglish (or Tony Ward) to kick a goal. The snooker-watcher understands how the player is trying to plan a break; he can guess with some accuracy how the next shot will be played; and he knows — this is peculiarly satisfying— which shots merely look impressive (but are in fact quite easy), and which really are hard, sometimes breathtaking.
Once you’re handy with a cue, even a game of pool in a pub can take on heroic proportions, or at least it did for Jeffrey Bernard in 1979.
It’s sad that in the rich and Royal County of Berkshire I haven’t been able to find anyone with a full-size table. I watch the likes of Higgins and then morosely play the odd game of pool in the pub to kill the conversation. Usually, we make it what we call ‘interesting’ by playing for a pound a game. It isn’t particularly interesting, but last week, I had the game that was the exception. I was challenged by an Irish racing man who is what’s called a character. He is known as a character since he was once attacked by three Hell’s Angels outside a pub in Dublin. He knocked two of them out, picked up a motorbike and threw it at the other, and then drove over all three of them in his car. His heart and biceps are in the right places and he challenged me to a game for £100. Just as I was rejecting his offer on purely financial grounds, a racehorse trainer came to my rescue and said he’d put up £50 of it. That seemed fractionally less like madness and so we began to play. I must say I played in unusual silence and gave a very amateurish sigh of relief when I finally did manage to pot the black. I don’t think I could have managed it if he hadn’t been a little drunk but, like the Duke of Wellington, I honestly don’t think I could have done it if I hadn’t been there.