Many people who know me are surprised to discover that I am a big fan of snooker. I started watching Pot Black as a child, and the course of my life might have been quite different had I spent more time revising for my A Levels and less watching the 1983 World Championship. Back in those days my favourite player was the exciting young Steve Davis. I'm not sure when (or how, really) he acquired a reputation for being boring; when he first arrived on the scene he was a breath of fresh air, the first of a new generation, and brought a combination of potting and tactical skills that possibly hadn't previously been seen in one player.
Given that I have so little time for most sport, what is it that makes snooker different? It took me a while to work it out, but I think the answer is very simple. With most games, as a spectator, you can only appreciate the action in retrospect. As soon as it happens, it's over. Snooker however gives the audience the delights of anticipation, thinking alongside the player in a way that just isn't possible with faster moving sports, nor in games like golf where you can't see an overview of the field of play.
Over the twelve or so years I didn't have a TV, my snooker viewing went into abeyance, so now I'm hooked again I really notice the cahnges that have taken place. None of them really seem to be for the better - although I suppose that overall one should be pleased that it has changed relatively recently.
The first is the players, who seem, to a far greater extent than previously, to be a series of unprepossessing clones. Sometimes it's difficult to take an interest in the outcome of a match because both players are as bland as each other. It doesn't help that they are also nearly all so young. I have transferred my allegiance to Ronnie O'Sullivan, one of the few of today's players who was on the scene when I last watched, because both his age and his character make him stand out - and his game is a joy to watchmof course.
Secondly, sponsorship. Snooker has always been heavily sponsored - Benson and Hedges, Embassy - but 'waistcoat' sponsorship is a new one on me. The shocking thing is how tacky it is - crude badges clumsily attached like a child's 25 metre swimming badge sewn to his trunks. Given that the players' entire waistcoats appear to be provided by the sponsors (surely that many people couldn't spontaneously choose the same shade of pink satin lining voluntarily), I'm surprised that the sponsors' names and messages aren't directly embroidered on. This has clearly served to take another chunk of individuality out of the game - Doug Mountjoy's ruffles and Kirk Stevens' white suit would find no place in today's game, and that's a shame. I was however pleased to note that in the UK Championships (but sadly not the World) they had resurrected the wearing of ordinary ties for the afternoon sessions and reserving evening dress for the evening, as is right and proper, and helps add to the sense of occasion.
Thirdly, the appearance of female referees is, on the face of it, a very welcome development (female players would be even better but I fear the days that might have been possible have passed). However. The female referees are not at all like the male referees. They are not elderly, greying, or paunchy. They are glamourous, coiffed and heavily made up. This does not seem much of a blow for equality, to be honest, and it is hard to rebut the charge that in their current form, they are distracting. This is not because they are female, but it only applies to the females. And that's a shame too.
Finally, in some ways the biggest change, and the one I find hardest to understand and indeed to countenance. The application of the 'miss rule'. It used to be that if a player was snookered, and failed to hit the ball he needed to, he was penalised by giving away points. His opponent could put him in to play again, if they felt this would be to their advantage, and if a snooker was gained as a result of a foul, the oppenent would be given a free ball. Very, very, rarely the referee would declare a miss if he felt that in his professional judgement the player had not made a real effort or had missed deliberately. In such a case, the balls are replaced as they were before the miss and the fouling player has to take the shot again. I think I saw this about four times in all the years I was watching. Now however, a miss seems to be declared literally every time a player misses, even when it's clear they've made a real effort to play the shot millimetre perfect. The crime now seems to be not deliberately missing, but not taking a sufficient risk with regard to subsequent positioning. The balls can be replaced and the shot retaken half a dozen times, giving points away to the opponent every time. This seriously interrupts the flow of the game, and undermines the unstated but central tenet of tha game, that of playing the balls where they lie, and taking them, good or bad, as you find them. It also seems to me to be a dangerous move, in that it is tacitly accusing players of trying to cheat, to obtain an unfair advantage by not playing to the best of their ability. Snooker is a game that prides itself on gentlemanly behaviour - one of the commentators said last night that, along with golf, it is the only sport in which players will routinely declare a foul against themselves, even if the referee hasn't seen it. Treating players as potential cheats can only undermine that.
Anyway, I'm off to go and put BBC2 on. All I can say is that it's a good thing that there was no Red Button when I was seventeen.
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