I’m sick of hearing it. Ronnie O’Sullivan, the genius, the greatest player ever to have picked up a cue. Well, after winning his fifth world title following a twelve month sabbatical maybe it’s true. Plenty are keen to celebrate his astonishing gifts. But snooker needs him? I’m not so sure about that. If all snooker desires is the transcendent publicity he brings, a warm glow which stirs memories of the days when a significant number of people actually cared, then he’s absolutely unimpeachable. If, however, it wants to be acknowledged as a grown-up sport, capable of holding attention on its own merits, then the last seventeen days might have unfolded as a living nightmare. And now he doesn’t know if he wants to continue? Again? He’ll be back of course because we’ve heard it all before. But now it’s doing damage. Real damage. No man is bigger than the game? Don’t make me laugh. They’re eating out of his hand, and it really has to stop.
Qualifying takes place this week for the 2013 World Snooker Championships in Sheffield. With the top sixteen automatically assured of their place at the venue, the remainder are pitched into the scramble for the right to join them in the televised stages. Among them are some familiar names, those just outside the elite group and others trying to rekindle former glories. The tournament though is struggling for sponsorship and relevance in the modern sporting landscape. The game desperately needs some new faces to attract fresh support and reach out to a wider audience. From next season a controversial new system will be adopted to help hasten the progression of those ranked lower down the ladder. Here then are five players, all of them potential Crucible Theatre virgins, who represent the younger brigade keen to make an impression. Hopefully they can battle their way through to emerge on our screens when the real business begins later this month.
It may not be the future of snooker but it’s very quickly established itself as a must-see on the calendar. The third staging of the Shoot-Out competition at Blackpool saw some minor tweaking of the rules which made for an even more dynamic and unpredictable weekend than before. Following the vogue for truncated versions of the real thing, and noting the stunning success of T20 cricket in particular, it is already beginning to develop its own tactics and strategies. And if it helps attract a new audience which might refresh the following of the more traditional format, they won’t be calling it a novelty for much longer.
The headline is to paraphrase Harry Carpenter, who used such memorable prose to convey the incredulity of Muhammad Ali’s remarkable resurrection to beat George Foreman in the immortal ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. There was not quite the same bewilderment as the first major sporting champion of 2013 was crowned on New Year’s Day. Any suggestion that the Power might be turned off at the Alexandra Palace proved predictably wide of the mark. The enduring perfection of Phil Taylor is still very much connected to the mains. Yet his sixteenth world darts title was unlike any that had gone before. The young Dutchman Michael van Gerwen, his vanquished opponent, has the future at his mercy, but this was drawing maps from memory. Time is most precious when it’s clearly running out, and all the experience, all the resolve and all the cumbersome detritus of a cluttered mind struggling to handle impending inevitability were mobilised to positive effect. Ali would have understood.
As a non-believer my icons of Christmas are resolutely secular, and where once the festive season was heralded by the twee cardigans and rocking chair of Val Doonican, now we have the PDC World Darts Championship from the ‘Ally Pally’. While others may prefer a carol service or a blockbuster film after all that snowman building, chestnut roasting and skating on frozen lakes, for me the exploits of The Power, Barney, Jackpot and Darth Maple is as much a harbinger of the frenzy of indulgence now in full swing as any of those more ‘traditional’ distractions. This raucous festival of arrows hits you smack between the eyes with all the force of Santa tumbling down a chimney. But as the standard of the play gets ever more thrilling, is an unlikely success story becoming a victim of its mainstream appeal? The audience, and that is far too polite a term, now resembles your local High Street on a Saturday night at closing time, and it’s getting to be a bit of a bore.
Sport is entertainment of a special kind. We enjoy it because it stirs something within us that a visit to the cinema or theatre simply cannot. There is no script, the participants are no more aware of the ending than we are, and that glorious unpredictability is what captivates and frustrates in equal dose. We might watch a hundred events to experience that one golden moment which will live with us forever. Our expectation is that we could see something spellbinding, truly inspirational or history making, but most of the time we know we court disappointment. A real connoisseur will find beauty in the struggle, the application or the endeavour, will understand that the exceptional is just that; the extraordinary can only be appreciated in the context of the commonplace. I was reminded of this as I watched Mark Selby grind his way to the UK Championship snooker title in an attritional final against Shaun Murphy at York. It was not pretty, but it was fascinating.
Two Ronnies, but no laughing matter. One is the snooker genius who has the balls on a string, the charmingly cocksure upstart with magic in the tip of his cue. The other is the tortured soul, disinterested, brooding, and woundingly self-critical. Throughout a career which has oscillated uncontrollably between majesty and acrimony, the two have been fighting a vicious battle for the upper hand. The constant pulling in opposite directions was always likely to snap the cord. It had been taut for some time. Now, the man who is unquestionably the finest natural talent ever to play the game has walked away from the green baize, perhaps forever. It might be for the best.
Stephen Lee doesn’t look like a professional sportsman. He now stands accused of not behaving like one either. Last week he was suspended from all snooker pending an investigation into suspicious betting patterns in his Premier League match against John Higgins, shown live on Sky Sports. Ominously, he has previous. Indeed, only days before this latest furore, he was informed by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) that a case against him regarding allegations dating back over two years had been dropped. While there will be no criminal proceedings the governing body (WPBSA), in possession of information collected by the Gambling Commission, have commenced their own inquiry. Faced with a second accusation of wrongdoing, a colourful career now hangs in the balance.
Some sportsmen remain forever young. When we close our eyes we see them in their prime, never withered by the years nor diminished in their glory. I thought of this the other day when confronted by the news of Stephen Hendry’s retirement from snooker. The record books may list his achievements but only the memory will do justice to the grace and finesse, the drive and the determination which combined to make this slightly diffident Scot the finest player ever to pick up a cue.
So Mark Allen has talked himself into trouble again. The latest disrepute charge for the rapidly emerging ‘enfant terrible’ of snooker surrounds his allegations of unsporting behaviour directed at victorious World Championship opponent Cao Yupeng. Had he not then unsubtly implicated the rest of the Chinese playing contingent into the bargain, this latest utterance might have passed without much attention. Anonymity however, is not Allen’s style. This is no shrinking violet and his brushes with authority are getting ever more frequent. His confrontational attitudes and opinions are becoming both a narrative and a sideshow in a sport seeking to redefine itself for a modern audience. Having recently won his first ranking tournament, Allen is one of the new breed of players who will shape its future.