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A nation still potty for snooker's enduring appeal

(Reuters) - Park a snooker table inside Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre and weird and wonderful things can occur.

FILE PHOTO: General view of the World Snooker Championship trophy - The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield - 4/5/14. Action Images / Steven Paston

In 1985, 18 million people across Britain stayed glued to their TV screens past midnight as Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis in the most gripping World Championship final ever.

Two years earlier Canadian Cliff Thorburn made the first televised maximum 147 break as compatriot Bill Werbeniuk memorably peered around a partition.

Snooker’s unpredictable genius Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins broke down in tears when he won the title in 1982 and in 1997 Ronnie ‘Rocket’ O’Sullivan swept a 147 in five minutes.

On Friday, snooker’s spiritual home since 1977 witnessed more magic as England’s Kyren Wilson beat Anthony McGill 17-16 in a semi-final decided in a surreal last frame.

A 33rd frame spanning an hour featured nine successive failed attempts to get out of a snooker on the last red by McGill who conceded 43 points worth of fouls in the process.

Wilson almost handed the match back to McGill in an incredible sequence of play before fluking a green and eventually potting the pink to reach the final against O’Sullivan.

“That’s the most incredible frame I’ve ever seen at the Crucible,” seven-time world champion Steven Hendry, commentating for the BBC, said.

The Scot was almost as lost for words later in the night as O’Sullivan somehow fashioned a 17-16 win over Mark Selby by winning the last three frames having riled his opponent by crashing the cue ball around the table to lose the 30th frame rather than attempt to get out of a snooker.

Sadly there were no spectators in the Crucible to see the thrilling spectacle, with the British government having decided after one day of the two-week tournament to suspend its experiment to have fans back inside venues as part of the loosening of COVID-19 lockdown rules.

A limited number of spectators will be present for the final, although for most people it will be viewed as it has always been, from the comfort of an armchair with a regular supply of tea and biscuits, or something stronger.

When the pandemic forced organisers to postpone the championship in April, it deprived millions of locked-down Britons the reassuring click of colliding snooker balls.

LOCKDOWN SPORT

Thankfully this year’s event was given a new late July slot and with the country still mired in a health crisis, the kings of the green baize have provided a much-needed distraction from the daily diet of coronavirus updates.

Unlike soccer matches, in which empty stadiums stand out like a sore thumb, snooker is the perfect lockdown sport. By nature it is played in silence with applause traditionally reserved for the conclusion of breaks or for special shots.

Some players, the likes of O’Sullivan attract more raucous followings, as was the case with past greats Jimmy ‘Whirlwind’ White and Higgins. But the hushed arena creates its own energy.

Given Friday’s incredible semi-finals, it would surely be asking too much for this weekend’s decider to come anywhere close to Taylor’s ‘black ball’ decider against Davis in 1985 -- the climax of which was watched by one third of Britain’s population -- still a post-midnight viewing record.

Davis had led underdog Taylor 8-0 but the Northern Irishman, sporting comical-looking upside-down glasses for better vision, hauled himself back. After two gruelling days the final went down to the final black of the final frame.

At one point Taylor even approached the trophy and said a prayer and when Davis missed a black he would have made 99 times out of 100, it seemed divine intervention was at work.

The 36-year-old duly sunk the black and as the crowd erupted he brandished his cue above his head in a celebration that has become part of British TV folklore.

It was the peak of snooker’s popularity when the players were as popular as today’s Premier League footballers.

They even made a hit record with much-loved pop duo Chas and Dave called Snooker Loopy.

Those heady days of table-top pantomime when players wore suits like the Bee Gees, dragged on cigarettes and downed pints of beer while sitting at their chairs have gone for good.

These days its the preserve of clean-cut, ultra-professional cuemen donning sponsors’ logos on their tailored suits.

Televised snooker no longer stops the country in its tracks but, as Friday proved, the geometric wizardry of the world’s top potters is still an addictive spectacle.

Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar

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