Domestic snooker still going strong

Liam Happe - on Twitter @liamhappe

It was April 1992. The Premier League was yet to become reality, the most popular song in England belonged to Right Said Fred and I was sat in a modest East London bedroom laying siege to a cheese sandwich whilst watching Jimmy White bamboozle Tony Drago with a majestic 147 break on television.

That was it. I was hooked: before long, I wanted a snooker table. I wanted a snooker video game. And I wanted to go to the Crucible and see it all unfold.

I didn't satisfy that last craving, but the Steel City theatre remained very much on my bucket list - and on May 1, 2012 I finally got the chance to tick it off.

As I walked through the hallowed backstage halls during the quarter-finals, laden with press cuttings and pictorial tributes to former world champions, I was well aware that I would likely not even get to watch the best part of this fortnight’s action.

But the following 48 hours would whizz by as quickly as a Ronnie O’Sullivan century, and about as predictably as Jamie Jones’s tournament run.

World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn promised those at a champagne press conference that the announcement of a new ranking event in China for 2012/13 and the introduction of an Asian Order of Merit would not dilute the character of the sport domestically, and with one of the better World Championships in recent times and the shocking retirement of the greatest player to ever pick up a cue going on around him, he could not have timed his words any better.

Stephen Hendry appeared embarrassed at the last-minute decision to stage a guard of honour in tribute to his career before the 2:30pm session on the Wednesday, 15 short hours after his announcement transcended the sport itself – he offered no speech, not even a single ‘thank you’ over the house microphone, and had to be prompted by a stage hand to at least wave and acknowledge the packed crowd and fellow snooker legends in their rapturous applause.

But as he swiftly returned up the steps and past the press box, a distinct glistening in his eyes showed exactly what the gesture meant to a man who chooses not to soak up the spotlight.

Once the action recommenced, O’Sullivan himself - a player long regarded as a more talented yet less disciplined version of Hendry - drifted in and out of what must have been a riveting daydream whenever last-eight opponent Neil Robertson took to the table.

So distracted was ‘The Rocket’ that his Australian counterpart was left frustrated when he looked over to O’Sullivan in hopes that the three-times former Crucible champion would fetch his cue extension for him, while the Englishman could probably recount exactly what every last spectator was wearing that day, given how his attention wandered.

What O’Sullivan produced when it was his turn, of course, is what secured his place in the final four from 32 elite players in Sheffield - and his status as both tournament and crowd favourite is still riding the crest of a wave inaugurated by a brutal dissection of Crucible critic Mark Williams in the previous round.

The quality of a Worlds which appeared to many as somewhat weakened when eight of the 16 seeded competitors made first-round exits has been proven by the runs of the final four, as well as the immense fight put up by those left in their respective wakes.

Hearn utilised the announcement of extensions to Ally Pally and the York Barbican’s current deals to stage the Masters and UK Championship respectively – as well as a promise to bring one further domestic ranking tournament to the table – as assurances that England would not lose its status as the home of the sport, despite China’s steadily growing influence.

Mr. Matchroom Sport isn’t afraid of the spotlight and can talk for the country he set out to pacify, but so far his countless words have been backed up by early signs that the pastime was in safe hands.

And despite losing its very own Babe Ruth in poignant fashion, the door is now open for the eventual winner of the 2012 tournament – not to mention possibly the likes of Jamie Jones, Luca Brecel and Hossein Ayouri – to spearhead the charge of a new era.

I initially felt deflated when the local lad White’s maximum only led to a gut-wrenching defeat from such a strong position in the ’92 final to Hendry, and wondered if snooker would continue to hold much interest – but two decades on, there is little to be pessimistic about.

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