Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Why snooker is a sport

Mark Selby in action at the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield. Photo / Getty Images
Mark Selby in action at the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield. Photo / Getty Images

On medical advice, big Bill Werbeniuk used to drain as many pints as he played frames to help calm a medical tremor.

Alex "Hurricane" Higgins played through a cloud of smoke, nerves and bad behaviour, left-handed Jimmy "Whirlwind" White hovered for his next shot before the referee reset the balls while Cliff Thorburn took several ice ages to come up with his shot.

Ronnie "Rocket" O'Sullivan chopped out a maximum 147 in a tick over five minutes at the 1997 World Champs while Mark Selby and Marco Fu played the longest frame in Crucible history this year spending 76 minutes and 11 seconds in baize battle.

Fashion, standards, television coverage and the players have changed since the World Championship was beamed into our lounges 40 years ago.

Veteran Alan McManus proudly wore his Scottish colours for his semifinal this year, Judd Trump wore shoes with road spikes while others show their national colours in their hair.
That's about the extent of the shift away from the standard black pants, waistcoat and bow tie garb as standards have lifted while the number of characters in snooker have dipped.

The slow whispering voice of the goggle box, Ted Lowe, has been silenced but memories linger like "19...45, the war was almost over, this one's just beginning."

He was not always so accurate but like Murray Walker on the motor racing circuit, carried an enveloping warmth through his commentaries.

"For those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green," Lowe once said, while there was also a "time limit for playing a shot but I think it's true to say nobody knows what that time limit is."

These days a few of the characters in the game are behind the microphone ease through some old tales as the World Championship winds through its fortnight in Sheffield.

John Virgo slipped up during the Selby-Fu marathon when he mixed in an expletive as he lamented not being able to watch some racing and football.

Dennis Taylor, he of the upside down specs during his playing days, delivers snippets and yarns with characteristic smoothness while Stephen Hendry is less chatty but extremely insightful about the difficulties or options on shots.

What is fascinating about a game played on a table measuring 11 foot 8.5 inches by 5 foot 10 inches where players have to alternately pot 15 red and colours then sevens colours?

It's the allure of simply potting a ball, calculating the angle from the white cue ball to the object ball to get it into a choice of six pockets. Then you learn to position the white ball so you can pot a colour and so on.

Players have options around angles, playing with side, using stun shots, screw shots, run shots and other variations to manipulate the cue ball. They can lay snookers or escape through calculating a patch around the angles.

It's a game which gnaws at your nerves and superstitions mount as the "marathon of the mind" winds towards its conclusion. Players change their eating regimes to help with the ordeal, O'Sullivan runs, others go to the movies and swear off the grog while they all battle with adrenaline.

Marathons like the world championships with the final the best of 35 frames over two days, has unseen physical and mental demands. As Hendry said:

"If you can't get yourself up for the World, to produce your best at the Crucible when it matters the most, then you are not the player you think you are."

- NZ Herald

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