The time was when snooker used to boast a rich variety of contrasting characters, straight from a Damon Runyon short story. There were the grinders, the likes of Cliff Thorburn, Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry; the dashers, speaheaded by Alex Higgins, Jimmy White and Ronnie O'Sullivan; and, in the 1980s at least, men such as Terry Griffiths and Dennis Taylor, who looked as if they had seen plenty of life beyond the green baize and were plainly human beings, not automatons.
Sadly, though, the sport has lost a lot of that allure, on the evidence of this week's proceedings at the UK Championship in Telford. There have been plenty of close encounters, but most of these have turned into wars of attrition purely as a consequence of the deficiencies of the central characters.
Wednesday evening's quarter-final clash between Shaun Murphy and the reigning world champion, Neil Robertson, was typical of why the tournament has thus far been a snooze. At one point, Murphy attempted to leave a snooker behind the brown and misjudged his effort terribly, whereupon his Australian opponent followed suit with another glaring gaffe, as the duo seemingly did their best to gift opportunities to their opponent.
The Scottish contingent have hardly glittered either, or at least apart from John Higgins, who has bounced back from his six-month suspension withoit missing a heartbeat. Hendry, a seven-times world champion, who has carried on too long - like Michael Schumacher in F1 - was in such pitiful form at the beginning of the week that his two matches resembled car-crash television.
You could hardly bear to watch, and yet there was something horribly compelling about the sight of a man who used to compile century breaks as if it was simplicity itself, but nowadays has so much trouble with his cueing action that it is similar to the "yips" in golf or the "dartitis" which afflicted Eric Bristow.
The darts comparison is interesting in another sense. Barry Hearn, a fellow with the populist instincts in sport that Simon Cowell posseses in music, has dramatically transformed the fortunes of those who ply their trade on the oche. There are competitions all over the world, genuine superstars in the guise of Phil "The Power" Taylor, who will be gunning for his 16th world title later this month, and features on the shortlist for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award. and Raymond van Barneveld, who is detemined to hunt down the Englishman and end his supremacy. Darts has changed into different formats, introduced shorter matches, racked up the decibel level, and is in positively rude health again.
Yet one doubts whether Hearn can achieve similar success in snooker, a game which doesn't lend itself to crowds whooping and hollering, addicted as it is to hushed auditoriums and participants weighing up every conceivable option before playing the percentages, as we witnessed in the protracted battle between Higgins and Graeme Dott, which finished 9-8, but was scarcely a triumph for either man.
It hardly helps that the game's most marketable individual, O'Sullivan, spends so much time moaning about how snooker "does his head in"; Taylor, in contrast, has a twinkle in his eyes, as if recognising how lucky he is to be at the forefront of darts' second coming. Why shouldn't he be happy? He has grown rich through a combination of his own sublime skill and Hearn's shrewd eye for the man chance. So has O'Sullivan, but if he can't get excited by snooker, then why should the paying customers flock to the new events on the calendar?
All in all, 2010 might prove a watershed for snooker. It was the year we lost Alex Higgins, who, whatever his faults, embodied the showbusiness values which thrilled the punters. It was also the year when John Higgins returned from a ban as if he had never been away, and exposed the shortcomings of most of the rest of the field. The rwo events are unconnected. But they hint at the difficulties facing Hearn in sexing up a pastime which has become a job for the main players.
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