Keep your head still

STEVE Davis was interviewed on the radio after his startling victory over John Higgins on Saturday. Asked for the secret of his return to form, Davis claimed that it was, in part, down to focusing on one shot at a time and “keeping my head still”. This would at least explain why Paul McCartney never made it as a snooker player.

It doesn’t completely explain, though, how Davis has managed to become the big story at this year’s World Championships. When he defeated Higgins, the reigning world champion, he became the oldest man to reach the quarter-finals in Sheffield since Eddie Charlton in 1983.

Barry Hearn has spoken extensively of the need to revitalise snooker since he became chairman of the game’s governing body late last year. He could hardly have imagined his hopes of sexing up the sport would be given a lift by a balding 52-year-old.

Yet even as Davis heads for defeat in his quarter-final against Australian Neil Robertson – to whom he trails 7-1 after this morning’s first session – he has offered a throwback to a time when snooker was a bigger TV attraction than it is now.

Davis is the only man at this year’s World Championship who has been around long enough to have appeared on Tiswas, or to have had his own Spitting Image puppet, or to have sung on a top 10 hit with Chas and Dave. He was around in simpler times, when 18.5million people would stay up past midnight to watch the world final on BBC2.

Some commentators have suggested that snooker was more popular in the 1980s because the game had more personalities, as if every World Championship was dominated by Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy from Motorhead, rather than an unassuming ginger bloke from Romford, a chap with amusing spectacles and another bloke who never won but always played very quickly. Kirk Stephens would cause all manner of excitement just by wearing a white waistcoat, while Terry Griffiths went about winning a frame in roughly the time it takes to make a Christmas dinner.

Snooker’s heyday came at a time when football was in a trough, and there was much less competition for the viewing public’s eyes. As a promoter, Hearn was the main man in those days. By the time he returned to head up the WPBSA, the sport had been reduced to six major tournaments a year, and even some of the top players had to take on outside work to make ends meet.

Hearn’s pronouncements on his return to the sport centred on adding a bit more glamour to the sport. It’s what he has done with the Professional Darts Corporation, jazzing up their World Championships at the Alexandra Palace with thumping rock music, Tiswas-style DIY banners for the fans and, as they might have been called in the 70s, dolly birds.

It hasn’t necessarily created any more personalities in darts – indeed, the players often seem bemused as all the hoohah goes off around them – but it creates enough distractions so that you don’t really notice.

You can’t make an introverted sportsman into an extrovert, so it would be understandable if Hearn wanted to use similar diversionary tactics to jazz up snooker. In an interview with the Guardian in January, he indicated that was his plan. He spoke of single-frame FA Cup-style knockout competitions, and spot prizes for fans in the crowd. He promised, though, to leave the World Championships alone – recognising the importance of maintaining credibility among the hyperbole.

Hearn wants more than just the chairmanship of the governing body, though. He wants control of the sport, including its commercial rights.

And not everyone is keen. Peter Ebdon spoke cautiously about Hearn’s plans last week. “He’s asking an awful lot of the players to hand over 51 per cent of the commercial rights to World Snooker, worth millions of pounds a year,” Ebdon said.

It’s tempting to wonder if there’s a middle ground to be found between those who want to reform snooker and those who just want to tweak with things a little. Spotted in the crowd as Davis fell apart early on against Robertson was a youngish chap in a blue T-shirt bearing the catchphrase of Mitchell and Webb’s snooker commentators: “Oh and that’s a bad miss.”

It was perhaps a sign that snooker could benefit from taking itself a little less seriously, without having to go the whole hog and get lost in a flurry of ticker tape, shouting and perky blondes.

In the meantime, snooker seems to be looking to the past for answers, like a therapy patient. One of Hearn’s first moves on arriving at the WPBSA was to give another 80s legend, Jimmy White, a wildcard into the UK Masters. It was an effective publicity stunt, particularly as White had just finished appearing on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.

Davis’ run to the last eight has given snooker another publicity boost. But if 80s nostalgia is really the best that snooker can do, then the sport’s recovery has a long way to go.

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