Mavericks, the need of the hour!

Alex Higgins...a votary of the unusual.-PICS: GETTY IMAGES

Snooker is in danger of falling asleep and, although I never thought I would write such a sentence, another dose of Alex Higgins would serve the elegant old game right now. By Ted Corbett.

It’s time for the world snooker championship and an occasion to close my eyes and bring back a thousand vivid memories. Why not? It is one of the strangest sporting events, as long as the Olympics spread over 17 days, staged in a theatre, with intervals, like cricket so that the players can have a cup of tea — when Alex Higgins and Co. ruled the roost it used to be a beer and a couple of cigarettes — and there will always be discussion about whether it is a sport or a pastime.

I spent 15 years of what now seems like another life reporting the growth and spread of this most elegant of games. At the Crucible Theatre from 1977 to 1985 our stint sometimes began at 11 a.m. and finished at 2 a.m.; and there was always a party afterwards.

At that time the press, well sometimes it was both of us, the players, 200 or so TV people — from commentators to pay clerks — the organisers and sponsors all mixed together but I understand those days are over. The game is no longer so desperate for publicity having grown rich from television money and 39 years of lucrative takings at the Crucible which is now seen as the game’s centre.

Barry Hearn, a snooker enthusiast, before he took up football and boxing, keeps a steady, intelligent grip on the game as it circles the globe. It never had that ambition when I was around. Instead it drew its players from the old British Empire but at this moment it is hardly possible to say how many different nations will join in the fun in the next 40 years.

In the dark years before modernisation the world championship was often decided bizarrely. One of the old timers told me of a match in South Africa between Rex Williams and John Pulman in a tour round the country. Crowds were sparse and one night there was no spectator; so being fair and sporting gentlemen the two tossed a coin to see who had won the session 4-3!

Whatever you may hear now, it was the arrival of youth that started snooker on its rise to the big time. First John Spencer, a one-time window cleaner, won aged 33 and was told he was too young to be champion. Next he was challenged by Higgins, a maverick of 22 from Belfast; self-taught, hot tempered, with a cue action that was only briefly correct and so poor he spent early nights of his career sleeping rough in grim, empty terrace houses.

He lit up the game with brilliant strokeplay and he was rarely out of the newspapers for his womanising, his drinking and his gambling. Don’t mock. He was just what the game needed although the old-time pros hated him and his antics.

He won the title in 1972 and as I drove him home he spent most of the journey leaning out of the window stretching the car radio aerial until, not surprisingly, it came away in his hand. He then entertained me — and a girl he was taking home with him — by trying to sing an Irish folk song before he fell asleep.

The next dozen years are full of half remembered tales of Higgins versus authority. There was one unforgettable night when he ordered a red hot curry and fed it slyly to a temperamental show dog behind the back of the animal’s mistress.

Ronnie O'sullivan... has the Higgins streak.-

This posh lady never quite understood what was happening. “I know you have a bad reputation Mr. Higgins,” she kept saying in her cut-glass accent, “but we can stay friends if you promise not to give your smelly curry to my precious dog.” Eventually, of course, the poor dog was ill, but the lady never seemed to know why.

In the end, long after I turned to cricket which had no one like Higgins in sight, snooker authority won and he was forced back to Belfast where he died too young in a single room flat.

Now the game is almost prim, its players correctly dressed — ties never suited Higgins — and in the main polite and full of sporting nonsense about how well the other fellow played.

(By the way I have never understood why England’s cricketers never came with the Higgins flair. “They look on cricket as a career and behave accordingly,” that wise man Peter Roebuck said.)

Ronnie O’Sullivan, who sometimes seems to have the cares of the world on his shoulders is the modern snooker player with the Higgins’ touch. This championship, aged 39, he was knocked out in the quarter-finals when he might easily have won — playing at a higher standard than those giants of my day — after being accused of making an obscene gesture, illegally using his chalk to measure the gap for his next shot and moping at the table.

In other words there is room in this fascinating game for a ne’er-do-well, a trouble-maker, someone who will make the rest of the pack ashamed but who will, as the modern cliché has it, always be in the newspapers for all the wrong reasons. Provided he is also a winner.

When Higgins died the mass of players seemed to forgive him his foolish times. These days a player at any game may be excused a major misdemeanour or two; indeed some coaches and managers seem to encourage it.

Snooker is in danger of falling asleep and, although I never thought I would write such a sentence, another dose of Higgins would serve the elegant old game right now.