elcome to snooker in the new normal,” announced TV’s Jill Douglas, heralding the return of the first live sporting action to UK terrestrial television since the old normal was brought to a decidedly abrupt end.
While a marathon slot sandwiched between an episode of Kojak and Giant Lobster Hunters on ITV4 suggested the Championship League is not exactly expected to be box office, the commentator Phil Yates was undeterred as he began his shift by declaring: “I’ve got three joyous words for you: snooker is back”.
One of few sports in which losing competitors are rendered utterly helpless and isolated in the face of a devastating onslaught from an adversary, it seemed fitting this was the first to return from that rare kind of big break nobody who likes the game ever enjoys.
While invitations to all 128 World Snooker Tour cardholders were extended for this non-ranking tournament, only the top 64 who entered were guaranteed a spot, albeit with a unique and very understandable proviso. Big-name players including Judd Trump, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Neil Robertson and Mark Allen are among those who have signed up, but all involved must test negative for Covid-19 before being allowed to darken the door of the premises.
“Arrived in Milton Keynes,” tweeted Judd Trump on Sunday. “Test done, hopefully all clear for action tomorrow … swab up the nose is not enjoyable at all. Enjoy that everyone.” Backroom staff, referees and TV crews were also subject to the same discomfort before being confined to barracks in the form of the Marshall Arena’s convenient on-site hotel, while Douglas and her pundits, Stephen Hendry and Neal Foulds, made do with broadcasting from their respective homes.
“As anyone who knows me well will realise, I’m the world’s biggest hypochondriac and having that test initially wasn’t a nice experience because I’m a big wuss,” said Yates, as he filled time between early matches. “But apart from that I can’t speak highly enough of everyone here and the venue itself.” Sitting alongside him, albeit not too close and due to play later in the week, Joe Perry echoed the sentiment by saying tournament organisers had gone above and beyond the call of duty to put each competitor at ease.
“While most other sports remain sidelined, we are ready to return,” said Barry Hearn, the Matchroom Sport chairman before the tournament started. “This sends out a message to the sporting world that snooker is at the forefront of innovation.” A natural showman who has never knowingly undersold any event in which he has been involved, Hearn is to be commended on his chutzpah, even if he must know snooker’s return is not so much down to innovation as the natural ease with which it lends itself to physical distancing, even without a lockdown in force.
Extremely popular with elderly TV viewers who might find themselves isolated at the best of times, the only conspicuous differences between this tournament and any other were the provision of separate rests for players, the absence of handshakes and an audience with their applause.
Viewers were also treated to the curious sight of a young man in a World Snooker Services Fitting Team T-shirt, who was tasked with judiciously wiping down the table rails, pockets and cushions with disinfectant between matches.
A game in which competitors are habitually seated far apart and take individual turns at the table, snooker is perhaps the pandemic poster boy of the sporting world, not least because it is officiated over by referees for whom pristine white gloves have long been part of the official dress code. These match officials are normally matched only in their quest for fastidiousness in the hygiene stakes by players, who spend an inordinate amount of the time they are forced to spend marooned in their chairs towelling down their cues and studiously examining their nails for dirt.
It was in this forlorn role the Leeds-based player David Grace soon found himself as he took on Trump, who appears to have maintained the outstanding form which has already helped him win a record six ranking tournaments this season, with the main one still to come. The 30-year-old from Bristol took advantage of his opponent’s error on the blue to nick a first frame he had little or no business winning, before costing to a 3-0 victory to go top of the four-man group from which just one player will advance. Welcome to snooker in the new normal; much the same as snooker in the old normal.