26 July 2010

The Hurricane

The reason Alex Higgins was so adored by snooker fans was because he played snooker like they did. He was in his local smoke-filled snooker club even when winning the world championship at the Crucible Theatre.

His technique, his stance, his tactics, his demeanour - all defied conventional advice that snooker players are told to adopt if wanting to make a career from the game. A game that was staid and silent was turned upside down by this remarkable figure, as wayward and idiosyncratic as any sportsman but, as is often the case with such individuals, a genius with it. A one-off.

I loved snooker as a kid. All kids did. And the reason I loved it was because of Alex Higgins. He paraded round the table at high speed, found and took on shots that only a teenager playing on a 6ft table in his parents' kitchen would try, and invariably succeeded with them. He was an anti-hero as much as a hero, and for all the scandals and indiscretions which afflicted his personal and professional life, the public essentially forgave him and loved him forever. That's how much of an impact he had on his sport; a sport that was then able to impact on society.

Even when all players smoked like chimneys and necked beer and spirits during matches, Higgins was out on his own. He'd have a jug of 'something' and Coke on his table for the duration of a match and would already be livened up by a few jars in the players bar prior to walking into the arena. He'd shake his opponent's hand, break the pack of reds and then sit down, undo/remove his tie and light a fag.

He didn't cut a healthy image. He once came from many frames down to win the UK Championship final against Steve Davis, just a fortnight after emerging from a coma brought on by drinking without eating. As he told the News of the World at the time: "I was living on lager, tea and fags." But snooker as a whole didn't do health. The game relied heavily on liquor and tobacco sponsorship. Higgins was only singled out because of what the drink turned him into. A great player - and an awful man.

Most people would prefer to remember the great player. I'm among them. Maybe this makes me morally bankrupt, I don't know. He did threaten to have rivals shot and inflict violence on officials and misery on loved ones. He paid a fortune in fines and saw two marriages end. But when his head was right, he was the man who pretty much single-handedly made his sport into a national phenomenon. People who didn't care for snooker would tune in when they knew he was on. There was a car crash fetishism about watching Higgins as he dashed around the table in a leggy manner that suggested that he would keel over and pass out if he stopped moving just for a second. But then he'd get down on the table and, well, the balls would just fly in.

He wasn't a traditional player at all; indeed, watching some of today's speed merchants put balls to bed without fear or thought suggests that Higgins created many of snooker's traditions of the modern day. His tactic seemed to comprise of potting the balls as quickly as possible in order to win the match as quickly as possible. It really didn't need to be more complicated than that. As snooker became richer and the players slowed down to accommodate that surge in financial importance, Higgins stood out. He was the only player who could come to a table needing four snookers, in a frame he could afford to lose, and promptly get them before clearing up and winning. He had nerves of steel, as his notorious break of 69 to take his 1982 World Championship semi-final to a decider proves. How very telling that it wasn't a 147 or even a century break that players and fans thought of when reminiscing on Higgins over the weekend, but a comparatively small 69. If you haven't seen this break, then you must. I've added it below. It is snooker that showed bravery, brains and remarkable fortitude that few players, of Higgins' generation or any other, could have concocted and pulled off.

When he went on to win the final, I was approaching nine years old and boys of my age were fast asleep at pushing midnight on a Sunday. But as Higgins began to clear the table for the final time and head towards victory, my mum called me downstairs, along with my brother, and we sat in our pyjamas, transfixed and thrilled. It showed a rare glimpse of humanity and vulnerability within Higgins too, as he burst into tears upon winning and eschewed the trophy and substantial cheque because he was desperate to hug his wife and baby daughter. It remains an iconic sporting image.

The way Higgins' body had subsided over the years, culminating in the multiple organ failure that killed him over the weekend, showed off a man who looked almost freakish, as if he was designed by an animator seeking a cartoonish villain rather than the cruelties of nature. And yes, he is as much an advert for the perils of tobacco - 13 years of throat cancer - that his Belfast compatriot George Best was for the consequences of alcoholism. But for as long as his name is remembered, the way he declined and the manner of his final demise will be a side issue when the topic of Alex Higgins comes up. His sport, and the way he thrilled and enraptured all who saw him partake in it, will be the legacy that lingers.

Here's that break. He's 59 points down to an opponent who only needs this frame to reach the final. It's just extraordinary what follows...

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