Move over cricket -- snooker's taking over as the national pastime in Britain

Suppose a Martian dropped into Britain one day and switched on the television set. What do you think he might guess was Britain's national game?

Judging from the way television covers the sport, he would be right on cue if he proposed snooker.

As many as 90 hours of British television a year are devoted to this game, which is a close cousin of billiards and pool.

A colleague confessed he stayed up until after midnight to watch last week's cliff-hanger final of the world snooker championship in Sheffield, Yorkshire which was shown faithfully on British television.

In this dramatic contest Dennis Taylor of Northern Ireland defeated reigning champion Steve Davis of England in an excruciatingly tense final.

Mr. Taylor pipped Mr. Davis by potting the decisive black of the final frame to squeak through by 18-17.

(Translation: Taylor beat Davis by putting the black ball -- which carries the highest score -- in the pocket in the last stage of the game, narrowly winning 18 points to 17.)

Millions of viewers watched the final of this ``world'' championship, though that grandiose term is about as much a misnomer as ``world'' series baseball is in the United States.

Most of the snooker participants are British, with a sprinkling of foreign entries.

As any visitor to Britain quickly discovers, he can hardly turn on the TV without the familiar green baize table and red balls rolling into view.

Switch to another channel and he's snookered again. This time, there's a snooker experiment, together with expensive, special slow-motion cameras indicating scientifically how the ball moves.

If an American youngster covets a basketball hoop for his backyard, then his British counterparts opt for a snooker table.

Snooker is so much part of British life that it is frequently the backdrop for advertising.

Radio 4 of the British Broadcasting Corporation recently carried a short story of a young boy whose one fantasy in life was to win a snooker championship. A snooker musical is on its way.

So obsessed do Britons become with the game that they'll miss social engagements to catch it on TV. Some aficionados have even been known to devote their entire vacations to watching snooker championships.

TV has not only created a passion for the game but is also making it respectable. Gone is the seedy atmosphere of dimly lit pool halls.

Now the players, acutely aware that the TV cameras are zeroing in on them, come forward looking more like fashion models or ballroom dancers in their bow ties, wing collars, cuff links, and tuxedos -- or smart three-piece suits (with the jacket removed for ease of movement). Nails and hair are immaculate.

More than a pastime, snooker is big business. The latest world championship, sponsored by a tobacco company, was touted as the 300,000 (about $360,000) championship.

Winner Dennis Taylor pocketed 60,000 in prize money. His defeated opponent, the twice-reigning world champion Steve Davis, has received more than 100,000 a year in tournament winnings.

At the same time, the high stakes and the accompanying tension (the world final took two nail-biting days in which Taylor pulled ahead only at the end) have taken their toll:

One player was fined more than 1,500 for swearing, his ``comment'' being overheard by millions of TV viewers.

Another prominent player quickly faded in the world championship when it was alleged he had been taking drugs. Such is the importance of snooker that the expos'e got Page 1 treatment in some British newspapers.

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