Do not cough. Snooker’s long-held unwritten rule took on considerable new meaning at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre on Saturday as sport welcomed spectators for the first time this year and a few hundred brave souls became laboratory rats in our nation’s route towards normality.
Not that there was much semblance of a conventional sporting trip here. This World Snooker Championship is the first testing ground of the Government’s "Event Research Programme" that will shape our return not only to sport, but theatres, concerts and all mass gatherings. Success will pave the way for packed-out stadiums and conference centres later this year; failure will probably mean doors remain shut.
Even stepping foot inside the venue was some undertaking — a process that began 24 hours before the tournament began, with the requirement for everyone to pass a coronavirus lateral flow test prior to travelling. Pre and post-event PCR tests are also required to aid the Government’s research, which every member of the crowd had to formally agree to be part of. Then there was the small matter of buying an actual ticket to the event and remembering photographic identification to flash on the door. Snooker die-hards only need apply.
A military-style operation was in process outside the arena with enough checkpoints, two-metre markers and hand sanitiser to provide Chris Whitty a very happy 55th birthday next week. There really is no outsmarting coronavirus if it can penetrate this fortress.
“You’re part of our experiment,” the pre-show host excitedly told the 300 or so paying punters in attendance. Numbers are capped at one-third of the Crucible’s capacity for the opening stages of the tournament, steadily increasing up to a full house with no social distancing for the final on May 2.
“I can’t tell you how much it will mean to all our players to see actual human beings watching them play,” he added.
His hype was not altogether correct. World No 7 Shaun Murphy, who begins his campaign next week, says he “can’t wait” for the crowd to act as a “12th man” for him, which — even ignoring the numerical confusion of an incorrectly used football analogy — is a bizarre statement in a sport where the slightest crowd noise can prompt tutting.
Reigning champion Ronnie O’Sullivan, who helped care for his mother when she suffered badly from Covid, has been rather less enthusiastic, suggesting he will “kick off” if not given adequate protection against anyone attempting to come within his two-metre boundary.
There were few concerns as O’Sullivan took on Mark Joyce in the first match of the tournament on Saturday, which began after spectators had been politely informed that their traditional whooping and cheering to greet the players would not be allowed. This, in fact, had little to do with coronavirus protocol, but was a mark of respect for the Duke of Edinburgh.
Snooker kingpin Barry Hearn has been here before, of course. Last year’s World Championship, held in July, featured crowds for just two hours before the Prime Minister forced all sporting events to go behind closed doors. The same then happened in December when Hearn’s World Darts Championship welcomed fans for the opening day, only to be told to keep the door shut after that.
Barring any Covid outbreaks over the tournament’s 17 days, Hearn appears on safer ground this time with his efforts crucial in informing Britain’s roadmap out of lockdown. There is much at stake. Just do not cough.