The 40th anniversary of World Championship snooker at the Crucible has passed, but BBC presenter Hazel Irvine is celebrating a landmark of her own this year having spent three decades in sport…
Hazel, congratulations on 30 years in sports broadcasting! Firstly, how did you originally become a sports presenter?
I always knew I wanted to get into broadcasting. Although I wasn’t sure which way to go, whether that be current affairs,news or sport. I did History of Art for my degree at the University of St Andrews. However, in tandem with academic study I was mad about sport. I played everything from golf to netball to athletics. When I started making enquiries for jobs, I went for an interview, they sat me down and said it was fairly obvious which area I should be pinpointing. Sport!
I started off working for Radio Clyde. I did all sorts of general production for them for 10 or 11 months. Part of the remit was doing all the technical side for the football matches. It was great because I got to go to matches at Celtic Park, Ibrox and Hampden. That was manna from heaven for me. I eventually got a phone call telling me Sally McNair was on maternity leave. She presented the sport on television. I got asked to go in and do a screentest in 1987 and the rest was history. 30 years in television.
When I started in snooker Steve Davis and John Parrott were brought on at the same time. It was great as I hadn’t done as much snooker and they hadn’t done as much broadcasting. They taught me the nuances of the game. We just had an instant rapport as we were in at the deep end all together. I had a reasonable knack of getting us on air and off air at the right time and their knowledge is obviously fantastic. We’ve always got on well and always had a special bond.
You’re certainly used to working at famous sporting arenas, but how special has presenting at the Crucible been in the context of your career?
I’ve been lucky enough to have worked at Olympic Games, as well as World Cups and major golf events like the Open Championship and the Masters at Augusta. These were all at iconic venues. I think the word iconic is used rather liberally these days, but it is certainly relevant for the Crucible. The theatre itself and the city have become completely synonymous with snooker. I was amazed when I first arrived there in 2002 at how crammed in the venue was, but it makes everything more intimate. You are at the very heart of it all. I always remember there used to be a playlist that would come on in the arena with about 15 minutes to go. It would have the old Pot Black theme and some techno music. I would hear this music come on from the dressing room and in a way, I could feel a tiny little bit of how the players must feel before they go on.
If you want to have a truly unique sporting experience as a spectator, the Crucible is one for your bucket list. There’s the tension, the silence and the feeling that if you move in your seat you are somehow going to impact on the outcome. The place emanates a genuine visceral sense that you are involved. You can almost touch and smell the importance of the action playing out right in front of you. It’s unlike many sporting venues in that it they are often gargantuan in size; this isn’t. I liken it a bit to Augusta which is very reverential with sporadic explosions of noise.
In your time presenting at the World Championship what are some of the most special moments you’ve broadcasted?
Well my first year was 2002, so regardless of what happened that was going to be very special. What made it even more unique was the snooker itself that year. Peter Ebdon became the first person to win both his semi-final and the final in a deciding frame. I was thinking they were all going to be like this, it was unbelievable. In his semi Peter played one of the gutsiest shots I’ve ever seen. As I recall Peter trailed Matthew Stevens 14-16 and 28-61. Matthew was about to win the match when Peter got to the table. He had to make a choice. He could either pot the blue, in which case he could only tie. Or he could take in a far more difficult pink and play up for the yellow. If he missed it was game over, it was pot or bust. He went for it and made the pink and then put in a 130 clearance in the decider to win the match. There was absolute hysteria in the studio. To have the courage in those circumstances to say ‘I’m going to do this’. It was an extraordinary moment. Of course everyone then remembers how he went on to win another decider, against Stephen Hendry of all people, in the final.
Another great match was Paul Hunter against Ken Doherty in the 2003 semi-finals. Paul went into the final session 15-9 ahead, but remarkably Ken battled back to win 17-16. He actually played the most frames of anyone in Crucible history that event but lost 18-16 to Mark Williams in the final. I can remember seeing Paul backstage after that match and although he was clearly in shock at losing, he still had the grace to meet everyone on his way to the dressing room. He was as magnanimous and gracious as always. That moment stays with me very vividly.
There was a very bizarre moment at the quarter-final between Ronnie O’Sullivan and Peter Ebdon in 2005. This was the match where Peter took longer to make his 12 break than Ronnie’s record 147. Peter won and the post-match interview will live long in the memory. He came in and was pretty choked up and upset. People were calling foul play at him for deliberately slowing it down. Meanwhile Ronnie was in the press room saying he was going to take a break from the sport. He had shaved his head during that game and drawn blood from his forehead. It just showed how much tension and drama sport can produce on one table in front of 900 people.
Before the event Barry Hearn signed an agreement to keep World Championship in Sheffield until at least 2027. How important is it from a TV point of view to have the tournament played at a venue rich in history?
Staying until 2027 is a relief to many people. Something we haven’t mentioned was Steve Davis’s retirement in 2016. There was an outpouring of affection for Steve and so many others have chosen to hang up their cues at the Crucible, which has played host to great moments for them. It is a place which has clearly touched the sporting memories of people across the country. It is the soundtrack to April and we all like to sing along.