Stephen Hendry is set to come out of retirement and Steve Davis has received a career lifeline after World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn handed the old-stagers a unique route back onto the professional tour.

Snooker chiefs ruled out handing the pair full two-year tour cards, but seven-time world champion Hendry, who retired two years ago, and six-time winner Davis are set to play at a number of tournaments next season.

They could even be back at the Crucible in 12 months' time.

Hearn admitted that giving a licence to cue to Davis, who he has managed many years, could be perceived as an old pals' act, given he fell out of the elite 64 this season to slip off the main tour.

Davis hampered his chances of staying in the elite ranks by going into the jungle on last autumn's ITV show 'I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here!', meaning he missed the UK Championship.

"It was a split decision in my head," said Hearn. "I went for friendship as well, and loyalty. I don't know if I'm guilty of that, but if I am I plead guilty as well."

Hearn added: "Stephen Hendry, I understand, is getting quite serious about playing so we'll have to see what form he brings to the table and how often he wants to play."

Up to four senior players will be invited back to the tour.

"Two are shoo-ins with Stephen Hendry and Steve Davis receiving invitations," Hearn said. "And we have the opportunity to invite other players up to a maximum of four."

The third invitation will go to Jimmy White if he falls off tour, which he will if Ding Junhui's conqueror Michael Wasley reaches the World Championship quarter-finals.

It represents a major shift in policy from Hearn, who has always insisted on a meritocracy since taking the top job in snooker in December 2009.

Hendry, 45, and Davis, 56, will face the challenge of qualifying events before the big stage beckons, and if the qualifiers are full with the 128 players who earn tour cards by right then neither will be invited along.

Hearn also announced all living former world champions would be entitled to play in the qualifying rounds for next year's Crucible tournament, meaning the likes of Dennis Taylor, Cliff Thorburn, Terry Griffiths and even Ray Reardon could play.

"I'd like Ray Reardon to play," Hearn said. "I'd like him to turn up. He's invited. I'm not saying he's going to win a game."

Davis, speaking on BBC Two, was torn about the idea of accepting a wild card given it could knock a young player down to the amateur ranks, and prefers the option Hearn has gone with.

The man who dominated snooker in the 1980s said: "I feel more comfortable accepting on a tournament-by-tournament basis if they haven't had a full level of entries, than accepting a tour card for two years that does bump someone out.

"Somewhere down the line you will kick somebody off but maybe further down the food chain.

"Stephen Hendry is an interesting concept. Stephen retired and all of a sudden made noises he might like to play in a few events.

"Wouldn't it be nice to see him back. Yes, if he fancied it."