Solving snooker’s great riddle

Is snooker set up wrong?

Solving snooker’s great riddle

Sometimes, in the jubilant final shots of a frame, when a player mops up with the pressure lifted, we see quite magnificent things. Balls lashed in. Improbable paths to position found off multiple cushions. The elastic of physics stretched by deep screw and check side.

Showing off.

Are we asking enough of them at all? Should we force them to jump through these hoops more often? Test their navigational instincts. Randomly pop the black on the brown spot maybe.

Of course not.

The great beauty of snooker’s test is not found in sweeping brush strokes when the pressure has lifted. But in the delicate needlework around the black spot when consequences roar in the silence. As Steve Davis once put it: “You have to play snooker as if it means everything but it means nothing.”

Steve resolved that riddle better than most. Back at the Crucible this year for the first time as a layman, he has found a sport feeling quite good about itself, despite the usual doom and gloom.

For many years, the late April tradition was to mourn for snooker’s faded glory. To remember Bill Werbeniuk, Kirk Stevens, Alex Higgins and co and ask why there are no characters any more.

For a time, snooker beat itself up so violently over its supposed lack of characters that it began to fasten on ludicrous nicknames. A desperation that saw one of the game’s finest players become the Jester from Leicester despite no evident body of work in comedy.

The game might still lack a little soap opera colour, but then the likes of Big Bill and Kirk and even the Hurricane weren’t often around at the business end alongside men like Steve Davis, who only became a character after he stopped winning.

In Steve’s BBC documentary last Sunday, The Crucible: 40 Golden Snooker Years, his ashen face after the greatest final showed us how much it meant. But there were plenty reminders too how he could play like it meant nothing.

Steve bypassed the tiresome lament for characters by making the Crucible itself the central character in his story. Sought the theatre’s enduring charm as much as its ghosts.

It’s worth celebrating too, that the World Championship came back to Sheffield for a 40th year with snooker still more or less the same game.

Less confident sports would have caved by now to a clamour for nips and tucks. Maybe made them play every third shot with the spider or the double extension. Brought in a black card for cynically incessant cleaning of the cue ball. Allowed the option to call a mark to encourage long pots from baulk. Found an incentive to revive the lost art of the swerve.

But no, they’ve stuck with it, let the game evolve naturally. Sure, TV bolts on another layer of technology every year.

Alongside the telestrator and augmented reality and Hawk-Eye, there’s now a battery of stats. But all the camera angles and all the technology will not stop John Virgo raising the false alarm in his time-honoured fashion: “where’s the cue ball going?”.

Maybe they have buckled a little in the face of modern sport’s demand for jargon. In Dennis Taylor’s mind, at least, the ‘dreaded double kiss’ has become ‘the DDK’. Or even, in times of greatest foreboding, the ‘dreaded DDK’.

But in the main, this is a game that has found itself again.

Who needs characters when you can watch brave men deal with finding themselves too straight on the blue?

During Ronnie O’Sullivan’s quarter-final with Ding Junhui, Taylor said, in commentary: “It’s not like any other sport. In golf, if you play a good shot, I can play a good shot. In snooker I have to sit and watch you.”

That powerlessness makes this the cruellest of the mind games.

In Davis’s documentary, they produced the tapestry of the Crucible’s most beautiful embroidery, Ronnie’s 147 against Mick Price 20 years ago, stitched in a record five minutes, 20 seconds. Speed without hurry.

“One of the most incredible things ever seen in sport,” observed Stephen Hendry, another riddler.

Peter Ebdon, who operates at the other end of the speedometer, pointed out: “He’s tuning into a higher energy, without any shadow of a doubt.” Whatever Ronnie tunes into, there was some interference ahead of this year’s championship.

He said: “I have conversations with God and he said to me, ‘Jack snooker in mate, you’re better off as a pundit’ and I was like, ‘Hold on, we will have to have a proper conversation about that’.”

Asked by Davis to explain the wonder of Crucible fortnight, Ronnie baulked: “Is it though… 17 days of it?”

In a game short of characters, he is probably modern professional sport’s greatest character, in the most intriguing sense of the word.

He has struggled more than most with how much it means. It meant too much and it didn’t mean enough. When he first won at the Crucible, he was on Prozac. In the age of 110%, he has often vowed to give it around 20%. In the era of the Savage Hunger, you might ask him how much he really wants it and find the answer to be: “Nah mate, not really…”

On Wednesday, Ronnie could have marked the 20th anniversary of his perfect frame with another. After the 12th red, he shaped to take the blue, to give the crowd a laugh. On the 13th, he took the pink, and chuckled his way to a 146. Ronnie knows the price and the value of everything. His 1997 masterpiece earned him £165,000. Another maximum would have banked £15,000. It might be the most charming way of making sport all about the money.

Three frames later, he was out. With a lot won, Ronnie is now wrestling with life’s bigger riddles.

“I have had the best year of my life and have not won many tournaments, and I think ‘how does that relate?’”

But not before he embraced Ding and acknowledged there are men still toiling with snooker’s great riddle.

“He wants this so bad.”

United go the Mourinho way

We recall Jose Mourinho telling us not long ago he was busy restoring Manchester United’s tradition of beautiful football. That he was, essentially, Making United Great Again. But now that we reach the business end, with plucky little United still in the hunt for Europe, the phrase ‘campaign in poetry, govern in prose’ springs to mind.

If we look back at the entire campaign, we find Mourinho parking his bus against both United’s fiercest rivals. It makes you wonder if Moyesy and LVG have shrunk Fergie’s job just enough to fit him.

Heroes & villains

Stairway to heaven

Leo Messi: The nerveless timeliness of that Clasico winner almost made Ray Hudson’s technicolour vomit of praise seem understated.

Eamon Dunphy: Amid all the wrongness, there is more truth than from many pundits who want to be always right. And definitely more entertainment.

Hell in a handcart

Big Sam: Not a believer in the phrase ‘if you’re explaining, you’re losing’. More of an ‘if you’re winning, explain how ad nauseam’ man.

Ilie Nastase: Agassi called it, aged nine, after Nastase made fun of him and a ballgirl: “I wanted to punch this big stupid Romanian in the nose.”

Barton's teachings

Maybe Joey Barton is awareness raising’s answer to Daniel Day-Lewis. A method awareness raiser.

In fairness to the lad, he talks a great game, making some fine points over the years about anger management, and homophobia and now the insidious links between football and gambling; doing so via the bit of anger and homophobia and now falling foul spectacularly of football’s gambling rules.

In many ways, it is a life dedicated to teaching as much as controvassy. Maybe he has taught us so much he hasn’t time to learn.

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