It’s how things are. People don’t want five days of Test cricket, they want 20 overs of hit and giggle. I heard it through a great Vine. Less, inexplicably, is more.
Barry Hearn, who you like on the sly, has taken this approach to the great art of snooker since he took it over in 2010. Best of 7s proliferate, matches with no intervals and thus very limited narrative. Besides the endless, identity-less Championship Leagues and Players Tour Events, tempting deal holiday destinations with the word ‘Open’ suffixed, events we all know are for the bookies’ benefit, two tournaments stand out.
First, the Snooker Shoot-Out, introduced in 2011. It’s a straight one-frame knock-out contested by the top 64 (although Ronnie, understandably, usually can’t be arsed), with a 15, then 10 second shot clock and a maximum of ten minutes per match. The crowd are pissed and loud and there’s a raft of other pointless rules drafted in from pool. This was all well and good before it became a ranking event this season – players’ hard-earned points rendered null following a bad break-off against Nigel Bond.
The other event to represent this is the dear old UK Championship, one of the traditional Triple Crown events, along with the Masters and the World Championship. The UK has been reduced from best of 17s to best of 11s and has subsequently lost a lot of prestige. For my money, this week’s Champion of Champions event is now the third biggest in the sport.
What a name. The Champion of Champions. So brash, so brazen, so Hearn. But of course it’s worked. And what a tournament it’s been. The qualifying criteria is a little sketchy (I wouldn’t be too surprised if they shoehorned in Jimmy White for next year’s instalment after his victory in the UK Seniors), but we ended up with some of the world’s best players, and Mark King, playing snooker of a proper distance. One round of best of 7s to separate the wheat from the chaff and then we’re away with best of 11s.
Snooker takes a long time to watch but if you sit down and concentrate it will reward you with the most unbelievable tension and drama. Ultimately, it comes down to this: there’s big money on the table and you can see them feel it. In Sunday’s final Shaun Murphy and Ronnie O’Sullivan battled it out for £50,000.
I don’t like Shaun Murphy. I don’t think many people do. He’s sanctimonious and overweight but boy is that cue action as smooth as silk itself. Qualifying as last year’s Gibraltar Open champion and very much unconsidered, he crept up on the final. Nondescript wins against Mark King and Michael White put him in the semis against Luca Brecel, who overcame the un-overcomeable Mark Selby in the previous round. From 4-2 down he won the next four with a 131 break along the way to take the match 6-4. Luca Brecel sleeps with the fishes.
Still, no-one really expected Murphy to beat O’Sullivan over 19 frames. Ronnie is having one of those spells. His world ranking of 7 is only so low because many tournaments in the new crowded season are beneath him. Sometimes he deigns to play, and often he wins. This week he’d been unstoppable. Cruising past Neil Robertson and crushing poor old John Higgins 6-0 – that was sad – and easing past the very underrated Sheriff of Pottingham Anthony Hamilton (who, wonderfully, came out to Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine’s Sheriff Fatman) in the semi.
The afternoon session began with a pair of almost-centuries from Ronnie to put him 2-0 up. The next four fell to Murphy. When Ronnie’s playing well, his timing is so great that he makes a different noise to other players (NB – Federer is the same in tennis. This should be the criterion for the much too bandied about term ‘sporting genius’). But there’s not much more satisfying a sight in snooker or elsewhere than Murphy thwacking in a long one, even though I don’t like him. When you really hammer it into the middle of the pocket it can be intimidating; when he’s playing Ronnie, who he never beats, it’s a won’t-lie-down gutsy statement of defiance.
How often have we heard this said: “How often have we heard it said that the last frame of the session can set the tone going into the evening?”? Thanks to ITV4’s commentary team we heard it said again at about four o’clock on Sunday afternoon. 4-4 with one to play, and Ronnie looked like having clinched it. But he missed a red with the rest by so far that it should’ve been called a wide and an error-strewn frame went to Murphy.
Still, what is 5-4 when you’re playing to ten? One frame, big deal, the Rocket come out this evening with the crowd cheering him on and wrap it up in two hours tops. Only 5-4 became 6-4, 7-4, 8-4. With one frame before the mid-session interval, Ronnie badly needed it. And he collapsed over the line, scrapping away and with the cue ball curiously out-of-position. No rhythm. But 8-5 it was going into the mid-sesh.
We know what both of them were feeling because we’re human, and that’s what makes snooker so great. Murphy was worried about cocking it up. O’Sullivan has the wood on Murphy, particularly over long-distance matches. Thrice at the World Championships (13-7 this year, 13-3 in 2014, 13-10 in 2011). Murphy has also not had a good time of it recently. Anyone in the game recognises the steps a previous major contender takes on their way to slipping out of the top 16, and Shaun is several along them. His career needs a boost.
Ronnie will have been wondering what went wrong. He should’ve walked this the way he’s been playing all week. But he knows 90 per cent of the audience want a comeback and he knows if he can get one back, then another, then suddenly he’s favourite and Murphy will wilt.
Murphy took the first to make it 9-5, but, as they always say, it’s so bloody difficult to get over the line. The whole sport requires immense concentration and immense stillness. You can’t think about anything else and you can’t shake. So when there’s fifty grand on the line it’s hard to keep it together. So it went 9-6. Then, with a 108 break, it went 9-7. Another clearance for 9-8 and we’ve seen this script before.
Leave the Murphy ultras to one side and everybody wants a decider. And it looked very much like we were going to get one, O’Sullivan just needing a moderately tricky green into the middle for effectively 9-9. “The game’s all about fractions.” Murphy cleared to take it. It was, in one sense only, a victory for the little man.