By Fin Ruane
Since the climax of this year’s Masters, two probing questions have arisen among both players and fans alike regarding the current game of professional snooker.
Many commentators and ex-players, namely the seven times world champion Stephen Hendry, have questioned whether the standard of play produced this season is any better than seasons past. To me it’s simple, today’s standard is by far streets ahead of the snooker from the past. I believe, though, that this question has arisen because of the quality of the last two ‘major finals’ in the UK and the Masters. These have been screened live by the BBC, have therefore reached a mainstream audience and by coincidence strongly featured current world number one Mark Selby.
I am not in any way saying that Mark Selby is to blame for the lack of high quality snooker in both of these finals, quite the opposite in fact. Selby is possibly one of the finest match snooker players out there and he does what he has to do to win. As every player knows sometimes you have to win a match ugly, indeed if you look at one of the most famous finals of all time, the 1985 world final of which still holds the highest viewing figures for a snooker final, it was possibly one of the worst world finals ever held. It was only the manner in which it was famously won by Dennis Taylor that it still remains a part of snooker folklore.
The point is today’s top players are playing for far greater prizes financially which incidentally takes on an even more important meaning when from the season 2014-2015 the ranking list shall be based on money won. There are so many players playing at the top of their game now that by trying to keep the standard up constantly it seems by the time they reach a final they are suffering from fatigue, both physical and mental.
There are of course people who will say that if you cannot pick yourself up to play in a major final then you should not be playing the game but if you take into account the amount of snooker that the players are playing now then I think it is all the more remarkable that they can produce anything at all.
I can count on one hand the amount of great finals I have watched in the last few years. Even though it was only best of seven, the PTC final in Antwerp last season between Judd Trump and Ronnie O’Sullivan was one of the greats with both players at the top of their form, also this season’s final of the Shanghai Masters between Trump and John Higgins was another example of two players flying in a final, a clash which to round it off featured a 147 from Higgins.
It appears today there are two types of snooker fans. There are the fans that just want to see century after century and balls going in all over the place and then there are the purists who like myself love watching the game whatever the standard of play. Sometimes it can be more exciting watching a player trying to lay three or four snookers to win a frame than watching a player bash in a long red, track the black, split the reds and go onto make the mandatory century. Frames where a player has broken down on a 60-odd only to see his opponent clear to win can be as equally exciting.
I don’t want to sound like I am contradicting myself but it’s not just the present finals that are disappointing but the majority of finals in the past have seldom lived up to their hype. It seems the best snooker is played in the earlier rounds as the players are fresh and feeling their way into the event. Take for example some of the earlier matches in last week’s Masters. Here we had some last frame deciders, some fantastic and exciting snooker and of course plenty of centuries for the 100 break fans out there.
If we were to look at the season so far there have been some great moments with plenty of different winners. No one player has dominated the season. Selby of course has won the UK and Masters and many think he may triumph in Sheffield in May to complete the so-called Triple Crown, but the fact is the new International Championship has overtaken the UK as the second most lucrative ranking event so perhaps Selby cannot win the ‘three majors’ as Judd Trump won the International last November. In the last year we have seen several winners of ranking events and of course some maiden winners too such as Mark Allen and Barry Hawkins. Lets not forget the number of maximums we’ve already had this season too!
In snooker’s boom times the game was saturated on tv but again where were all the brilliant matches? Yes, the game had characters but the standard of play that was produced certainly didn’t match their colourful personalities. Look at how Steve Davis and Hendry dominated their eras because there was simply nobody else that could come near them. Today no one player is dominating, even the mercurial O’Sullivan and the granite like Higgins both four-time world champions are not winning everything, in fact if a player was to win two or three events his season would be deemed a success.
Even the 1982 world final, in which the Hurricane finished off with his 135 clearance followed by the iconic moment he called for his baby daughter, was a pretty average final. Most of the big finals were to be remembered by several moments that defined the game. Who can forget Willie Thorne’s missed blue? And Jimmy White gaining the snooker needed on the pink against Cliff Thorburn to win a final frame decider in the Mercantile Classic. My abiding memories of the British Open finals in which the sponsor was Dulux was them putting a big sheepdog on the table for photographs at the trophy presentation.
Take for example South African Perrie Mans. Here was a player who I loved watching when I was a youngster, yet when Mans beat Alex Higgins 8-4 to win the 1979 Masters he didn’t make one break over 50. Likewise in all the world titles Ray Reardon, Davis and Hendry won can you remember a stand out final? What I can remember more about those finals are the drubbing Davis gave Parrott and Hendry gave White that ended the much hyped encounter with a session to spare!
Even the 1997 final between Ken Doherty and Stephen Hendry in which I was fortunate enough to attend was nothing special. Yes, we can all remember Ken clearing the colours to win his world title but the final itself was nothing special. Ken just put in a quality matchplay performance to keep the defending champion at bay.
There are so many good players playing in an ever-increasing calendar today that the standard is increasing tournament by tournament, so what if the characters are not there anymore? Snooker to these players is a full-time job now, not something they can turn their hand to at the end of a working week. Look at the emergence of teenager Luca Brecel and Coa Yupang this season, they are the future of the game and will eventually replace the Higgins’s and Selby’s. All these players need is the opportunity on an even playing field which brings me on to the second question that has arisen recently regarding the new format involving the increased 128 players tour from next season.
The new regime of snooker introduced under Barry Hearn has been nothing short of sensational. Here was a sport on its knees with nothing to look froward to, hardly any sponsors and only a half-dozen ranking events each season, summarising into a sport that was dying.
Now three seasons later we have 11 ranking events added to the two PTC series’, Shootout, World Six Reds, Masters and Premier League and all of a sudden snooker enjoys a near year-long calendar. No tournament is without a sponsor and prize money continues to grow and grow. The top 32 players at the end of October last had each earned over £100,000 or more on the two-year prize money list. That type of earning was unheard of several years back for the top 16 and only the top 8 could realistically earn money like that. Even the ‘older’ generation of players such as Stuart Bingham, Mark Davis and Matt Stevens are all enjoying the fruits of more match time as they have seen their careers revitalised under Hearn’s watch.
So what of the players who never reach a ranking venue or dream of the chance to play at the Crucible or better still hope to pit themselves against the likes of Selby, Robertson and co. someday?
From next season on, eight ranking events will adopt this new system of ever player entering in the first round. With the top players involved right from the start it basically puts everyone on an equal standing. It will see players from the top 64 take on players ranked 65 to 128 in the first round in a random draw. This of course means a return to the cubicles for the top players as obviously the first couple of rounds will be too big for the current ranking venues in which the tournaments are staged. Naturally some of the top players are none too pleased about this as it’s going back to where they originally played so hard to escape from early in their careers, but in my opinion the top boys have been protected for too long. How is a young professional player out there supposed to further his career and play the top boys if he’s denied this opportunity?
From the all-important financial point of view the money guaranteed will increase substantially and will guarantee players who reach at least the last 16 of each event £90,000 annually. It also means lower ranked players have to win less matches to win prize money and of course only three to reach a last 16.
To be honest if those inside the top 16 find it a struggle to come through these qualifiers then should they really be claiming to be such a player? When asked about the format John Higgins said “if i can’t come through the 128 scenario flat system where I might be playing someone ranked outside the top 64 first well then I don’t deserve to win tournaments.”
Even wiser words from Shaun Murphy who claimed that “for the first time the top players will be able to look everyone in the eye and say they are the top players because they have had to beat everyone else”.
There are of course the critics and it surprise me that commentators John Virgo and John Parrott are against such a plan. Firstly, they no longer play so why should it be an issue and secondly shouldn’t they be delighted that the possibility of new stars to comment on might be appealing to them?
Then of course we have Mark Allen having his say. Here’s a guy who never wanted Barry Hearn in snooker and was happy enough to keep things the way they were, yet now he finds himself earning hundreds of thousands as well as winning his first ranking title – a ranking title that would not have existed only for Hearn’s involvement!
There will always be the argument for and against new ideas. Everyone will always have an opinion, the main thing is snooker now is in a better place. Already Betfair only a week after the conclusion to their first sponsorship of the Masters have increased the prize money for next season. It’s now up to the players to either shut up or put up and get on with playing the game we the fans want to see.
As for the standard, well if the standard this season has been poor well then I’m all for a lot more of the same.