Twenty-two snooker balls, six pockets and one table. How such simple concepts lend themselves to marvellous craft is one of the joys of sport, and snooker is no exception. For 17 days annually, 32 players dazzle us in their game’s world championship, all with their own idea of how it should be approached.
This year’s final pitted two current titans against each other, whose game-plans could not have been more different – they do say opposites attract.
What would sport be – especially one-on-one contests – without sharp contrasts? On one hand we had Ding Junhui, the typically free-flowing Chinese potting machine, whose break-building prowess rivals that of any who have played this magnificent game.
On the other hand, there was Mark Selby, who, despite being more-than-capable of power scoring himself, excels most as a torturer, whose safety looks to yield not even a millimetre, never mind an inch.
Both had the same 18-frame goal target, yet their chosen routes had no comparisons. And it was their contradicting styles that made for a fascinating final – it challenged not just abilities in snooker’s biggest test, but minds too. Selby’s two prior final appearances – one victorious, one not – ensured he was vetted for the marathon; Ding, albeit fresher after an easier semi-final, was in uncharted waters.
The opening spars gave us a crucial insight as to whether he would sink or swim.
Ding’s fatal slow start
Unsurprisingly nervy due to the immense pressure heaped onto him by himself and 100 million people in China, Ding began poorly. His vision clouded by the desire not to make frames scrappy, a collection of ultra-aggressive shots sparked from his cue, the most outrageous being a very chancy plant fraught with danger.
Selby grabbed the first, but it was the second which proved pivotal and remained poignant even after the Englishman’s triumph the following evening.
An early frame to settle the nerves is golden, whether in front of 20 people at a qualifier or under the bright lights of the Crucible Theatre, a venue drenched in history. A controlled break put Ding in command and, after sinking the frame-ball black, it looked secure.
Yet his preference to concentrate on pot over position presented Selby with an opportunity – one which he seized. The angles maestro set to work, landed a snooker from which his foe was unable to escape, and duly cleared up to snare the frame from Ding’s grasp and deal an early gut-buster.
The pattern continued: Selby made hey from Ding’s lapses and stormed 6-0 ahead, which would have been seven had he potted a tricky blue down the rail. Nevertheless, chapter one of the epic broke to the ‘Jester from Leicester’ as he won it 6-2, a four-frame advantage that would wane and expand over the match’s course, but ultimately remain as Selby rattled in his title-winning break to seal it 18-14.
Granted, there were other defining moments. In frame 15, a rallying Ding scythed through the balls to get over the winning line. But failure to pot the ball after that which guaranteed the frame was costly, as Selby dug in and tried to lay snookers for 45 minutes – a torturous passage of play which knocked his adversary completely out of his rhythm.
The 22nd frame may also have turned if Ding didn’t have the misfortune of the reds splitting badly as he compiled a break he hoped would level the scores.
However, the world final is a true examination and, while luck plays a role, it’s not definitive. Every time Ding eked closer and threatened to draw level and overhaul Selby, the latter would assert his authority and stretch clear again. The ‘Jester’ had a sleeve stacked with jokers to shift momentum back in his favour when required.
His mission for the majority was to protect, and prevent Ding from repairing the damage inflicted. The Chinese star was more inclined to go toe-to-toe in the safety department as the match wore on but, while it’s far from a weak facet of his game, it’s an area where he is inferior to Selby – something he would’ve anticipated beforehand.
The ‘Jester’ fried Ding’s mind
Snooker’s toughest match-player had fried the mind of the Asian sensation before a ball was potted, and six frames in, it was already too late to recover. Ding was simply ‘Selbied’. The sport may take place on a table measuring 12 feet long and six feet wide, but the real action happens between the ears, as tiresome as that cliché is.
Instead of playing the table in the initial phases, Ding played the player. The towering thought of 35 messy frames looming large was one Ding deemed both undesirable and unwinnable, hence his decision to attack, attack, attack. As a consequence, obscene plants, fiendish cuts and other audacious pots were attempted, few of which succeeded.
Playing in fear of Selby’s game, Ding allowed his weapon to become his weakness by over-exerting it. By changing to combat Selby, he conceded the play that brought him to the final wasn’t enough – in that moment, the fight was lost.
That’s not to suggest Ding is a mental lightweight – he is certainly not. Now a holder of 11 ranking events, he is altogether different from the teenage boy who suffered a painful loss to Ronnie O’Sullivan in the 2007 Masters Final, a match where he was reduced to tears. He is now a man and is back firing on all cylinders after a couple of testing seasons in the doldrums.
Selby secures his place amongst the game’s greats
What to say for Selby? Now a two-time world champion, he is establishing himself as one of the finest to have held a cue. As with many winners, Selby is not universally loved. His grit is a throwback to bygone days, and is peculiar to see in a razzmatazz era awash with mad pots and savage break-building.
But he wins, and he has now done so on the grandest stage twice in the past three years. To systematically deconstruct the mighty O’Sullivan in the final here two years ago was an even more impressive achievement than his latest conquering.
Another nod to Selby is how he’s managed to claim a world championship despite playing most of it far below his best. Admittedly, the lengthy format tends itself to doggedness. He has mastered the art of winning ugly. His semi-final versus Marco Fu was a prime example.
Hong Kong’s number one should have dominated the second and third sessions as his opponent wilted badly. But the combination of Selby’s know-how and Fu folding when offered must take chances, meant the Englishman wriggled free, dropping one session 5-3 and drawing the other 4-4. The knack of avoiding calamity is the hallmark of a vanquisher.
Selby’s success away from Sheffield is sparse – he possesses only five other ranking titles although he has scooped the Masters on three occasions – but where would he rather win than inside the hallowed arena of the Crucible?
The 2016 showpiece will not be remembered as a classic – it needed a tighter start and a consistently competitive Ding for that. But it did showcase two vastly different cueists under the most intense scrutiny to create an intriguing match-up featuring a smattering of high breaks and a smorgasbord of clever safety.
It indicated the sport can survive without Ronnie and, most of all, it showed that while explosive modernity knocks, the traditional granite-like grinder can still reign supreme.