World Championship: Why Mark Selby’s unswerving pursuit of greatness gives snooker grinding headache
Mark Selby lifted a fourth world title in seven years with an undaunted 18-15 win over Shaun Murphy in the 45th Crucible final. It was a rousing triumph for old school tactical excellence over attacking expertise, a clear contrast to the victories of Ronnie O'Sullivan and Judd Trump over the past two years, but what does Selby's success mean for the UK-based sport's bid to expand into new markets?
'Wow!' - O'Sullivan, Selby and Murphy with Shot of the Tournament contenders
Published 04/05/2021 at 16:01 GMT | Updated 06/05/2021 at 00:37 GMT
At the same time millions were watching the underwhelming finale to the BBC police drama Line of Duty on Sunday night, millions more were witnessing a dramatic dereliction of duty in Sheffield.
If professional sport is supposed to create inventive, awe-inspiring theatre, snooker’s 45th World Championship final at the city's Crucible Theatre between Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy – finally won by Selby 18-15 on bank holiday Monday – took leave of its senses in the second session, left bankrupt in terms of what such an occasion should bring to mass entertainment.
One does not need to accept this onlooker’s opinion of some fairly gruesome goings on in snooker’s ultimate prize fight of the year amid Selby’s unapologetic and unswerving trudge to a fourth Crucible title. Not when his fellow multiple world champions Ronnie O’Sullivan, Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry said enough with some damning faint praise that was both a criticism and a critique of the winner’s key attributes.
Watch the moment Selby clinches fourth world title at Crucible
Davis – who was hardly the life and soul of the party himself back in the day – rather cruelly compared Selby to a villain from the Harry Potter canon of fiction called the Dementor, a sort of grim reaper figure. They are said to “glory in decay and despair, they drain hope and happiness out of the air around them” which pretty much summed up Selby’s mightily effective, but soul-destroying dismantling of fellow Englishman Murphy, a bloke he has known since childhood and shares a coach (Chris Henry) with, on Sunday evening. Friends reunited was a plague on the rejuvenated Murphy’s regal long potting, but especially so for frazzled viewers.
That haggard second session of demonic dominance set the scene for his triumph with a tactical and defensive masterclass executed with as much joy-crushing discipline as Jose Mourinho visiting Barcelona for a Champions League semi-final running Inter Milan in 2010. One for the purists? Most definitely. One to win a popularity contest? Most definitely not.
Like Mourinho, Selby’s mindset is more interested in winning medals than winning over the audience.
“What’s the point of going out there just to entertain the crowd if you keep losing? It doesn’t make sense to me. Look at your CV,” he said.
I don’t want people saying ‘He was great to watch, but he didn’t win anything’. If you think I’m boring, watch Coronation Street.
Millions were instead watching Line of Duty as the snooker turned into thin gruel set against the thin blue line. One red top dubbed the contest "The Showman v The Slowman" with rust moving quicker than some of the reds.
Murphy was left to fend for himself, living off scraps and went over an hour without potting a ball at one point as the ceaseless Selby transformed a 5-3 deficit into a 10-7 advantage by winning six out of seven frames after a lamentable viewing experience that included re-racks in frames 12 and 17. That slowly but surely became 14-11 after the third session and remained at three as the winning margin.
‘Head in jam jar’
O’Sullivan compared his old rival to a “boa constrictor” on Eurosport in his ability to tighten his grip on opponents with balls welded to cushions and Murphy left frozen in some sort of snooker Siberia.
“Selby is keeping balls tight on the side cushion,” said O’Sullivan, as he suffered ghastly flashbacks of his 18-14 defeat to Selby in 2014 having led 10-5 against a man he later titled 'the Torturer' for his frightful habit to restrict.
'If he plays like that, he's got zero chance' - O'Sullivan's advice for Murphy against Selby
There was no value in Murphy carrying on playing like he was. His head is in a jam jar and when it is in a jam jar you cannot think straight.
Hendry warmed to the theme on the Beeb by comparing Selby to a spirit-sucking “vampire” – 43 years after old Dracula himself Ray Reardon lifted his sixth world crown – amid some startling discussions that pronounced the Leicester man a master of the “dark arts”. It immediately brought you back to Harry Potter connotations with Murphy, known as the Magician after his 2005 world victory as a 150-1 qualifier, dispossessed of his wand by you-know-who, the Dark Lord of loo breaks.
“The claws are in and they are in deep, Mark Selby is like a snooker vampire. He sucks all the life and adrenaline out of you,” opined Hendry, the record seven-times Crucible holder.
These monikers are hardly candidates to replace the ill-fitting ‘Jester from Leicester’ nickname by the rampaging, all-knowing MC Rob Walker when Selby returns to defend his trophy next April.
Having complained about the debilitating effects of slow play before the final, Murphy was left to experience snooker suffocation on a grand scale as he suffered in silence, but in the days and weeks to come he will realise he had plenty of scoring chances over three of the four sessions to emerge victorious. Not that Selby will give consideration to the bigger picture after adding to his glory years of 2014, 2016 and 2017 while trousering a huge £500,000 winner’s cheque.
When you appreciate his working-class roots, the need to survive against life itself, you understand his devotion to his vocation that has required hard graft to iron out the kinks in a cue action that has never troubled O’Sullivan or Judd Trump, the past two world champions in Sheffield, for such an elongated period of time. Having lifted his four world titles between the age of 30 and 37, he is a late developer when you consider Hendry claimed the last of his seven Crucible gongs at 30.
Unlike Rocket Ronnie, who can win and entertain in perfect harmony, Selby plays to his strengths without other obvious available options.
“I’m not the most naturally gifted player... you look at Ronnie and Judd and they’re very, very talented and are basically born with a cue in hand,” said Selby after contributing 12 centuries to a record tournament haul of 108.
Whereas me, I’ve had to work hard all the way through my career. I’ve been brought up on a council estate, my father had no money at all, he passed away when I was 15 or 16, and my mum left me when I was eight years old. It’s been tough.
O’Sullivan is correct in his assertion that the best player does not always end up as world champion, but perhaps the wisest one does.
It is usually the one who hangs in there the longest who emerges holding the sport’s old pot, first played for and clasped by 15-times winner Joe Davis in 1927, the one who knows when and where to pick their moments. Selby’s remarkable sense of awareness in and around the table is his unique and strongest asset over the longer distance, a format that is ripe for unrepentant, and at times unpleasant, tactical prowess.
Yet such an ongoing, unforgiving grinding style is hardly leading snooker into a brave new dawn. In fact, it is all very retro, a throwback to the 1980s and 1990s, when battle-hardened figures like 'Steady' Eddie Charlton, Cliff 'The Grinder' Thorburn, Terry Griffiths and Peter Ebdon – who famously constructed a break of only 12 in over five minutes against O’Sullivan in 2005 - used to purposely slow it down for their own ends.
Of course, Selby does it to a higher level than that crafty quartet, but the intention to disrupt an opponent’s rhythm is hardly a new trick. It remains stuck in the past.
Being the best at closing down an opponent does not make a player brilliant to watch. Selby is grimly great. There has arguably never been a player like Selby who can spoil a table so well without using his hands yet still maintain momentum.
1980s magician Paul Daniels could never have uncovered such secrets in his bunko booth, a decade of snooker boom in the UK when Charlton once responded with the immortal line “f*** the crowd” when questioned about what the fans made of his sterile tactics after one evening match ran into the next day at the Crucible.
It also appeared the 2010 world champion Neil Robertson was gearing himself up mentally after lifting the Tour Championship when he said he didn't want to get "bogged down" again after the attritional nature of his 13-7 loss to Selby in the last eight nine months ago. As it was, he didn't make it far enough to meet Selby, but it is quite a compliment to get inside the mind of your key rivals in such an unnerving manner.
‘Killing the game’
Nothing much has changed in recent years despite Trump usurping Selby as number one.
When Selby won a third Masters with a 10-6 success against Robertson in 2013, he edged out the 2006 world champion Graeme Dott 6-5 in a distressing semi-final at Alexandra Palace in London that began just after 7pm on Saturday night and finished after midnight with fans forced to leave early to catch the last bus home. They would probably have been back in time to catch the end on TV.
"I don't think that is a good advert for snooker tonight,” said Dott. “That is just my personal opinion. I don't like being involved in games were lots of people are actually leaving.
It is not so much putting me off. You just don't get rhythm. It is like killing the game. It is the equivalent of a football team putting 11 men behind the ball and not attempting to come out. It is just the way Mark plays.
Selby is more effective at crushing the will of his opponent with a cue in his hand than Chuck Norris with a set of nunchucks, but the aesthetics of his play rather than his ambition should contribute to a wider conversation in how snooker should be trying to sell itself when it is competing for sponsors, attention spans and future generations against other more enticing, more lucrative sports.
There are other ways for potential followers to spend their time and money these days.
Snooker is a game that sees the main protagonists dressed like gentlemen, but consists of figures willing to scrap like street fighters.
There is a real selfishness and single-mindedness needed to spend hours in darkened rooms devoted to improve technique without any guarantee of success, both monetary and momentary.
'He hid round the corner' - Selby reveals distraction on final black
It has a sinister side to the ideal that it is all about good sportsmanship. Watching Selby let out a huge roar when sinking the winning black suggests this is all patent nonsense. There are no friends exchanging friendly fire.
Trump has been busy during this event speaking about dress code and the need to sell the sport to a younger audience and new territories with World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn retiring after 11 years as the sport’s leading transformative marketeer.
“All the players need to do their job and make the sport as exciting as possible," said Trump.
Hopefully we can take the game to another level, appeal to a different kind of audience and take it a little more worldwide.
Deliberate time wasting as a tactic is arguably the biggest blight on the landscape.
If snooker was trying to sell itself solely on Selby’s win-at-all-costs brand of snooker, it would be closed down tomorrow, but the world champion can play at pace. He lost in the final of the Shoot Out to Ryan Day earlier this year under tight time restrictions so there is the ability to be more expansive if he wishes.
Not that he cares. Not should he. Whether or not the boys in the bubble love long bouts of tactical and safety play is missing the point. It is the amount of time taken over shots that is the pressing issue.
Stuart Bingham accused Selby of gamesmanship after leading 13-11 on Friday night only to suffer a grisly demise a day later, and a day before Murphy suffered a similar fate, in falling to a 17-15 loss that ran for over 12 hours. They were forced to return to finish off their semi-final after Murphy's 17-12 win over Kyren Wilson in the other semi-final after Selby was warned by the match referee to play a stroke after taking close to three minutes before rolling into the pack of reds.
Bingham has 'lost a bit of respect' for Selby after semi-final play
“It was gruelling. It’s tough to lose a close game like that,” said Bingham. “Funnily enough, it’s the same sort of player, time in, time out, who plays slow. Does he do it on purpose or what?
“I want a free-flowing game. Everyone knows there was one shot which took three minutes. It’s close to gamesmanship.”
Bingham was also unhappy with Selby’s conduct that saw him celebrate before he had slotted the conclusive blue to condemn the 2015 world champion to defeat.
I thought he had more respect but to celebrate before game ball, well I lost a bit of respect. I wouldn’t do that. I don’t expect anyone else to do it. It has put a sour taste in the mouth.
Selby refuted the allegations pointing to the average shot time being the same of under 30 seconds, but that is a red herring because he picks and chooses his moments to dictate the pace.
I have never used gamesmanship in my life. In the final of course you want to play well. But if you’re not playing well, I’ll do whatever it takes to win.
Pacing the table, deliberating over shots several times and playing a shot a minute or two after much consideration were regular happenings. It is snooker’s equivalent of the six-hour round in golf.
Golf and tennis have tried to address the issue of deliberate slow play. Snooker should be consulting its members on how it fixes an issue that is decades old with the notion of a clock shot perhaps one that should gain real traction to ward off long pregnant pauses in play.
'Selby is the best all-rounder we've ever seen' - Murphy
“We are in a theatre, we are an entertainment industry,” said Murphy, who also described Selby as the sport's greatest "all-rounder". “There is a responsibility on the players in the World Championship final to make it a real show.
“I feel that responsibility as a sportsperson, to marry that balance between performance and entertainment.
Specifically on the speed of play there is a responsibility on the players to get on with it, but ultimately that is on the governing body to enforce.
Penalising slow play, unnecessary toilet breaks and the accusation of gamesmanship are issues to study after the final was attended by just under 1000 raucous fans under strict Covid-19 test guidelines.
"Mark Selby is basically The Terminator," said snooker diehard, comedian and raconteur Stephen Fry on Twitter. "Listen. Understand. That Terminator is out there. It can't be reasoned with, it can't be bargained with...it doesn't feel pity or remorse or fear...and it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.”
He'll be back. Call it what you will, but when Selby ended up snaring Murphy in his web on Sunday, without using the spider, the final outcome always looked set in stone at the time Detective Superintendent Ian Buckells was being outed as H on Line of Duty.
For his compromised opponents, the Jester at his green baize best remains about as amusing as seeing your cue tip topple off midmatch.
Buckle up because Mark Selby, clasping a fourth world title as keenly as his first, is going nowhere fast.