Ebbs and Flows

28th April 2019

The 2019 World Snooker Championship has reached the second round stage. On Friday morning, I went to see the first session of the match between Stephen Maguire and James Cahill.

The Championship has been played at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield since 1977 and the format of the tournament is now well-established. The 16 top-ranked players in the world are joined by 16 qualifiers to contest a straight knock-out competition in which the matches expand in length from the best-of-19 frames in the first round to the best-of-35 in the final.

Of course, the Championship dates from long before taking up its residency in South Yorkshire . The first tournament – in 1927 and then called the Professional Snooker Championship – was won by Joe Davis from a field of 10. Davis retained the title the following year and the year after that… and the year after that… through to 1946, when the Championship resumed after a hiatus in the war years. It has to be noted that the fields were generally in single figures – with, in a couple of years, Davis’s victories being in one-off matches against a single challenger – but, even so, it was some feat for him to have held a world championship title for 20 years. Moreover, the matches themselves made the present-day finals look like short sprints: in 1946, Davis beat the Australian, Horace Lindrum, by 73 frames to 62 in a final that was the best-of-145.

In the 10 years after Joe Davis’s retirement from world championship play, there was a familiar name as the tournament winner on 8 occasions: his brother Fred. Indeed, it is Fred Davis who provides snooker’s link with the modern era, as he was one of the earliest competitors on the Pot Black television programme, when it was first aired by the BBC in 1969.

I recall the early years of Pot Black with some affection. It had a jaunty theme tune and a sympathetic commentator in Ted Lowe: did he really once say “for those of you watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green”? The programme also benefited from the technicalities of its presentation at a time when the take-up of colour television was rapidly expanding: there was a neat fit for a snooker table on the television screen and the half-hour duration was ideal for a single frame. Although the extensive tv coverage of major tournaments did not begin until the following decade, it was Pot Black that took snooker out of the dark, slightly seedy, smoke-filled halls it had previously inhabited and on to the path that has led to the modern-day riches of the elite players with their agents and promoters.

By reaching the second round, Maguire was guaranteed prize money of at least £30,000. (I assume that this didn’t apply to Cahill, who is the first amateur to have qualified for the final stages in the Crucible era). However, a subsequent quarter-final place would take the reward to at least £50,000 – the winner of the final will receive £500,000 – and so there was an obvious financial incentive for him and the other professionals to progress further, quite apart from the kudos of reaching the latter stages of the tournament.

The tournament’s sponsors are Betfred who, no doubt like everyone else, had been somewhat surprised that Cahill had won his first-round match, given that his opponent had been the world’s number one player, Ronnie O’Sullivan. The pre-match odds on O’Sullivan to win that contest had been 50 to 1 on.

The Crucible’s bar and foyer area was dominated by the Betfred “shop”, at which an array of screens relayed the betting options on various sporting events. In front of them, a man with a microphone shouted the odds on a bewildering selection of the session’s (and the tournament’s) possible outcomes: the number of century breaks, the quarter-final pairings, the Australian Neil Robertson becoming the overall champion… At one point, he took a break to throw some Betfred T-shirts – medium-sized, so I declined the opportunity to catch one – into the group of potential punters. The man announced that Cahill was 7 to 2 to beat Maguire: not particularly generous odds, I thought, even allowing for the amateur’s first-round success, given that Maguire is a seasoned 15-year professional.

For the first three rounds of the tournament, two matches are played are adjacent tables, separated by a large screen. Not surprisingly, the screen had the sponsor’s details in prominent display. I noticed that some of the signage had a Chinese script: a reflection, without question, of the sport’s major growth in that country. Six of this year’s 32 competitors were from China , five of whom came through the qualifying stage.

On the other side of the screen, Robertson was playing Shaun Murphy: two former world champions. A few seats in the auditorium provide views of both games, but most of the spectators focus on only one of the pairings, with the progress in the other being signalled by the rounds of applause or the groans accompanying a missed shot or, more practically, the totals instantly updated on the respective scoreboards. I was struck by the intimacy of the environment, not least the proximity of the two mobile cameramen at each table.

The spectators in both halves of the Crucible concentrated hard on the ever-changing arrangements of the coloured balls on their respective tables, respectful of the talents of the players and fully appreciative of their skills. On our side, there were a couple of shouts of “Come on, James”, but otherwise a general lack of overt partisanship. (This was probably not surprising, given that most of the tickets had been sold before the session’s participants were known). The applause that both Maguire and Cahill received on recording century breaks during the session was loud and genuine.

Maguire took a 2-0 lead, a break of 67 securing a tense first frame and one of 103, after an early fluked red, the second. I did wonder if a one-sided match was on the cards. However, Cahill recovered to 2-2 with a century of his own and, although Maguire took three frames in a row after the interval, Cahill won the closely fought final frame to end the session only 3-5 in arrears.

I can see why people get absorbed on a tournament such as this. The players’ fortunes do not so much ebb and flow as pause and then accelerate as, following cautious safety play, an opportunity might be presented and seized and a frame-winning break compiled. In a closely fought match as such as Maguire-Cahill, a player might lose two or three frame in a row virtually without potting a ball and then respond with a run of winning frames of his own. In the meantime, the match score mounts as one player or the other (or perhaps both) approaches the target needed: in the second round, the first to 13. In this year’s tournament, four of the 16 first-round encounters were decided by scores of 10-9.

I had just over 24 hours in Sheffield which, despite my having been born and brought up in Leeds – only 30 miles to the north – is not a city I know well. One of the many useful maps attached to the city centre bus-stops pointed me to a tourist information site near to the Crucible. I went there to see if there were any bus tours and, when I thought I was somewhere in the right vicinity, I enquired about this of two young women smoking vapour cigarettes near a glass-fronted office building. It turned out that, not only were there no bus tours, there was no tourist office (at least on this site), as it had closed last year. My tour of the city was therefore conducted at random and on foot.

Looking back, I suppose that my time in Sheffield also had its ebbs and flows. On the downside, I managed to lose (permanently) my house keys through a hole in my jacket pocket; at the Crucible, I had a sharp exchange with the officious steward who was demanding (rather too brusquely, I thought) that we clear the bar and foyer area after the morning session so that the afternoon’s spectators could be let in; on the way back to the hotel, a huge rainstorm overwhelming my flimsy brolly. I acknowledge, of course, that none of these events can really be said to have been the fault of Sheffield and, for the record, I can report that the rest of the stewarding at the Crucible was exemplarily polite.

But there were far more pluses, quite apart from watching – and feeling that I was almost participating in – a top-class snooker event. For one thing, a nice little café in Norfolk Row, just round the corner from the Crucible, supplied a very passable orange-flavoured scone. Then on the way back to the hotel, I spent half an hour in the light and spacious Sheffield Cathedral, fortuitously timing my visit when the choir was rehearsing for its evening service. The colour and originality of the Lantern Tower – a 1960s restoration that belies the usual architectural horrors of that decade – is worth seeing.

By that time, the preparations were in hand, no doubt, for the evening session at the Crucible, where Stephen Maguire and James Cahill were to resume their contest. Both players won four frames and so the former took a 9-7 lead into yesterday afternoon’s last session. The final outcome was a win for Maguire by the narrowest of margins: 13 frames to 12. Perhaps those pre-match odds on a Cahill victory were not so unrealistic, after all.

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