The grand old sport of snooker is fighting for its future. Barry Hearn, the man who brought the game to the masses, is back at the helm, hoping to reinvigorate a civilised sport that’s been drowned out by a brash new world. Hearn is keen to mimic the success of another British game he has cannily reinvented – darts, a sport that’s been dragged from murky hostelries to centre stage at Ally Pally.
Hearn’s grand plan for snooker has yet to fully materialise, but it follows the same trends – from the eminently sensible (building a schedule to encourage, not alienate, the game’s greats) to gaudy, irrelevant showpieces like the Snooker Shootout. This uncomfortable mimicry misses the point – snooker is not darts. In fact, it’s nothing like darts – bar an admitted lack of physical exertion.
The recent PDC World Championship semi-final between two of the sport’s superstars, Adrian Lewis and Michael van Gerwen, lasted 41 minutes. The recent Crucible semi-final between Mark Selby and Neil Robertson took 12 hours. Crowd participation at Alexandra Palace includes fancy dress and boisterous chants. At the Crucible, an errant sneeze can earn you a stiff reprimand.
Snooker is a game that was brought to the nation by colour television; it’s understandable that it should look to its neighbour’s televised success for a way back to the top. As a means of comparison though, darts serves only as a reminder of what once was – a speck in the distance to chase forlornly. For snooker to retain its glory days, the powers that be must be prepared to gaze into the void within.
The early gimmicks that are being resuscitated were a by-product of snooker’s success, not the root cause. The reason people fell for snooker is because it was, and is, good to watch – a terrific game of skill and nerve stretched over a merciless timeframe.
All sports need to adapt to thrive, but sometimes a tweak is worth more than a transformation. For a small change that could have big consequences, Hearn needs to reverse an amendment that brought the curtain down on snooker’s golden age.
September 1995. Stephen Hendry had just won his fourth consecutive world title. With Jimmy White and Steve Davis having already played their last finals, Hendry’s dominance was beginning to grate. It was then that the authorities inked a once unwritten treaty into the official rulebook, and the miss rule was born.
The rule comes into force when a player, usually trying to escape a taxing snooker, fails to make contact with the object ball. So far, so fair enough – however, the referee can simply call a ‘foul’ for this, as with any other error that results in a penalty. The additional miss call signifies that the referee doesn’t believe the player made a “good enough attempt” at hitting the ball in question.
Snooker’s lawmakers resisted enforcing the miss rule for this reason – it implies that a player’s shot selection is disingenuous; at worst, they are cheating. The penalty for such a transgression is that, if their opponent wishes, they can be made to replay the shot indefinitely, racking up successive penalties.
The miss rule has long been a bone of contention among professionals, with players unsure exactly where to direct their ire. The constant repetition of a dazzling feat of geometry that finishes a millimetre off course is enough to drive the mildest competitor into cue-snapping frustration. Yet, largely, referees are spared the wrath of the wronged.
Ronnie O’Sullivan, never a man short of a provocative word or three, lambasted Stephen Hendry in 2002 for repeatedly asking for a shot to be replayed. Players clearly have the option to overrule the referee’s pedantry, but must do what’s best for them. Hendry giving up his advantage would be akin to a footballer skying an illegitimate penalty – to be applauded, but never expected.
For armchair fans, so pivotal to the breakthrough of this serene sport, the rule is a needless obstacle to enjoyment. The World Snooker Championship surfaces on BBC Two in April every year to precious little fanfare. The casual viewer is likely to chance upon it while searching for Flog It, to be confronted by what Martin Kelner called “two young chaps we have never heard of knocking coloured balls into pockets.”
With darts now the second most watched sport on satellite TV, Hearn and co could be forgiven for thinking that the sky’s the limit for snooker. More realistically, it’s the game’s slow burn that reels unsuspecting audiences in. The infamous 1985 black ball final was watched by 18.5 million people. Were they all glued from the first session, which Steve Davis won 8-0? Not likely – but as Dennis Taylor fought back, chipping away at the Nugget’s iron will, the nation became enraptured.
The miss rule stomps on this seed of curiosity before it can develop. Viewers tune in accidentally and witness the same shot played over and over again. It’s sport in its most forbidding form, an exchange with all the skill and drama of an awkward tussle over a free paper. What time does Come Dine With Me start?
Instead of looking seriously at the fabric of snooker, the powers that be are fiddling with the embroidery. Throwing wild cards at tired old pros, or forcing Dave Harold and Barry Pinches to shuffle on to the sound of Pitbull, is not the answer. Rather than bringing back the old stalwarts, reliving the old memories, snooker needs to bring back the old game.
Well, not quite. The miss rule is there for a reason. Players who flirt with it are doing so to save their own skin, to escape a snooker in the most harmless manner possible. In an era where Robertson has just beaten the century break season record by almost 40 tons, players can afford to miss a shot five or six times and recover the deficit when an opportunity arises.
This doesn’t fairly reward their opponent for excellent safety play. They are left with Hobson’s Choice: play a shot from where the cueball lands, let their opponent do so, or make them try again. Nobody benefits from the miss rule – it’s fair play gone mad, and has been integral to two of the sport’s more regrettable recent moments.
At the 2013 World Championships, the rule consumed the senses of Thailand’s Dechawat Poomjaeng, who forfeited a frame. At the 2009 UK Championship, O’Sullivan avoided a miss call by accidentally nudging a red with his arm. When you’re trying to rebuild a sport, matches being tarnished by this sort of nonsense is not ideal.
So, if the miss rule is to be taken round the back of the Crucible and put out of its misery, what takes its place? Simply continuing play after the foul would lead to a rash of half-hearted escapes. There’s an argument that allowing the cueball to be relocated is fair compensation. This poses the question: what if the original safety shot was lucky? If a player narrowly misses an escape from an accidental snooker, it’s unfair to hand their opponent a frame-winning opportunity.
A suitable compromise would be to remove the option of a retake, but award the opponent a free ball. As it stands, this comes into play when after a miss, your opponent cannot hit the object ball either; this allows them to play for a colour instead of a safe red, and will in most cases be snaffled gratefully.
This change would provide a penalty that may well amount to more than 16 or 20 points – but requires the opponent to do more than sit in their chair and nod to earn them. It virtually ensures that the tactical advantage remains with the player who laid the snooker; this is patently not the case when, after three or four attempts, a player finally connects with the necessary sweet spot.
Instead of trying to remove the safety battles that pepper any great match, snooker can instead foster a combination found in every world champion – ingenious safety play alongside efficient break building. Even O’Sullivan, the sport’s great entertainer, is capable of impossibly smart safety. The miss rule has been the Rocket’s nemesis; watching him toil against the Machiavellian likes of Peter Ebdon, each miss call buzzing waspishly at his composure, is a sight that nobody wants to see.
The recent world final saw a fascinating clash of styles between O’Sullivan and Mark Selby. Selby realised, around halfway through the second session, that he couldn’t compete with the Rocket’s relentless break-building. Summoning hitherto unseen depths of mental fortitude, Selby eased the defending champion onto the rack, leading to giddy comparisons with Muhammad Ali from the commentary box.
Watching Selby craft a title-winning performance from this initial deconstruction was fascinating – yet on the rare occasions that O’Sullivan was tied up by the miss rule, the match threatened to fall in on itself. Both natural potters like O’Sullivan and forensic match players like Selby can benefit from the amendment of a rule that does little but reduce snooker to a parody of itself.
The miss rule wasn’t a blot on the landscape in the glory days – it needn’t be there now. A simple change that avoids numbing repetition, encourages attacking endeavour and better rewards pinpoint safety play must be given real consideration. In order to recapture even a fraction of its Eighties adoration, snooker must let its stars express themselves without interference.