The Rocket disintegrates

Ronnie O’Sullivan was the odds-on favourite. But Mark Selby had other ideas. By Ted Corbett.

Ronnie O’Sullivan was aiming for a sixth world snooker title and an unprecedented hat-trick of world championship crowns. He was fully rested because he had won his semi-final with a session to spare and so gained a day off.

Was anyone else going to win the crown? Unlikely.

O’Sullivan had other advantages as he strode to Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre where the world title has been decided since 1977. At 38 he appeared to have settled down after a turbulent career, full of semi-retirement, complaints that the game was not worth the candle and treatment for a whole bunch of nervous illnesses.

His languid frame was made to wrap itself round a snooker table, he could play right-handed or left with ease and, as he twisted his face into shapes unknown to other men, he seemed to cast a spell which left opponents intimidated.

His opponent Mark Selby was just as good, although he eschewed the spectacular shots. Not for him the O’Sullivan protests and, as Bill Shankly once joked of a player who could not hold down the captaincy, “he was known as the quiet one even though everyone else in his family was a deaf mute.”

The fanciful called him The Jester from Leicester — where the footballers have won a place in the Premier League this winter — but he is really a serious man.

When the pair began their 35-frame, two-day final the many bookmakers who are always around the snooker circuit had little interest. O’Sullivan would triumph, they thought, not least because Selby won his titanic semi-final only 14 hours before his clash with O’Sullivan.

Frankly, Selby looked tired too as O’Sullivan raced into a 3-0 lead with aggression, power and purpose.

Selby scrambled the last frame of the first demi-session but the final still seemed settled. Selby fought hard but you could see the weariness and when the first day came to an end he trailed 10-8 even though he won the last two frames. Snooker may be the strangest of all games; it can be an elegant affair but it is played by some of the toughest sportsmen in the world from Canada, from the United Kingdom and recently from China. Underneath those immaculate evening clothes there are men with bodies of steel, former policemen like Ray Reardon, men who have never done any other work like Steve Davis and odd balls like the Belfast boy Alex Higgins who was tabloid fodder for 40 years before he was found dead in a city garret.

Bored soldiers started the game to while away the hours in India, the old-time billiards professionals took it a stride forward in the years between the two World Wars and then it quietly went to sleep.

Higgins woke it up when he became the youngest champion in 1972, it attracted vast TV audiences for 10 years as Reardon and Davis won six titles each and later it was dominated by a quiet Scot Steven Hendry whose every shot was close to technical perfection and who believed — “it just came naturally” — that he would win every match.

When his self-belief faded at 40 and his clever managers saw he had enough cash to continue his millionaire lifestyle O’Sullivan took charge.

His rugged good looks, his devilish face, twitching eyebrows, erratic behaviour, constantly moving mouth backed by the smoothest cue action in the 100 years the game has been in the public eye, meant schoolchildren, lads waiting to be great players, girls wanting to be in the limelight and adults wanting to complete their sports education by spending part of their springtime in the romantic Crucible all gathered at his feet.

“You get all the drama, all the big breaks, all the histrionics by watching Ronnie The Rocket,” I heard one say.

The nerve-shattering frames on the second day meant the long-drawn-out first session had to close early but when the fourth part of this memorable final began O’Sullivan was behind 12-11 after missing a pink when the frame seemed to be over.

In the meantime I had the chance to contemplate the degree to which snooker imitates all the other major TV sports. All the commentators are now players which makes the output one-dimensional and frankly boring. It would be good if snooker could find a man with a few words who had not played the game.

When the evening session began — most of the audience dressed to the nines to mark this special occasion — Selby’s superiority asserted itself. He was three to the good at the next interval as O’Sullivan found the canny defensive play, the slow and awkward attempts to keep him in check and the lack of scoring opportunities too much to bear.

“I went numb,” was his only explanation but don’t feel too sorry for this most personable of all the snooker stars. He has earned more than £500,000 this year and for once he has no plans to retire.

As for Selby, a beaten finalist seven years ago, what lies ahead? “Something just clicked,” he revealed. This quiet family man could use better public relations and, in the fashion of the day, a couple of hefty tattoos might help. So what is the best description of the player who snatches the world championship from “the greatest snooker player the world has ever known?”

Let me suggest “the most magnificent match player.” It fits Mark Selby better than The Jester from Leicester.