Mark Selby is a Leicester City fan, but if the four-times snooker world champion has an equivalent football club, it is surely Millwall: “No one likes us, we don’t care.” Reading below-the-line comments during Selby’s progress to his latest world title over the past fortnight, it has been fascinating to witness how he divides opinion among fans.
Selby’s methodical style is a danger to the existence of the sport itself, some argue. Tactical play like Selby’s must be stamped out at all costs. A maximum shot time of one minute must be introduced. The likes of Selby should, essentially, be forced to get a move on by the game’s rule makers. Selby indulges in pure gamesmanship, they argue, by taking three minutes to think, before rolling the cue ball slowly into the pack.
But hold on a second. Take a step back, and this barrage of criticism begins to look very strange. Single-mindedness, after all, is a universally-lauded quality in sport, is it not? Criticising Selby – now one of only five players with four world titles – for taking his time over shots, essentially, is criticising him for taking his job seriously, for wanting to maximise his chances of success. His major crime, it would seem, is trying to squeeze the most out of his talent. But if he is guilty of anything, it is simply not caring what anyone else thinks.
For Selby every shot is paramount: no matter the match situation, no matter the stage of the tournament. Every shot is worth considering, and then, quite often, reconsidering. He thinks obsessively about tactics and his concentration is total. He will sometimes go down on a shot, before having second thoughts, standing up and reassessing his options. Gamesmanship, or attention to detail? The relentless quality of his tactical play provides the answer.
The outgoing World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn, who has done an admirable job of promoting the game globally, would prefer a higher tempo because he thinks TV viewers equate speed with excitement. As is often pointed out, snooker was never more popular than in the 1970s and 1980s when players such as Cliff Thorburn, the slowest of them all, were at the forefront of a game watched by tens of millions on TV.
Granted, the world has changed since then and the TV audience, perhaps rightly, will remain the priority. But if you’ve spent £120 on a ticket and embarked on a 400-mile round trip to watch a session of snooker, as I did on Sunday, do you want every frame to be concluded within 10 or 15 minutes? Do concert-goers and theatre audiences hope the musicians and actors hurry things up so everyone can get home? Selby’s meticulous approach, his ability to cut out external factors and pressures, is an art in itself. And this is before we mention how he has risen to greatness after a deeply difficult start in life.
Neither is Selby a flawless, robotic presence at the table. The final against Murphy was error-strewn at times, both players making costly mistakes and missing regulation pots. But Selby made fewer mistakes, generally won the tactical battles and scored more heavily when he was among the balls. He sometimes took the conservative option when a pot was available: he also took on risky long pots, in one case sinking a shot-of-the-championship contender. He threw in a dash of self-deprecatory humour, too, feigning to get out of his seat to continue a frame on Sunday afternoon when Murphy had left him needing several snookers. He laughed at himself after one particularly inept miss. The increasingly vocal and well-lubricated crowd were mostly on Murphy’s side but Murphy, while playing some good stuff, too often failed to capitalise on his opportunities.
“I want a free-flowing game,” complained Stuart Bingham in the moments following his semi-final defeat by ‘The Congester from Leicester’, as one witty BTL commenter dubbed Selby. But since when has competitive sport been about giving your opponents what they want? Selby put the brakes on and made things tactical against the far more fluent Bingham because that was his path to victory. The plus-one-hour frame they contested on Friday night was one of the most memorable of the tournament, if not any tournament.
The shadow of Ronnie O’Sullivan – the greatest player of his generation and perhaps of them all – naturally looms over the Selby debate. The Ronniefication of snooker fans’ expectations seems at the heart of it, allied to the modern compulsion for everything to be faster. As any snooker fan will tell you, O’Sullivan on form probably gets closest to achieving perfection as any sportsperson ever has. We are lucky to have witnessed that. But saying that every player should try and emulate O’Sullivan is plainly wrong, akin to saying that every football team should play like the Barcelona of Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi.
Emile Heskey, another son of Leicester, was the England striker some fans loved to hate. They said he lacked skill, that he couldn’t finish, that more clinical players deserved a chance. But they were wrong: Heskey was a nightmare for some of the world’s best defenders and fully justified his place. Perhaps Selby exists in the same sphere. Some fans may not appreciate it, but ask the pros who they least like to play, and many will name Selby. That – and his increasing collection of trophies – shows he must be doing something right.