Snooker is two games in one and a champion must be master of both. But which is more satisfying to watch – a century break or a brilliant safety exchange?
At first glance the answer is obvious: a break, every time. In a break the player is actually scoring, advancing the game, making tangible progress towards victory. Red, colour, red, colour: the referee chants the score, the opponent sits helpless in his chair, the break-builder cashes in.
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We can make an estimate of a player’s ability by century-breaks: Ronnie O’Sullivan has made more than 900; in second place is Stephen Hendry with 775. Steve Davis is in 13th with 355. Says it all, doesn’t it?
But hang on a minute: O’Sullivan has won the world championship five times, Davis six and Hendry seven. Could it be that break-building is not the sole indicator of greatness? Perhaps there will never be anything as stunning in snooker as O’Sullivan’s maximum break in 2006 that took him just five minutes and 20 seconds.
But great breaks are not all that matters in great snooker. When a player makes a break you see his pure skills in action with great clarity: playing alone while his opponent can do nothing to affect what he does.
But snooker is a competition. It’s about beating the other person: and in a safety exchange the players go head to head. You’re no longer playing just the balls: you’re playing your opponent in the most direct way.
Not every player is at their best in these circumstances. With every shot you try to get out of a bad situation and put your opponent into something worse. As the duel continues, you require patience, concentration, resilience and a relentless desire for victory that overrides every possible frustration.
A safety exchange is not about hiding, it’s about seeking – and what you’re seeking is opportunity.
So, do you take on a missable pot, or do you play it safe once again and wait for something easier?
Sometimes these duels are won in desperation: might as well go for the long-range pot because there’s no easy safety shot. Say you pot it. You’ve won the safety exchange. Now you must make that victory pay – and that means a break.
You must change your game in an instant. You’re no longer taking alternate shots designed not to score; you must score decisively.
And that’s where the drama of snooker comes from. It’s not that one part of the game is better than the other; it’s the way the game shifts from one mode to the next.
Top players win “scrappy” frames as readily as they do frames of elegant perfection.
“I have a great safety game, but it bores me,” said Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins – which possibly explains why he won only two world championships, despite talent that at times came close to Ronnie O’Sullivan’s best.
There’s no point in debating whether batting or bowling is better in cricket, or serving or rallies in tennis. Break-building has more showmanship than a safety duel; but sport isn’t a show – it’s a fierce quest for victory.
The master of safety is sometimes found wanting when audacity is required, and the great break-builder can be undone when his opponent makes it hard for him. But the greatest of all can duel for an opening with the caution of a bomb disposal expert and then, when it comes, go for victory with all the dash of d’Artagnan.
The complete player is what sport is all about.
Masters Snooker Sat (semi-final) is on at 1.15pm BBC1, 4.30pm, 7pm BBC2, 1pm, 6.45pm Eurosport 2; Sun (final) 1pm, 7pm BBC2, 1.30pm, 6.45pm Euro2