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Long Form Snooker

The Commentators' Curse?

Anyone who has ever played snooker will tell you just how difficult it is. The concept of potting a ball is hard enough, getting position frankly a laughable ideal. As a result, anyone who has tried it watching professional snooker players have a state of permanent admiration for them. Anyone who has never played it but watches it a lot tends to also know the difficulty levels of what is in front of us – I can’t actually think of another sport where almost every single facet is so far out of reach of the layman. I say this as someone who has had a go at the pole vault…


The flip side of this is that top-level snooker has a much heavier reliance on good commentary. I can watch a football match without actually needing to be told what I’m seeing; going to the individual sports, tennis and golf are largely self-explanatory, darts we only really need someone to help with the maths and checkouts. A snooker shot has so many “moving parts” – the pot, the potential position, what the player is leaving if he doesn’t pot it, where he wants the cue ball to be, what he wants to avoid hitting, what can go wrong – on almost EVERY shot played, whether a point-scoring opportunity or not, a viewer might need it explaining.


However there’s a fine line to tread - because many snooker watchers will not be total newcomers and will in fact have a decent working knowledge of the game itself, even if we ourselves can but dream of putting it into practice. A lot of snooker is, actually, the same thing over and over again – pot a red, pot a colour, work out how to go into the pack, do so off the blue or black etc. Contrast to safety exchanges where for several minutes nobody is trying to pot anything but the general idea is always the same – get the ball up on the baulk cushion. So we don’t need a permanent barricade of talking and stating the bleeding obvious.


Eurosport have largely settled on a formula of Phil Yates or David Hendon + a former (or even current) pro, maybe the very likeable and affable Neal Foulds but the standout of which is Alan McManus. A keen student of the game, McManus has a wonderful ability to explain what a player is trying to do without it sounding patronising or repeating himself. Then after the frame they go back to the studio where Jimmy White and Ronnie O’Sullivan offer their thoughts – of course we both know their ability on the table and their friendship off it, but they both acquit themselves very well as pundits. Ronnie has had times behind the microphone on live commentary and surprised everyone: he was very much in the “I don’t say much but what I do say is worth listening to” camp. I personally feel he has a long career in commentary and punditry ahead once his playing career is over.


The BBC, however, have a very slightly different approach. The two main commentators are Dennis Taylor and John Virgo, with supporting roles from either Ken Doherty, Shaun Murphy, Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry. An interesting facet of this is that every single one of them is a major tournament winner, with only Virgo among them not a World Champion in the past (although he has won the UK in it’s long-session format). Getting their hands on the WSC trophy is only something a certain Mr O’Sullivan and Joe Johnson can say they have done in the Eurosport green room.

Another interesting fact about the BBC lineup is that, of the winners, every single one of them except Taylor has also lost a World Championship final – although one imagines Jimmy White at Eurosport knows more about that than anyone else. John Parrott pops up regularly too, another man with a World Championship on his mantlepiece but also a man with the unwanted record of being on the end of the heaviest World Championship defeat at the hands of Mr Davis. Whichever way you cut it, these guys know quite a bit about snooker and, crucially, quite a bit about winning the World Championship – it’s a heavyweight line-up of how to win or lose at the Crucible.


I have some memories in recent years of Judd Trump, Kyren Wilson, Mark Allen and Jack Lisowski also joining the BBC team. But, as much as I like their insight, I do find it personally strange that they would commentate on a tournament in which they are still participating. I don’t know why I find this strange – does it gives them an unfair advantage by getting paid to watch more of their potential opponents, when anyone playing them has to do so in their own time without getting paid for it? Does it make their life more easy or more difficult… is there potentially a mentality of “if I get knocked out I’m still on an earner here”, quite the moral hazard for a sportsman? What happens if you say something in commentary that happens to get to the papers about your next opponent, we all know that the tabloids love a trumped up “war of words”. Do rehearsals, make up etc, get in the way of practice time at the venue, or can you feasibly build it into your day? If the media work is so easy that you can fit it around the actual realities of being a professional snooker player, how come we don’t get Mark Selby, John Higgins or Mark Williams – all 3 bona fide greats of the game and surely each have been offered a chance – doing it at major tournaments?


Stephen Hendry as part of his ‘comeback’ has turned down going to play qualifiers for major tournaments in order to do punditry duties. Ronnie has certainly made this dichotomy clear by pulling out of playing in tournaments but still turning up to be a pundit on them… that is of course up to him and although it’s not a good look, I would argue he’s probably earned the right to pick and choose how he spends his time around snooker more than anyone else.

The most bizarre example is Shaun Murphy who seems to have become 'part of the furniture' at the BBC whilst still being a top 16 player but not being the most natural commentator you'll ever hear. I'm sure Shaun's a lovely guy but I don't get what he's adding to proceedings that Hendry/Davis/Parrott can't spot themselves, in fact I'd say he's making life hard for himself. He’s still a high-ranking professional who should, in my opinion, be concentrating on accumulating more silverware than commentating on others’ pursuits to do the same. It can't possibly be a coincidence that his worst performance at this year's Masters was after staying up late the night before to commentate on the Selby v Allen marathon. It’s indicative of a player on the wind-down: often players do it just before retirement to give it a go, Ronnie has freely admitted he’s been winding down for 5-10 years, although his results on the table in that time point to someone who has managed to find the balance between playing and broadcasting.


The flipside of this is, of course, that players who haven’t even qualified for the same major tournaments are very much entitled to come and share their thoughts with us numpties who can’t make a break of 9. This year… enter Neil Robertson. And he’s been something of a revelation to be honest – clearly quite nervous initially but again exceptionally insightful in how a pro might be thinking, and what else is playing on their mind. He called a few little things in the Bingham v Jones semi final that, even as someone who has followed the game for 30-odd years, were novel concepts, or at least things I had never noticed being mentioned before. So there's definitely a place for it, just not for players still active in the tournament - I can't imagine Neil Robertson even thinking about it if he was still in the mix.


TL;DR Do we need more modern professionals commenting on the game? Absolutely. Should some of them decide what they want to be their profession… over to them.

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