A Traditionalist’s View of Modernisation (2/3)

by Roland Cox

In this blog I focus on how I – a snooker traditionalist – would like to see change in the topics of ranking systems and qualification.

Ranking System
Currently the tour consists of 96 fully fledged professionals, the top 64 of which will automatically regain their tour place for the next season. The rest of the places are made up by players featuring highly on the one year ranking list, promotion for top players on the secondary PIOS tour, national champions and wildcards.

Details can be found here

The actual structure of each tournament is pretty well thought out. I’ve heard a story that it was the brainchild of the late, great John Spencer who scribbled the idea down on the back of a cigarette packet. There are 16 matches per round, and higher ranked players join the tournament as each round progresses, culminating in the top 16 gaining qualification straight to the venue playing the 16 winners of the qualifying rounds.

The problem with the current structure lies in several phenomena which seem to occur a lot. Players of similar ranking don’t face each other, all qualification takes place in the same venue which leads to a “brick wall” effect of many players maintaining a middle ranking for years on end (mainly due to the points structure) and stifling new young talent who have to play their way though the seasoned professionals with vastly greater experience of playing in the holiday camp conditions. They are obviously very good match hardened players who don’t give an inch, and it’s a steep learning curve for those youngsters of outstanding talent, many of whom have to modify their game in order to make it to the top. This may be seen as a good thing because it means they have learned the art of match play, but it also leads to nullification of natural flare which would otherwise be pleasing on the eye to the armchair viewer, and it drastically reduces the chances of future stars of the game testing themselves against the top players. The armchair viewer is very important in snooker because they determine the popularity of snooker and whether there is a tour in the first place.

I must add that personally I have never visited Pontins in Prestatyn so I can’t comment on the conditions, but I regularly follow the World Snooker websites live scoring system. It is quite striking how often some players seem to face the same opposition in the same best of 9 format meaning there is a distinct lack of variety. And this system clearly suits UK residents who don’t have to worry about work permit visas or the native language.

The points system (detailed here) is worked out over two seasons, and as you can see gives higher ranked players more ranking points for losing their opening match than some players receive in winning their opening two matches. OK they theoretically face stronger opposition but all the same, it’s not entirely fair.

With this system based over two seasons it means it takes longer for a new player to reach the top, but they are “rewarded” by it taking one season longer to drop significantly down the rankings following a bout of poor form. This is the argument seen as fair by some but unfair by others.

John Spencer
The legendary John Spencer who reportedly came up with the concept of todays tournament structure on the back of a cigarette packet

It is very easy to criticise the status quo without having your own alternative system. I am guilty as charged, but I have a few ideas I would like to see integrated into the existing ranking system.

For starters, and to add a bit of variety I think it would be a good idea to stage a more straight forward knockout system whereby all players are entered into the draw of the last 64. This may be logistically more complicated than is currently the case but with a couple of extra tables at the venue stages and a roaming television camera, I’m sure more of a venue “buzz” would be created and it would be more enthralling for the fans. The draw could still be seeded so the top 32 don’t face each other in round 1, and it would give lower ranked players the chance to test themselves against the very best players in the world.

Naturally the points system would be the same for everyone, maybe with the concession that players who have qualified gain more points for a first round loss by virtue of their wins to reach that stage.

Rolling Rankings
Rolling rankings operate in other individual sports such as tennis and golf and although the systems are difficult to understand, the upshot is a system that is ever changing and more up to date than the current two seasons ranking system used in snooker. OK they have a lot more events, but my understanding of Barry Hearn’s philosophy is that he would like to see more events that the current measly six ranking events in the 2009/10 calendar.

Applied to the existing system, I have already suggested how rolling rankings can work. This would entail up to date rankings based on the preceding ten ranking events (always including the last two World Championships) and a snapshot in time used prior to the qualification round of each event. Looking at this years calendar as an example:

August 3rd – Shanghai Masters Qualifying
September 13th – Shanghai Masters final
September 21st – Grand Prix Qualifying
October 11th – Grand Prix final
November 23rd – UK qualifying
December 13th – UK final
January 19th – Welsh Open Qualifying
January 31st – Welsh Open final
February 2nd – China Open Qualifying
February 24th – World Championships Qualifying

So if the snapshots were taken on season start, October 12th, December 14th and February 1st (for World Championships only), this would mean a more up to date system were in place in plenty of time prior to each event.

Concessions could be made for the Masters i.e. top 16 at time of World Championships end are guaranteed their place at the venue. The other factor is that the Welsh Open would hold more significance for some players as they would have the added incentive of playing for their guaranteed spot at the Crucible bypassing the last qualifying round.

Rolling Rankings discussion

Qualifying Criteria
It is fairly clear to this traditionalist that in order to expand and survive, snooker seriously needs to go global.

With Eurosport showing a lot of snooker, and with strong interest in the Far East as well as countries as far a field as Brazil and Canada, it makes sense to exploit this market and allow the very best native players to test themselves against the best players in the top tournaments.

What I would like to see is an end to foreign players relying on producing their form in a cubicle at a holiday camp in Wales, and be allowed to play for spots in the ranking event venue by virtue of their own regional qualification events.

I’m sure I don’t need to expand on this idea as it speaks for itself but as an example, one suggestion could be as follows:

Venue – 64 players

Top 32 on the rankings list
Top 16 players from UK qualification event
Top 4 players from Chinese qualification event
Top 4 players from Continental Europe qualification event
Top 2 players from Scandinavian qualification event
Top 2 players from Canadian qualification event
Top 2 players from Philippines qualification event
Top player from Brazil qualification event
Top player from USA qualification event

Naturally these figures have been made up on the spot but they are not to be taken literally, I am merely suggesting a concept which I think will help to globalise snooker and gain interest from television companies of those involved.

One thing to be taken into account is that Chinese players such as Ding Junhui and Liang Wenbo have demonstrated that there are more ways to play snooker than we in the UK used to think. Ding Junhui has a mastery of cannon play never seen before, and Liang Wenbo has a do or die attitude that is very refreshing to the snooker world.

My point is that there are many different ways to play snooker, and by forcing players from far flung countries to play the Prestatyn way before they can play the best players, you are in part taking away the natural game and stopping the armchair viewer from appreciating different interpretations of how to play snooker.

It may well be the case that the UK player who draws the player from Brazil will dish out a tonking, but that is not the point here. If a Brazilian were to feature in a televised event, he would gain national notoriety and introduce snooker to a whole new audience.

In addition to the above, it would be good to have certain events open to all comers such as top players from the various leagues around the UK. The UK Open darts event every year throws up new names of top county players who get the chance to take on the likes of Phil Taylor on television. One event per season along these lines wouldn’t hurt snooker, would it?

That concludes part 2 of this blog. In part 3 I will focus on presentation.

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