The big four showed that if you have a pot on, there is nearly always a path to a clearance if you can play flawless snooker, and it usually starts with a long red. Yes the tables have played a part also because now there are more possibilities to maneuver the white with the super fine cloths - a positive byproduct of progression in table technology.
Today most players in the top 16 and further down the list are capable of winning the frame with one good scoring chance, a very high percentage of times. What is starting to separate the top 4 players from the rest though is not so much the devastating scoring game as the safety game.
This week I've noticed that Judd Trump and Ding Junhui as well as (finally) Shaun Murphy have caught up to the likes Higgins/Williams/Selby in terms of excellence of safety and it's making them look a hell of a lot more dangerous. Whereas 10 years ago you could leave the cue ball on or near the baulk cushion and a shot to nothing or other long red for your opponent, these days you have to make sure the opponent can go at NOTHING!
Currently in my opinion Mark Selby is the best at this - if he knows you are capable of winning the frame with any chance of a pot, then he will try his damnedest not to give you a sniff of even a half chance at a long red from under the rail. The only way to combat this is to match it, and to match it you have to think about what you are doing otherwise you will lose.
The two Masters finals between O'Sullivan and Selby, and this years German Masters final between Selby and Williams and the Crucible Dott v Selby semi contained some of the highest quality of sustained safety exchanges I personally have ever seen. There is no doubt in my mind the safety play we are witnessing in today's game is a level or ten above anything in the 1970's and 80's, and some of the young players are starting to cotton on (Ding and Trump in particular) that if you want to win, you need to be as good at safety as you are at scoring.
Of course when you have high quality safety exchanges they can go on for several turns and involve quite a bit of thinking time given that any slight error could result in loss of frame. You are also liable to have a few long frames where balls get messed up and there are also a higher amount of re-racks than ever before as players are determined not to lose out by an error in risking an end to the stalemate.
It's pretty obvious when you see snooker through the eyes of a Selby fan that he is unfairly criticised for slowing players out of their natural rhythm. If you want to beat him, you have to get the better of him tactically, you have to break him. If you get frustrated and go at something you shouldn't, you'd better get it otherwise you risk not having another shot at a pot for half an hour. Get the better of him at safety and you can have your rhythm back.
The game has progressed yet again from the time of the big four. The reason three of them (Ronnie if he gets the hunger back) are still competing for titles is because they were always one step ahead of the pack, innovators who can move with the times. They have better safety games now because they need them where they didn't 10 years ago. But there is a huge amount of emphasis on safety today and the quality is bordering on ridiculous.
Of course, if you don't have the attention span to appreciate this then you'll be on the shot clock wagon - speed it up, ban safety because it's boring, we want one dimensional snooker! Shot clock turns snooker from sport to entertainment. It turns any goal of attaining professorship in snooker knowledge through a lifetime of studying null and void. I'm not against shot-clock events as money spinners but they should never be officially ranked. The day you see a shot clock at the Crucible is the day a tsunami wipes out Snooker Island!
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