In absence of knowing whether the Crucible curse is truly alive and well, which player could, should, or might have lifted the silver lady last Monday evening. Let’s delve into what has become the most mulled over snooker argument of recent times. For purposes of non bias, their names will appear alphabetically. Even that is a close contest!
Before we do, it’s worth mentioning that in locking horns 56 times competitively, Ronnie winning 30, Stephen 21 (with 5 draws), their rivalry, to me at least, feels a short lived affair. Looking back, their respective careers dovetailed away from each other in many ways. By the time Stephen lifted number seven in 1999, I reckon Ronnie, given his unquestioned talent, was still some way from truly finding himself as a snooker player. Where Stephen was generally a sure thing up until the new millennium, Ronnie, too often, was a mixture of sweet ‘n’ sour until the dawn of year 2K.
Both being partial to a century, I have broken down ten key elements of what makes a great snooker player, and given marks out of ten for each. Also to say, I’m ‘blind’ writing this, so the final marks out of 100 will be how they end up, and not by design. There are dozens of categories to choose from, and the final result may be dependent on which categories one cares to critique. Anyway, it’s a bit of fun, and not a real match (more’s the pity)! Let’s explore and see where it takes us…
(1) THE LONG GAME
Straight off the bat, this is a tough call. Based on likelihood of both players nailing a long red there’s little to separate. What type of long red would both take on, risk wise, is based on a couple of factors. On one side, Stephen would undoubtedly pull the trigger more often regardless of consequence, chiefly because he could only forsee a positive outcome, which can be an asset or hindrance, depending on your outlook. Taking on, or reneging a long red based on gut feel wasn’t always Stephen’s strongest suit. Ronnie, on the other hand, and again, touching on finding himself as a player since the turn of the century, is in recent times more likely to have a go only when the match situation dictates he should. Logic should play greater prominence while vital experience is garnered. In this case, Ronnie was more flexible in adapting to varying challenges, especially in later years. These reasons are symbiotic of the O’Sullivan longevity. As an opponent, I’d be more comfortable having Stephen take on a dodgy long red, purely because he’d more likely find hardship in refusing, regardless of confidence levels. The other side of that fence I suppose, is that paying scant regard of impending danger dramatically improved his chance of getting it. To be fair to Stephen, he would usually slot it home, but still…
Verdict – Ronnie 9 – 8.5 Stephen
(2) CUE BALL CONTROL
Two main factors to this one. Firstly, it can depend how comfortable they are with not being super perfect on the next ball? Secondly, if they want über tight position, they’re forced to play to a tighter radius, making the initial shot more challenging both physically and mentally. When marginally out of position, I always felt that Stephen relished the next shot more than Ronnie, who on occasion, looks almost insulted when the cue-ball runs loose. Here is one major disparity between them in terms of break building – Stephen often played on a high black through choice, to attack the pack of reds (which doesn’t happen a lot these days, mainly due to more modern cloths taking the spin later than ever before), consequently arching round the bunch at pace from a high black, whereas Ronnie almost always plays off a low black. Probably the best gauge of a top pro’s cue-ball control is how often they fail getting top side of the blue. In both cases, hardly ever. The century count alone speaks volumes…
Verdict – Ronnie 9.5 – 9 Stephen
(3) BOTTLE & BRAVERY
Perhaps above all others, this is an asset that can’t be taught. Yes, results are of paramount importance, however, it’s the polar opposite approach to pressure, of both men, that has intrigued down the years. I have always thought that a large slice of the O’Sullivan approach was to almost treat the big moments dismissively in a matter of fact way. (Note the looking around at the crowd, the comm box or even studio while administering a pressure clearance). While this wouldn’t be your textbook way of going about it, it could be a deliberate ploy to trick his own mind and have not all, but the majority of the job in hand to the forefront of his attention. Whatever the mindset, his reserves of arse, (as we say in the trade) are more than considerable. Of the Hendry arsenal, this category is surely a trump card. In terms of pure good old fashioned bottle, he simply has no equal. Here is the difference… where I said Ronnie appears dismissive of pressure, Stephen, to me, embraced pressure to the extent that he actually looked like he enjoyed it, and couldn’t wait for the big moment to arrive. He looked almost smug at times, as if knowing a secret that everyone was dying to discover. Remember that brown against Jimmy at 14-9 down was it? Yes, it was special, although the coolest thing about the shot is it wasn’t played as a last chance saloon / last throw of the dice job. It was coldly dealt with by someone who fully believed they were gonna win!…bottle & bravery?…. forget about it!
Verdict – Ronnie 8.5 – 10 Stephen
Stephen won (at a canter) at Sheffield with a broken arm, whereas Ronnie triumphed following a year’s sabbatical. We have to look at Triple Crown big final evidence on this one. These occasions after all, are where both scrutiny & level of opposition are cranked up a few notches. For all his 19 Triples tucked away, Ronnie should really have at least a handful more to his tally. Let’s remember, he’s lost quite a few having held a better than promising lead. Positions, to my mind, from which Stephen wouldn’t have failed to deliver.
Verdict – Ronnie 8 – 9 Stephen
(5) SAFETY PLAY
A one horse race this one. To put it bluntly, and by his own admission, Stephen wasn’t overly interested in the nuances of the so called dark side. Sometimes however, one must be willing to travel a dark tunnel if they are to reach the light. The artistry that Ronnie has displayed in his safety play during the last 10 or 15 years has, for me been a major reason the aforementioned longevity is still going strong. Not only is he a master, he appears, crucially, to enjoy the puzzle.
Verdict – Ronnie 9.5 – 7.5Stephen
(6) SCORING POWER
With this, being by a distance the most important weaponry of any top player’s game, there is little anyone can add in the break building department that we don’t already know about these two. All I will do is throw in a judgement based on century frequency. On average, O’Sullivan makes a ton every 11 frames, where Hendry’s strike rate was every 15 frames.
Verdict – Ronnie 10 – 9 Stephen
Strangely, and not for the first time in this article, the gift of hindsight exposes certain key elements of both careers to be heading in conflicting trajectory. Stephen’s cue action in let’s say mid 90’s was as smooth and rhythmical as anything you could ever witness. I remember a small invitation event in Épernay, France, around ’94 or ’95. With little else to do at the venue, we all watched the matches. Stephen’s action at that time looked more polished and grooved than anything I’d seen before or since. Only he can pinpoint when the yips crept into his mental make up around the early noughties, but it must have been soul destroying to deal with. With the old familiar rhythm ebbing away, who can blame him for stopping when he did. Ronnie’s early action, by contrast, was a bit jabby (for him) in his early pro years. I would put the early quickness of action down to one simple reason – the exuberant keenness of youth! It was like he couldn’t wait any longer than necessary to make an impact. There’s no question his action has gotten longer, with added control, & timing in the second half of his career. If I was ultra picky, which I tend to be, although both are technically outstanding, I would favour O’Sullivan purely on his weight distribution which is marginally the more neutral of the two.
Verdict – Ronnie 9.5 – 9 Stephen
(8) WORK ETHIC
An area well worth inclusion. Being extravagantly gifted might produce a good club player, perhaps even something approaching pro level? What it won’t produce is a true great without deep desire to practise untold hours. Snooker, you see, is massive in respect of creating not just muscle memory, that memory must be recent & regular come match day. I hardly ever practised with Stephen but we all heard reports of military style scheduling. Fortunately for him, I think he genuinely enjoyed putting in the hours, which is half the battle. If you’re not prepared for hard graft, it’s best you try something else because you’ll not get a foot in the door, never mind last the distance. In Ronnie’s case I can only go with what I’ve witnessed first hand. The detail of his practise is far more varied than you’d imagine. The layman would be astonished at what these guys would practise. Think about this…. as Ronnie is quite good at playing the game to start with, what would be the point in rolling in easy ton’s all day long? Someone of his ability would only brush a few sets in, by way of creating a stress free arm loosener. There’s no doubt they both enjoyed the graft, though I sense Stephen was marginally more conscientious!
Verdict – Ronnie 9 – 9.5 Stephen
(9) TABLE PRESENCE
Being unable to touch or even see, this isn’t easily quantifiable. If you were to appoint judge & jury, the players themselves would best advocate what this actually means. Three elements to this I would say… Firstly, giving an air of confidence, arrogance, swagger, (call it what you will) can’t be underestimated. As accomplished as both clearly are, it’s vital to make the physical part of playing appear nonchalant while executing. Secondly, making it seem like a stroll in the park is sure to have some detrimental affect on an opponent. Finally, if you can make everyone in the room believe that you are in total command of proceedings on & off table, which both could, then better still. I’m gonna fence sit this one, as both were able to produce it in bundles.
Verdict – Ronnie 10 – 10 Stephen
(10) ERA DOMINANCE & LONGEVITY
Yes, I do realise these are different categories but let’s try combining them if that’s possible. Without fear of contradiction, Stephen’s domination from 89 thru 99 is without rival. The span of his 18 Triple Crown titles from just 31 attempts is other worldly by any standard. In terms of dominance, it’s not exactly going out on a limb to venture we won’t see the likes again. Ronnie’s 19 TC’s over a 25 year span can’t compete with the senior man, but having been at, or near as damn the very top for such a long time just gives him the upper hand. He’s played through not just an era, but several generations the more you think about it. With the sheer numbers of top quality players around since 2000ish, total domination just isn’t possible, albeit he has shown pockets of dominance in that time. He wins this one by a knat’s knacker, as Steve James once said.
Verdict – Ronnie 9.5 – 9 Stephen
FINAL SCORE = Ronnie O’Sullivan 92.5 – 90.5 Stephen Hendry
Thanks for taking the time to read. Every little helps in times of lockdown I guess. Stay safe, and let’s hope we get live matches & tournaments in the near future.
Yours in snooker…