Friday 16 November 2018

Stevens fails stress test in cruel Crucible close-up

WE'VE always had a soft spot for Matthew Stevens since his epic semi-final with John Higgins at the world championships six years ago.

It was an absolute Crucible Theatre classic. The game went on late into the night, the last frame lasted over an hour and in the end Stevens' girlfriend could be seen crying inconsolably outside the arena. The Welshman had lost 17-15. A year earlier he'd been beaten in the final by Mark Williams, 18-16.

Those two defeats took their toll on his heart and his mind. It would be another four years before he'd get back to the final. And that final, in 2005, was supposed to be his moment. He was the experienced pro, he'd been there before, he'd earned the right.

His opponent Shaun Murphy was just 22 and ranked 48 in the world. Murphy had had to come through the qualifiers just to make the tournament. But he played with the freedom of the underdog and the innocence of youth. He attacked in seemingly every frame, potted everything in sight and swept to victory as if to the manor born.

For Matthew Stevens it was another lesion in his psyche, another layer of scar tissue scored into the membrane of his mind.

It is frequently old scar tissue that causes fresh wounds and, as Murphy started to eat into Stevens' overnight lead at the Crucible last Wednesday, we began to worry that if he picked at the scab long enough, the Welshman might start to haemorrhage all over again.

But it seemed inconceivable. Two years after their last showdown, the pair converged in the quarter-final of this year's tournament. By close of play on Tuesday night it looked as if Stevens was home and hosed. Leading 11-5 with the Wednesday morning session to come, Stevens needed just two frames of the remaining nine to win. Murphy needed eight of the nine.

So when he won the first two frames of the day to make it 11-7, there was still no need for panic. And when Stevens won the next frame his supporters could relax again - their man was virtually in the semi-final. Murphy was five down with six to play, no one had ever come back from 12-7 before.

Murphy won the next two frames and the alarms were starting to sound for Stevens. But still, all he needed was one good chance and he would surely get at least one. In the next frame, the 22nd, the screen that divides the two tables on the floor of the arena was raised and the pair had the Crucible audience to themselves.

Minutes later Stevens jawed the black and John Virgo in the commentary box was starting to see a worrying pattern: Stevens wasn't scoring nearly enough on his visits to the table. Neal Foulds, alongside Virgo, was also picking up some stress signals.

"It's still early days in a real comeback story here but, the signs are there," said Foulds. "Matthew is looking edgy."

Murphy, meanwhile, was going to work among the balls, visibly growing in confidence around the table. He won the frame with a 94 clearance. "Shaun Murphy is reading the signs Matthew is giving off," said Foulds. "That he (Stevens) is keen to get this match over with and is starting to show a little bit of anxiety in his game."

Because it is a game of such psychological complexity, professional players become adept at reading in their opponents the external manifestations of their internal turbulence. Sure enough, Murphy would say afterwards that he could read the mounting panic in Stevens' body language, in his face, his gestures and even in the way his leg twitched as he sat in his seat.

The struggle to control the electric current between the brain and the cueing arm is part of every snooker player's job. Your opponent applies the pressure, your heart starts to beat a little faster, your brain registers the stress and suddenly there's a spark in the electrics, a tic in your arm that you never feel on the practice table. You don't even know it's there but suddenly, mysteriously, you have missed a routine shot and the crowd is going 'oooh' and you are on your way back to your seat trying to unscramble your clouded mind.

By the 23rd frame Murphy is also feeling the pressure. He gives up a good chance to Stevens who develops a 48-32 lead and is on the black with just one more red left on the table. He jaws the black again and Murphy swoops for the frame.

No arena in sport so consistently serves up for the viewer the sight of a player disintegrating as the Crucible does; he cannot hide from the cameras, we get to see the erosion, bit by bit, in slow motion and close-up.

In the 24th frame both players are making mistakes and missing straightforward shots. The pressure, says Foulds, has "turned their arms to jelly out there". But after a fascinating safety exchange Murphy engineers a mistake from Stevens and exploits it brilliantly. The match, inevitably, has come down to the final frame.

Steve Davis in his prime had the hardest nerves in snooker. Under the most crushing pressure he delivered the shots. But Davis always maintained that his nerve was only as good as his technique. (We reckon this is why England lose so many penalty shoot-outs: their inferior technical abilities leave them with more self-doubt as they walk up to the spot.)

And in the final frame Murphy's pure striking ability with the cue, remarks Foulds, is a major factor in his victory. The Rotherham man pulls out a series of brilliant pressure shots. "And when it comes down to the nitty-gritty under pressure, to be able to deliver that cue smoothly through is a big, big help." Murphy, in other words, managed better to control the stress signals between his brain and his arm.

In the post-match interview Stevens looks shellshocked. He struggles to even complete a sentence. He hasn't even begun to come to terms with what has just happened to him. "It will," says Foulds, "take Matthew a long time to get over this one." If he ever gets over it at all.

the.couch@hotmail.com

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