Sunday, 3 April 2011

My Top 3 All-time Snooker matches - #2 Higgins Vs White in 1982

In the run-up to this year's 2011 Snooker World Championships, I've been looking back at the history of a sport of which I am a big fan and have chosen my personal top 3 snooker matches of all-time.

I blogged here a few weeks ago of my 3rd choice, so here now is the match which for me comes in at No.2.

The Hurricane Vs the Whirlwind
It was 1982 and it was the World Snooker Championship Semi-Finals. Competing was the hot-headed, tormented magician of the baize that was Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins. His opponent was the up-and-coming natural talent that was Jimmy 'Whirlwind' White.

This was White's first foray into the penultimate stage of snooker's greatest event and his opponent, in Higgins, was the 1972 World Champion who was searching to cement his place in the history books with another title and his first at the Crucible arena and live on TV, a decade later.

The quality of snooker played by both White and Higgins in this match as can be seen below was electrifying - both men at the top of their games. After the first session they were tied at 4-4. In the second, Jimmy White raced into an 8-4 lead but Higgins clawed it back to end the session at just 8-7 down. At the end of the third session, they were back level at 11-11 - two titans, one the young pretender and the second an experienced older hand at the game, going toe-to-toe in a clash of the ages.

The final session saw a gripping encounter reach a mesmorising climax. Jimmy White moved ahead into a 15-13 lead. In a best of 31 frames encounter, it meant he was just one frame away from reaching his first ever Crucible final at the tender age of just 20. But Higgins, a doubty competitor, fought back with a 72 break - his highest of the match to date, to reduce the deficit to 15-14.

The Break of the Century?
But Jimmy White raced into a 59 point lead in frame 30 but then, uncharacteristically for a player famed for his rest play, missed a pot with the rest to leave Higgins a fig-leaf of hope. As John Virgo said below: "Cue, genius".

What happened next has gone down in the pantheon of snooker history as one of the greatest breaks of all-time. With a number of the final reds all hopelessly placed on the cushion, Higgins had an uphill struggle to claw his way back into the frame. He made it harder for himself by falling out of position on many of his shots but that didn't stop him pulling off great shot, after great shot, after great shot. He cleared the colours for an incredible break of 69 to level the match at 15-15.

In the decider, his inner strength and determination carried the Hurricane through for an improbable but wonderful 16-15 victory the Whirlwind.

Here are those highlights...

Higgins went on to fulfill his dream of winning his second World Championship but his first at the Crucible, when he defeated 6 times champion Ray Reardon in the final 18-15 (the only final that Reardon lost) - the emotional scenes afterwards have since gone down in snooker folklore.

An iconic moment in snooker history -
Higgins wins his first Crucible final in 1982.
What if?
It was a remarkable match not only because of that one frame but because of the quality of play from both men throughout the earlier sessions.

What also makes it an incredible match for me and thus makes it a deserved No.2 in my top 3 countdown is the permutations of what resulted from it. Higgins with his victory, went on to secure that elusive Crucible crown. For White however, it would become the first of many heart-breaking visits to that famous Sheffield arena. It would be the first of 10 semi-final appearances for the Whirlwind - 6 of which he won to reach the final. Incredulously however, he lost each and every one. In 1984 he lost to Steve Davis 18-16 and failed to reach the final again until 1990 which was the first of 5 consecutive losing appearances. In 1991 he lost to John Parrott 18-11 but his other four final defeats were all at the hands of Stpehen Hendry. In 1990, he lost 18-12, in 1992 he lost 18-14, in 1993 he was humiliated in 3 sessions 18-5 and in 1994 he suffered the greatest heart break of all by losing another final frame encounter 18-17 having missed a simple black on his way to what should've been at last, his first world title.

How would history have panned out however, had Jimmy White not missed that red with the rest in the 30th frame of that 1982 semi-final? He would surely have gone on to win the frame and match at that visit and in doing so, secure a final place against Ray Reardon. There's no guaranteeing that he would have won that match against the Welsh legend, but it may well have happened for he had the raw ingrediants to make it so. Had he have done so, the pressure of falling at the last hurdle which was to afflict his career would've been vanquished instantly. He may have gone on with the confidence of being the youngest ever World Champion to cement his place in the game by winning many more.

Higgins on the other hand, would've gone home to Northern Ireland having seen another opportunity of breaking his Crucible duck gone begging. He may not have had another chance (indeed he never made another final) and his losing appearance in the 1980 final to Cliff Thorburn would've been his only attempt at winning a Crucible final. He would not have gained that iconic status that he achieved from winning that title 10 years after his previous victory and those pictures of his tears with his child as he held the trophy would've been erased from our memories.

It is in such small moments such as that missed red with the rest that futures can be transformed one way or another. For that reason and for the quality of the match itself and for the resiliant way that Higgins orchestrated that unlikely break of 69, this match well merits its place as my No.2 all-time greatest match of snooker.

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