Tuesday, December 20, 2005

China snookers Britain

Last weekend saw the final of snooker's prestigious UK Championship. If you are not an aficionado of this odd and quite British sport, then it may have passed you by, but it caught my attention not just because I am an avid fan of the game, but because of the two finalists, Brentwood's Steve Davis and Beijing's Ding Junhui.

Steve Davis is the 48 year old maestro whose heyday in the 1980s saw him win every trophy going and dominate the sport. In the 1990s this mantle passed to Stephen Hendry and in this millenium to Ronnie O'Sullivan, but in the last year or two, a rejuvenated and relaxed "Nugget" has had a resurgence. His runner-up spot in last Sunday's final cements his place as the world's number 3 player.

Ding Junhui was born in the year Davis last won the UK Championship, in 1987. At 18, this is his second tournament victory, after taking the China Open last year, when he was too young to collect the prize money. He is being talked about by all as the next prodigy in the game.

It seems to me that this final - and perhaps its outcome - may represent a change in the forces at play in the world. The finalists are microcosms of the two countries; their economies, their past and future, maybe even their entire national psyche.

Davis epitomises the New Labour ideal of Mondeo Man - he is even from Brentwood, a few miles from where Ford's factory is situated. He made his fame and fortune in the Thatcher years, spent some time in the doldrums, and has enjoyed a renaissance in the Blair years. No doubt spin doctors at no. 10 will try to take some credit, but most fans of the game would put it down to his more relaxed and carefree approach rather than the frowning, fretting picture of concentration that he was in his heyday.

In many ways, he represents Britain on a wider level. The old master may have a lot to offer but he was never a dazzling showman; in fact, he wore opponents down through excellent safety play and ruthlessness in taking advantage of the mistakes of his opponents. Innovative he was not. And by dint of some underlying natural talent and finally relaxing around the table, he has maintained his place at the top of his sport. How long can it last, though?

Ding, on the other hand, is modern China to a tee. He is that intimidating blend of ordered Communist lack of emotion and new capitalist urge to dominate in his chosen field. He brings that automaton quality to the game, superb at every aspect at such a young age, showing no fear despite his inexperience, and certainly demonstrating an intent to ascend to the top and stay there.

China has managed to use the tools at its disposal to become the workshop of the world, with the right blend of innovation and efficiency coupled with the huge natural resource of cheap and malleable labour. Britain is systematically destroying its tools: our health and education systems reflect political agendas that maintain them for an era that was already passing when they were devised; our good fortune to have remained outside the Euro-zone is dissipated by Brownite bureaucracy; the masses revelling in their mediocracy, encouraged by patronising government policy and a safety net too high and comfortable to motivate and generate innovation.

Davis is a relic, currently punching above his weight. Ding is a modern powerhouse whose potential suggests he will dominate completely. The Championship final demonstrated this shift in the balance of power. Davis was unlucky but Ding made his own luck, and punished every error and misfortune.

If we are not to suffer the same fate, we need to harness and hone our skills, and ensure that the next generation of players is not epitomised by fellow Essex-boy Ronnie O'Sullivan, with the well-documented problems of his family and personal life. Yet he is the pin-up, the role model. Much better for us to get behind Shaun Murphy, World Champion on his debut last year. Ruddy-cheeked, rotund and jolly, clean-shaven, clean-living and a dazzling showman with a similar all-round game and swashbuckling style, he is what our future should look like.

Ding vs. Murphy; that is a combination to draw the crowds.

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