Bonus shot: Saudi Arabia's "golden ball"

Shock of the new

There is a difference between innovation and a gimmick

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

As John Higgins lined up the fifteenth black of what had been a flawless frame in Riyadh, the Scottish snooker player’s attention was distracted by the arrival of a group of Arabs in flowing white robes and head-dresses. They had drifted into the auditorium not, one suspects, out of any particular desire to see a four-times world champion in the second round of the World Masters event, but because they had heard that someone was seven pots away from making a stonking pile of cash.

For this competition in Saudi Arabia, the sponsors had come up with a gimmick. As well as the usual 15 reds and six colours, a golden ball would be placed on the top cushion and come into play if someone made a maximum 147 break. This “Riyadh ball” was worth 20 points, though since the frame would have been long won by the time it could be attempted, it may as well have been a billion. However, its financial value would be more than winning the whole tournament.

Anyone who completed a golden maximum would pocket £350,000. The eventual winner, Ronnie O’Sullivan, got a mere £250,000. Only five players have earned £350,000 in total over the current season.

When the great Joe Davis, who dominated snooker from the 1920s to the 1950s, became the first to record a recognised maximum break at Leicester Square Hall in 1955, he received a certificate and a paragraph in the news in brief of The Times. Steve Davis (no relation) got a Lada car from the sponsor when he made the first in professional competition in 1982.

A year later, Cliff Thorburn, a Canadian with a Tom Selleck moustache, received £13,000 (worth about £50,000 today) for compiling the first maximum at the World Championship. As Thorburn addressed the final ball, Jack Karnehm, the commentator, famously growled: “Good luck, mate.” The achievement mattered much more than the money.

Maximum breaks are less rare than they used to be, a result of there being so many professional tournaments. Ten years after Davis drove away his Lada, there had still been only ten made. The 50th came in 2004 and the 100th in 2013. When Higgins made a maximum in Leicester in February, it was the 198th in professional competition and the thirteenth by the Scot. Only O’Sullivan has made more.

It remains a fine achievement — O’Sullivan’s 15 maximums have come at the rate of one every 870 frames he’s played — and yet it seldom makes a difference to a match. Breaks of 70 or above are more valuable, and O’Sullivan has had more than 3,000 of those.

There is a difference between innovation and gimmick, and it is not always clear in which category a novelty will end up belonging. When cricketers started to bowl overarm in 1864 — only 13 years before the first Test match — were they looked on as cranks? Had John Wisden, who published his first eponymous “cricketers’ almanack” that same year, not dismissed ten batsmen in an innings, all bowled, with a round-arm action? It did not take long for bowlers to realise they could be more deadly raining balls down from on high. Like Dick Fosbury’s “flop” in the high jump a century later, going over the bar back-first rather than straddling it face-on, the unorthodox quickly became the orthodox.

But those were gimmicks introduced by the individual, like Dennis Lillee’s attempt to play with an aluminium cricket bat in 1979, rather than something that tinkered with the essence of the game. Snooker’s golden ball is more like one of the daft proposals that are sometimes made to open up a drawn football match in extra time by removing players every five minutes, or when the inventor of lawn tennis tried to encourage people to play it on an hourglass-shaped court.

Some innovations catch on. The crossbar in football, for instance, was not mandatory until 1882, almost 20 years after the FA was created. Before then, some goals had been claimed when the ball passed between the posts 30 yards off the ground. And it took time for a uniform goal to be adopted: in 1888 Kensington Swifts were kicked out of the FA Cup because one of their crossbars was much lower than the other. Nets were added in 1892 to aid decisions, although there have been cases of the ball hitting the net, coming back out and the goal not given.

Cricket’s introduction of a net was less successful. In 1900, MCC announced the trial of having a 3ft high net around the boundary to encourage strokeplay rather than slogging. If the ball hit it, batsmen would get two runs plus whatever they had run, with the ball not dead until it came back, whilst hits over the net would only get three. The Times called it “the most fantastic of experiments”, and the flaws were soon exposed.

In one match at Lord’s, Derbyshire’s Samuel Wood nurdled the ball to the boundary and ran four, then ran two more as the fielder threw wildly at the stumps and sent the ball back to the net, making ten runs in all. The experiment lasted for five matches before MCC decided it was too silly.

Innovations improve a sport; gimmicks make it look ridiculous. As the sheikhs flocked in to watch Higgins’s attempt at golden ball history, perhaps the movement distracted him. He potted the black but ran out of position on the yellow, and his fine cut left the ball in the jaws of the pocket. Higgins shrugged; his opponent chuckled. Neither reaction suggested this was serious sport. With no one else coming close to a maximum break in the tournament, the organisers announced that next year the golden ball will be worth £700,000. It will be a curiosity, but it won’t bring them credibility.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover