Lessons of the Black Ball Final

Diary date: 6th May, 1985

The impact of change over time is a consistent theme on followthehumming, but today I salute that bastion of continuity and tradition: sport. My diary tells me that around this time 28 years ago, I was sitting in a crowded room watching the final moments of the ‘black ball final‘ – the astonishing climax to the 1985 World Snooker Championship.

Steve Davis was the dominant player of the day, the unflappable defending world champion. His opponent was Dennis Taylor, the genial Irish challenger with the specially-made glasses which made you wonder why no-one had ever thought of them before. After two dramatic days during which Taylor had consistently lagged behind, the score was finally tied at 17 frames each with just one left to play. Shortly after midnight, with a wonderful theatrical flourish, the final frame then came down to the very last ball, the black. After an edgy few minutes, Davis was presented with a respectable chance to seal the match, but missed it. Taylor stepped in, held his nerve, and completed the unlikeliest of comebacks. Incredibly, the moment he was crowned world champion was the first time he had been ahead in the entire match.

Back in 1985, snooker was close to the peak of its popularity, and somehow the final had captured the imagination of much of the country. 18.5 million people watched the concluding 68-minute frame in the early hours of an otherwise unremarkable Monday morning – a figure that remains a post-midnight audience record for any UK TV channel.

In 2013, the same game has literally just reached its climax, with ‘Rocket’ Ronnie O’Sullivan beating the unheralded Barry Hawkins in the world final in the very same venue, the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. Apart from the cut of the waistcoats and the irritatingly prominent sponsorship, little has really changed.

While the rest of the world races on at the breakneck pace epitomised by Moore’s Law, sport draws much of its appeal from a sense of continuity and an ability to compare today with the years that have preceded it. When this is threatened – in particular by improvements in technology, equipment, training and preparation – steps are often taken to ensure the essence of the game is retained. When the increasing speed of the Wimbledon serve began to dominate to the point of boredom, the grass was made slower. When hi-tech golf clubs started increasing average driving distances, tees began to move backwards. Even when significant changes are proposed, like rugby union’s move to five points for a try, American Football’s decision to move the goalposts to the back of the end zone, or baseball’s introduction of the designated hitter, they’re almost always made to safeguard the spectacle that the original rules intended.

I’ve written before about how technological advance sometimes means fundamental change – which is why I’ve suggested that reading a book and reading on a kindle may actually be two different things. But largely thanks to the enthusiasm of fans, players and governing bodies, the world of sport generally still manages to remain joyfully exempt from any serious break with its past.

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