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The Gentleman’s Game

In a sporting landscape increasingly dominated by mantras such as ‘play to the whistle’ and ‘give the official a decision to make’, snooker remains a sport which strives for integrity and encourages players to act as secondary referees.

That was evident on a global stage when Ding Junhui called a foul on himself in his Masters quarter-final with Luca Brecel earlier this year. With the scores locked at 3-3, Ding admitted to feathering the white and subsequently lost the frame. The referee had not noticed the infringement but Ding was quick to alert him. This example of sportsmanship made headlines in Ding’s homeland.

A clip of the incident was viewed over four million times on social media in China and the story was covered by nationwide news outlets. Chengzhe Tai, one of China’s top snooker journalists, believes that Ding’s appeal as one of the country’s most famous sporting figures helped to draw the public’s attention.

Chengzhe said: “Snooker is known as a gentleman’s sport in China, it has great participation numbers and Ding is a superstar. Although, in general the idea of pointing out your own fouls wasn’t something which was widely known. In this case I think Ding has made more people realise that this is a sport which can be played in a fair sprit and in an honourable style. We don’t know of that many other sports where this is the case.

“This was something which hit mainstream media and not just sports news outlets. China Daily used it and it was on CCTV News. It was a story which emerged with a positive spirit and it was trending on social media with very high numbers. If this was done by another Chinese player, with a lower profile than Ding, it might not have been recognised. However, when Ding does something, everyone gets involved with the story immediately. That is because he is instantly recognisable.”

To admit to undetected fouls is something which is engrained in a snooker player’s psyche from a young age. At amateur level, most matches are played without a referee and are solely officiated by the two participants. Once players progress through the ranks and matches become more heavily scrutinised, the sentiment of calling your own fouls remains fundamental to spirit of the game. Former world champion Shaun Murphy strongly believes that this sets snooker apart from other sports, such as football, by providing an example for young people to follow.

“I think bank robbers are ahead of footballers in terms of fair play!” said Murphy. “I can’t think of a sport that is worse than football. They consistently try to con and deceive the referee. What kind of role models do they think they are? I just don’t get it.

“We are miles ahead of most sports in terms of fair play. There is an honour code in our sport. I don’t want to beat you if it isn’t a fair game. I want to look you in the eye and know that I have won because I was better than you. Not because I got away with something a referee didn’t see. We aren’t perfect. Incidents do happen, but there is a real sense of distaste on the tour for any players that try things on.”

Journalist Hector Nunns has been covering snooker for 16 years and also works on other sports such as tennis and football. Like Murphy, Nunns feels that snooker comes out of most comparisons with other sports favourably.

“As a sports journalist you have the opportunity to not just report on what takes place on the table, pitch or court but to try and put it into some sort of context,” said Nunns. “Being able to compare situations, in this case sportsmanship or any lack of it, across sports is certainly one of the most useful tools in the box. Generally, snooker stacks up well against other sports in the areas of etiquette and fair play. There are countless examples over the decades, but two that immediately sprang to my mind involved Stephen Hendry and Fergal O’Brien.

“Hendry famously questioned a call and refused to take a free ball given to him when leading 16-15 in the 1994 World Championship final against Jimmy White. It could have cost him a lot more than a frame on the biggest stage, and history – and maybe karma, too – tell us he ran out the 18-17 winner.

“More recently White, himself a paragon of virtue in this regard, was the beneficiary again this season when O’Brien called a foul on himself in an International Championship qualifier decider. White cleared for a 6-5 win.

“The type of one-upmanship and what might be termed ‘stroke-pulling’ in snooker occurs very rarely, the players self-police to some extent even before the disciplinary code kicks in. Anyone regularly moving on an opponent’s shot in their eyeline, or jangling change, tends to be swiftly put right.

“Football and tennis are slowly tackling some of the things that irritate me most about those sports, and some of these apply also to snooker including respect for the officials, conning referees, time-wasting, lengthy toilet breaks at coincidentally advantageous times, and many more. But snooker expects and demands certain standards that you do not always see elsewhere.”

Paul CollierThe role of the referee isn’t diminished by the moral code maintained by the players. To officiate at the top level of snooker requires rigorous levels of concentration as certain sessions can last several hours. Paul Collier is one of the most respected referees on the circuit, having officiated in two World Championship finals. He is also now part of World Snooker’s Tournament Director staff and is acutely aware of the responsibilities of referees.

Collier said: “It is good when the players call fouls on themselves. I don’t think there is one player in the game that will play on without calling a foul they know they have committed. However, as much as the players like the credit that they get when they call a foul on themselves, they do expect us to be in first. You still have to watch intently, with the same focus.

“There are many instances where the players have no idea they have fouled and you need to step in. The good thing is they never question you. They know there is no referee in the history of the sport that has taken enjoyment from calling a foul. It is just what you do. It is your job.

“Some will feel hard done by, but ultimately they all know we do it in the right interests. You have to always be on the ball. You are only as good as your last match. I have refereed for 28 seasons now, but if I get something wrong then I know that is all that will be talked about for the next month.”