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Kicking Out Kicks

Since the conception of the professional tour, elite level snooker has been “striving for perfection” in an ongoing mission to enhance playing conditions, and significant strides were taken during the 2017/18 season.

A radical reduction in bad contacts and irregular bounces meant the headlines were solely focused on the achievements of the players throughout a memorable chapter of the sport’s history, culminating in an almost ‘kick-less’ World Championship.

The two biggest factors behind this improvement were the introduction of the Strachan Anti Kick No. 10 cloth, and the growing popularity of Taom chalk. According to leading players, both of these have been game changers.

“It has been amazing this season,” said former world champion Shaun Murphy. “Scoring has gone through the roof and you’re just playing shots full of confidence.”

Having lifted the Champion of Champions trophy in November and reached four more finals in 2017/18, Murphy was one of the most consistent performers, and is in no doubt as to why the incidence of bad contacts has so drastically decreased.

“It’s the chalk,” said Murphy. “I’m doing lots of corporate events where there are all sorts of different cloths and the chalk is working on all of them.”

The innovative anti-static Strachan cloth was introduced in 2016. Stuart Gardiner, from World Snooker’s official supplier WSP Textiles who produce the cloth, argues that there are many causes of kicks, but the majority of bad contacts are due to the phenolic resin balls generating static electricity as they spin, and picking up chalk particles.

The addition of a minute amount of carbon fibre into the market-leading No. 10 cloth has made the difference.

Gardiner said: “Since we brought in the new cloth, we’ve seen an 80% reduction in kicks.

“Our battle against bad contacts goes back a long way, but in 2013/14 there were kicks all over the place, with eight or nine theories about why it was happening.

“It was upon watching slow motion replays that we discovered the spinning of the phenolic resin balls generates static, which then picks up microscopic particles of chalk and other things.

“To watch a kick-less World Championship would be utopia.”

Jason Ferguson

Jason Ferguson: “We are striving for perfection”

The mission to enhance playing conditions is never ending, led by WPBSA Chairman Jason Ferguson, who believes communication with the manufacturers and the players is the key to raising the bar each season.

“We are all aiming for the same thing,” said Ferguson. “We are striving for perfection in a sport defined by fine margins.

“The introduction of the cloth has significantly reduced the number of kicks, there’s no doubt, but we won’t stop there.

“There are a number of extremely competent cloth manufacturers and it’s a competitive market. We feel that we have the best product in that market, with the Strachan No. 10 cloth, but they are being kept on their toes by competitors.

“For us, working with the manufacturers is about an ongoing conversation. We’re blessed to have such proactive manufacturers, always open to changes. Forward thinking is crucial.

“We’re always moving from one country to the next – it’s a roadshow now and a huge challenge for our team, week by week. We have to ensure that wherever we are, we achieve near-perfect conditions because snooker is all about finesse and timing.”

Kicks and bad contacts have played on the mind of the professional snooker player since long before the tour’s global expansion, occurring at crucial points in matches and on the biggest stages. It’s a dramatic element of the sport which has never been welcome.

Matthew Selt“I can still tell you about bad kicks that I had eight years ago,” admitted tour pro Matthew Selt. “The difference is, we talk about it and the guys at the very top don’t.

“You’ll rarely hear Ronnie (O’Sullivan) or Judd (Trump) complaining about conditions. Like in golf, the top professionals adapt and that’s what separates them. The mentally strongest will always prevail.”

Murphy agrees: “players should be able to adapt, and quickly.”

“There was a crisis point,” Selt revealed. “When you’d be nervous playing certain shots, like a little off-straight red running through for the black in the opposite pocket. You can play those shots with confidence again now.”

Selt is in Murphy’s corner, believing that Taom chalk has “changed everything.”

“I’ve had three kicks in a whole season,” said Selt. “You used to get two or three a match.”

One of the very first players to trial Taom, he was handed his first cube by former Shoot Out champion Robin Hull, who hails from its country of origin, Finland.

“At one of the qualifiers, Robin gave it to me and said ‘you won’t get a kick for months.’ Funnily enough, the first time I ever used it, I miscued. But you just have to learn to apply it properly.”

Though opinions on the causes of kicks and irregular cushion bounces vary, everyone in snooker is working towards attaining the very best conditions for the professional tour.

Murphy said: “I ask why players aren’t using the Taom chalk. There’s a case that some enjoy the jeopardy of a playing field that’s not level. There’s certainly suspicion among players that some don’t want a clean fight.”

Regardless of the root cause, the reduction in bad contacts has had a noticeable impact on player confidence, which has been reflected by heavy scoring, frequent century breaks and a lower average frame time. Unburdened by fear, snooker’s finest are expressing themselves with freedom and achieving levels never before seen in the history of the sport.

“You’re going to see what we’re all really capable of next season,” said Murphy. “It’s exciting times.”

The biggest step moving forward will be communication, according to Ferguson.

“It’s about constant conversation,” he said. “Player feedback is essential. Often players will just leave the arena after a match, but we want to hear them in full honesty. We have the players’ commission which gives us feedback and we need to fully utilise that system.

“Creating the best possible playing conditions is not easy and it’s a constant battle, but that’s what sport is about.”