Now into November, I am pleased to say that the latest extract of the upcoming book from world number 37 Stuart Pettman is available for you read. This time Stuart talks about recent match practice with Dave Harold and his decision not to take part in the Masters qualifiers.
Again, all feedback would be appreciated either by way of a comment or if you have a more specific question for Stuart, by way of email to email@example.com
No tournament action for Stuart in recent weeks, so he’s been busy on the practice table with world no.19 Dave Harold and young Chris Norbury who’s just got on to the main tour for the second time. Club co-owner and former pro Shokat Ali also features once again…
Putting in the hours on the table between tournaments isn’t always exactly pleasurable especially after you’ve been doing it for over twenty years, but it has to be done, and it has to be done in the right frame of mind. The more enjoyable days come when you’re playing against one of your practice partners rather than just slogging away on your own. With this in mind I drove down to Stoke a few days before the Grand Prix to spend the day with Dave Harold on his table. I’d been down earlier in the pre-season for a game but on that occasion the weather had been far too hot and Dave hadn’t been able to bring himself to turn on the heaters under his table. It was a straight choice between the table being fast enough or the room being cool enough, and Dave wasn’t up for sweating so we’d struggled for a while and then given up. This time promised to be better because not only had autumn set in but Dave had been busy improving his table by leveling it. Himself.
“Does that look level?” – Dave Harold
I think I should point out here that Dave’s not actually a table fitter. However, he did have a six-inch spirit level and some beer mats, and so he set about transforming things from the acceptable state the table was in at the start to the perfect state it would presumably be in by the time he’d finished. Now I’m sure most people remember being a kid watching TV, and seeing the presenters introduce some harebrained piece of action with the warning, “Don’t try this at home…” Well Dave would have ignored them. Dave would have been the kid who thought it was a great idea to sharpen his school pencils with his dad’s chainsaw, or make his own fireworks from household cleaning solvents. And it would all have ended in tears, just like it did this time. By the time Dave had finished his leveling work his table was only perfect for crown green bowls. It was so bad that if you wanted to play one of those full-length-of-the-table safety shots where you clip a red very thin and get the white back to baulk behind the jack, you’d have to aim to hit it full-ball instead and then let the slope take effect. That was my game gone for the rest of the week. Even when I got back to level ground on my own table I was still mentally trying to work out how much I had to miss each shot by to allow for the borrow.
To be fair to Dave though, leveling a table isn’t the easiest task in the world, and using beer mats is actually almost considered standard practice. I’ve never tried it myself but in theory you just jack up the table and slide the mats underneath as required. Normally they’d go under the legs but I’ve also seen them used under the frame that supports the slates. Trouble is, once you get one part leveled up it can throw the rest of the table out, and before you know it you’ve got a disaster on your hands. Unsurprisingly, table fitters usually recommend that you use the services of a table fitter.
Dave and Stuart sit behind Ding Junhui in Beijing
In the end Dave managed to smooth things out successfully but the next time we got together it was his turn to come and play me at the Elite. He came up on the train and we got a nice early start. We normally play sets of best of nine matches, but with the UK coming up we opted to play a best of seventeen instead, and to make it realistic we made sure there was some money riding on the outcome. I was curious to see how it would go because the last time he’d visited, Dave had been a bit rusty after the summer lay-off and he’d struggled early on with the speed of my table as it really is lightning quick. If you ever want to compare speeds, get a box of balls – the Aramith Tournament Champions box – and use it to make a ramp with one end on the baulk cushion and the other end on the table bed. Then carefully place a ball at the top of the slope and let it go. See how far it runs. On the slowest tables in our club the ball will finish short of the pink spot. On mine it’ll bounce off the top cushion and come back almost to the black spot. It’s probably quicker than the qualifying tables at Prestatyn when they’re at their fastest, and very similar to the slickest TV tables. Anyway, Dave had been nonplussed by it, though the fact that it’s actually level had probably thrown him off a bit too.
It came as quite a shock then that Dave was three-nil up before I’d had a shot. Forget what they say about old dogs and new tricks; Dave was flying round the table – and there are few finer sights in the modern game than Dave Harold in full flight. If you’ve seen him on TV, you’ll know he has a reputation for being a bit of a grinder but in practice Dave is a fluent, positive, aggressive player who loves to go for his shots. He’s great to play against because he very rarely misses anything easy. If you make a mistake you always get punished and he tends not to leave you too many chances. That means you’re guaranteed a realistic match workout. The fact that he spent a few years in the top sixteen, and he’s still on the brink of getting back in, should give some idea of just how good he is and it’s always beneficial for any player, at any level, to practice against players who represent a step up in class.
In fact, television can be quite misleading. If you’re used to watching everyone in the qualifiers, it becomes noticeable that quite a few players do seem to slow down when they get on TV. It might be tactical, or perhaps a conscious approach to deal with the extra pressure; I know some people advocate stepping back regularly to take a deep breath, or having a strict routine for every shot to counter any tendency to rush things. On the other hand, it could be that the pressure causes them to slow down without realizing it. I’ve always tried to keep to a fairly brisk tempo whatever the situation because once you start slowing down and being too careful or over-analytical you can invite all kinds of unwelcome thoughts into your head. I can’t see myself ever challenging Dave for one of the records he holds: the longest ever frame in a ranking event – an enthralling 93-minute romp against Shaun Murphy. I’ve been knocked out of entire tournaments in less time than that. I don’t know if he’s proud of that achievement as I’ve never asked him, but as we passed the 93 minute mark that morning he was 8-0 up and out of sight. He quickly wrapped up the next one too and tucked into his lunchtime sandwich looking very content with the world.
Personally I thought it was bizarre. To lose 9-0 takes some doing, but I counted that I’d had four chances in total in the nine frames. Twice I had a kick and twice I failed to make them count. Meanwhile Dave was scoring eighties at will. I’m sure if I played him a hundred times we wouldn’t be able to repeat that result. That’s not a comment about Dave’s ability; it’s a comment about probabilities. When I’m playing practice matches, I would say that on average I knock in a century break every five or six frames. They’re not the be-all and end-all but if I play nine frames I’d be disappointed not to make one. Therefore to lose 9-0 I not only need to fall below average on the centuries, I need to be kept out of the game to such an extent that I can’t even steal a frame with a sixty. Either I’d have to play appallingly badly or the other guy has to be absolutely on fire, with a bit of luck thrown in. It doesn’t happen very often.
What does often happen in practice matches is a run of heavy scoring. I suppose there’s no pressure and players are inclined to take a few risks to get the balls open, so as a result you’ll see sequences of breaks that would create headlines if they happened on TV at the Crucible. Having said that I think it’s important not to play shots in a practice match that I wouldn’t play in a real match. There’s not much point winning frames by knocking in balls you should never be taking on in the first place. Chris does that to me from time to time and it annoys me no end. The other week was a prime example. We’d just started a frame and I presented him with a straightforward opening red. The pot went in but for some reason he’d abandoned all responsibility for the eventual whereabouts of the cue-ball and the best I can say is that it was still on the table when it stopped moving. He’d ended up leaving himself cueing awkwardly right on the lip of the middle pocket. Now Dave would have played safe from there. I would have played safe. Jamie Cope would probably have played safe, but Chris decided that the shot to play was to recklessly cut the black in off its spot and split the pack of reds all over the place. I pointedly asked him if he thought he would ever play it like that in a match and he sheepishly tried to claim that he might. Well if he did, the drug testers would be investigating, not to mention the Gambling Commission. This time though it went in and cost me a fiver. I’ve never really believed that sloppy shot selection should be financially rewarded but he had no qualms about claiming it: ill-gotten gains indeed.
Stuart in action
I suppose it’s still better than playing Shokat though. Shokat would never dream of playing an attacking shot with a fiver at stake. If he gets in amongst the balls and they’re wide open his first instinct is to try to get things safe. Even when it’s obvious what to play next he always has to pause for a few minutes after every shot so he can weigh up six other options that he has no intention of taking. Then he goes back and plays the shot that he’d looked at first. For want of a more eloquent phrase, he does my head in. God knows what he’d be like if we ever upped it to a tenner. These days I try to make sure that our working schedules clash so we’re never both free at the same time to practice. He’d actually been putting in quite a few hours on the table in recent weeks because Pakistan had called him up to play for them in the Asian Indoor Games in Vietnam. He was all excited and looking forward to the trip when they subsequently e-mailed him to say they’d decided not to send a team after all because the national priority was dealing with Taliban insurgents. Apparently Shokat’s patriotic duty was to stay in Preston and deal with any who tried to cause trouble in our club.
There was still some unfinished business to take care of with Dave after lunch, so we got down to another best of seventeen and this time I won it 9-1. Another freak result to reverse the one in the morning and we still had time to spare so we ended up fitting in a quick best of nine to round off the day. Dave was officially warming up for the Masters qualifying tournament so a shorter match was just what he wanted. To his disappointment though I won it 5-4 and collected the £10 for the day’s efforts.
The Masters qualifying tournament was the following week and I still can’t believe I didn’t enter it. It raised a few questions in the club when Chris was busy preparing for it and I was busy watching the Jeremy Kyle Show. There were a few suggested reasons bandied about: we had the wildly optimistic, “he’s saving himself for the Worlds,” or “he’s got his eye on the UK,” followed by the pessimistic, “he doesn’t want to lose 5-4 again because it’ll destroy any confidence he had,” and finally the more realistic, “he forgot,” or “he didn’t want to cough up the £50 entry fee.” As for the truth – originally it was supposed to be in Sheffield and I didn’t really fancy going. Then they switched it to Prestatyn while I wasn’t paying attention and the next I heard of it was when Chris wanted to know why I wasn’t playing. If I’d known it would be in Prestatyn I would have entered but by the time I found out it was too late. And in any case, I was saving myself for the big Preston and District League match against Lostock Hall Conservative Club.
Stuart would like to thank everyone who offered their views on his efforts so far, especially those who have taken the time to email him directly.