Two men arrive at the Crucible on Sunday with the same destination in mind, but while one will only take the scenic route, the other is willing to traverse the longest, rockiest winding path there is.
The World Championship title is on the line over two days in Sheffield, with Shaun Murphy looking to scale the snooker mountain for a second time and Mark Selby aiming for a stunning fourth ascent to the summit.
Both have played some superb stuff en route to the showpiece, but they will bring very different mindsets into the blockbuster on the baize.
The Magician has rediscovered the free-flowing attacking intent of his youth, abandoning a more circumspect ethos that he was trying to develop as his career progressed.
With the shackles off, Murphy is enjoying himself again and has cast his spells on veteran Mark Davis, Masters champion Yan Bingtao, world number one Judd Trump and last year’s runner-up Kyren Wilson to make the final.
Strutting around the table, fist-pumping to the fans and crunching in big break after big break, Murphy is loving life, but he is about to face the most malevolent force in the game, one capable of turning joy into exasperation and hope into despair.
The Jester from Leicester has no interest at all in entertaining the court over the next two days at the Crucible. He is not interested in Murphy’s renaissance and is willing to burst his bubble as ruthlessly as a football steward executing a stray beachball.
Selby is more than capable of playing the bombastic game that Murphy has been displaying, and regularly did so in his first three wins over Kurt Maflin, Mark Allen and Mark Williams. Breaks were flying in and opponents were swiftly flying home as they were brutally despatched by the three-time world champ.
The semi-final victory over Stuart Bingham was different. The free-flowing snooker was largely halted mid-stream, as if beavers had constructed a dam across the River Selby as it wound its way to the one-table set-up.
Epic, scrappy frames were played out, with the Jester warned by the referee at one stage for slow play and the players eventually being pulled off from their final session, having to return after Murphy beat Wilson to play their last frame – the first time this had happened in the history of Crucible semi-finals.
Bingham accused Selby of being ‘close to gamesmanship’ at times, an accusation the 37-year-old fiercely denied, but while acknowledging that he will do absolutely nothing to make it easy for his opponent.
Carefree, attacking snooker may be the order of the day for some, but the Jester knows this is no laughing matter and will be waiting for you at the bitter end if you disagree with him.
‘I’m just out there to do a job, as long as I get to that magic number I couldn’t care less how I played,’ Selby said after beating Bingham 17-15.
‘If I get to 17 first I’d be out there for five days, it wouldn’t bother me one bit.’
Ball-run Bingham was disappointed that his preferred, open style of match was not on offer against Selby, but the victor cannot fathom why it would be.
‘I’m not going to go out there, lay down and make it the Stuart Bingham show, what’s the point of me being here if I’m going to do that?’ Selby questioned.
‘Does he expect everyone to go out there and play like Ronnie O’Sullivan?
‘Not everyone is capable of playing like that and as naturally talented as that. Some people have to work harder at the game than others.’
While Selby is the ultimate pragmatist, Murphy is enjoying the romance of returning to the style of play that excited him when he first picked up a cue.
After upsetting Trump in the quarter-finals he explained: ‘In the last few years, in an effort to cut out those silly little mistakes I’ve gone a lot slower, I’ve really slowed myself down on purpose, thinking that will help me make fewer mistakes.
‘In fact, it’s done nothing but put the blockers on and put my brakes on.
‘I really felt like I was on a journey of improvement. I really felt that by being a bit more moderated in my approach, by being a bit more careful it would lead to better results. What it actually led to was less fun and enjoyment, so, I’m back!
‘It is very liberating. That kid out there, he can play. The lad who’s been out for the last couple of years is a faker.’
Murphy reeled off the last eight frames on the spin against Wilson, with two centuries and five more half-centuries, showing that this new/old method is working wonders and he is determined to enjoy the success it is bringing.
‘It is very emotional, this is what we play for, these moments are to be enjoyed,’ he said after downing Wilson.
‘When the pockets look like buckets and your shots come off exactly as you imagine them to, that doesn’t happen all the time.
‘When it does all come together, you really do have to enjoy it. If I play like that I’m definitely going to be a handful.’
Whether he will be able to play like that is yet to be seen. The rejuvenated Magician will skip into the Crucible Theatre, wand at the ready, prepared to cast his most crowd-pleasing spells and put on a show of shows in the sport’s greatest arena.
Waiting for him will be the master of the dark arts, happy to blacken the Sheffield sky where Murphy wants to unleash his fireworks display. Ready to make it a final to forget for some, so that he will remember winning it forever.
He makes no qualms about this and nor should he. The sport’s ultimate prize is on the line and there are no points for style come the end of the 17 days in Sheffield.
Can the Magician conjure a spell powerful enough to conquer the dark lord? Or will he be the latest to be stupefied by Selby’s mesmeric hex?
Follow Metro Sport across our social channels, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
For more stories like this, check our sport page.
Go to Source
Author: Phil Haigh