30.4.09

CRUCIBLE SET FOR GRANDSTAND FINISH

What a wonderful World Championship it’s been and what a wonderful match we were treated to last night between John Higgins and Mark Selby.

I felt sorry for Mark. He couldn’t have played any better - indeed was playing well enough to capture the title - and he was still eliminated.

But that’s because Higgins is such a great pressure player. He needed just one chance in the decider (or the third incarnation of it after two re-racks) to clinch victory.

What a win for John. It must rank in his all time top five.

Credit to both players for the quality of the snooker they produced and the spirit in which the match was played.

There were bizarre moments, too. Alan Chamberlain, the referee, refused Selby’s request to clean the last red in frame 24. I assume this was because Alan didn’t want to replace it in a slightly different position on such a key shot but it was a surprising decision.

The crowd certainly got involved but were respectful and only added to the atmosphere.

Higgins needs to forget about that win – brilliant though it was – and concentrate on his semi-final against Mark Allen, who has already proved through his defeat of Ronnie O’Sullivan that he is no respecter of reputations.

Indeed, in only his second match as a professional at the 2005 Northern Ireland Trophy he beat Higgins 4-1.

But this is a best of 33 frame match and John has the experience to end Allen’s giant-killing run.

Neil Robertson became the first Australian in 27 years to reach a Crucible semi-final in overcoming Stephen Maguire.

Eddie Charlton last featured in the last four in 1982. A Robertson victory in the final would be great for snooker. The game has stagnated in Australia but he can provide it with an injection of interest.

But Shaun Murphy is quietly going about his business with ruthless intent.

I’d personally make him favourite right now but the fun will be in finding out.

It’s been an enthralling tournament and we’re set fair for a grandstand finish.

THE FINAL FOUR

If you listened to the latest Snooker Scene podcast you'd have heard my predictions for the semi-final line-up at this year's Betfred.com World Championship, which were:

Ronnie O'Sullivan v Mark Selby
Mark Williams v Stephen Maguire

Thank you very much and see you next year.

29.4.09

WHEN SEVEN BECOME FIVE

Sir David Richards and Peter Ebdon will resign from the board of the WPBSA as a result of an EGM held today to reduce the number of directors from seven to five.

This will apply for two years and is basically a measure to save money.

The WPBSA is seriously hard up. They recently told staff they would have to take a 10% pay cut and made four employees redundant.

The EGM attracted only 18 votes from an eligible constituency of more than 70, although attention may have been diverted by some tournament that's going on in Sheffield.

THE FORGOTTEN WORLD CHAMPION

The tournament sponsors, Betfred, have had t-shirts produced bearing the image of every world champion since the tournament started in 1927.

Or rather, every world champion but one.

Missing is Horace Lindrum, the 1952 champion.

If Neil Robertson does win the title this year he will not be the first Australian to have his name engraved on the famous old silver trophy.

But Lindrum’s victory is to this day controversial. It came about because of a disagreement between the players and the then governing body that led to all the leading cuemen of the time boycotting the official World Championship to instead play in a World Matchplay Championship won by Fred Davis.

Lindrum thus played Clark McConachy, a player well past his best, for the ‘official’ title.

This would be like Robertson playing, for example, Tony Knowles for this year’s title when all the other top players had their own event.

For this reason, many refuse to acknowledge Lindrum’s victory.

However, his name is on the trophy. When I raised the issue with Joe Johnson, the 1986 world champion, in commentary this week, he said: “If his name’s on the trophy, that means he won it.”

28.4.09

A GOLDEN DAY

Well it's been my duty to report various things on this blog that have highlighted how professional snooker has failed to make the most of its great potential.

But today is arguably one of the best in the sport's history.

Stephen Hendry made his ninth 147 break. The iconic Crucible Theatre has had its World Championship contract extended. And Mark Selby and John Higgins served up a session of snooker of such quality that it had to be seen to be believed.

Credit to the players and the organisers for keeping so many entranced by what is shaping up to be one of the best World Championships there ever was.

STEPHEN HENDRY'S 147

This afternoon it will be announced that the Crucible is to keep the contract to stage the Betfred.com World Championship and it therefore seems apt that the player who has achieved most success at the iconic venue produced another moment of magic.

Stephen Hendry's ninth career 147 break and his second at the Crucible - 14 years after his first - was sensational.

It was a pleasure to watch, never mind commentate on.

He's snooker's greatest ever player and he's proved it again.

I DO LIKE MONDAYS

Well you can’t fault the players for the drama they served up yesterday. It was another thrilling day’s snooker that has set up one of the best quarter-final line-ups we’ve ever had at the Crucible.

The John Higgins-Jamie Cope match was pulsating all the way through and climaxed with the twice former champion showing his class to win from 12-10 down in the first decider of the championship.

I felt sorry for Cope, though, who had his bid for victory derailed through no fault of his own.

In frame 24, he attempted to trickle the cue ball up to the yellow but it quite clearly rolled off. It may have caught the join between the slates but, whatever, it was most unfortunate and obviously got to Jamie as his next shot was slapdash and he barely got a chance in the decider.

It’s very warm in the Crucible arena and the heat may have played a part in two spectators – now thankfully OK – being taken ill and thus holding up play.

Both times Higgins returned from these unscheduled breaks with tough pots; both times he knocked them in.

He now plays Mark Selby, who has had the upper hand over him ever since their Crucible final two years ago.

Selby won another dramatic battle last night, 13-10 against the ever determined Graeme Dott.

This match included a bizarre incident during the morning session where both players were fouled for the same shot.

Dott played a shot and saw the cue ball running towards the green pocket. Quite often in such a situation the player will catch the white but he put his fist in the pocket. This was interpreted by referee Alan Chamberlain as interfering with a ball in play.

So Selby should have played from where it came to rest. However, he was – understandably – unaware and picked it up to place it in the ‘D’ whereupon he was also fouled.

Ultimately, it had no bearing on that frame or the match. Also, under the letter of the law Chamberlain was correct.

But here’s a question: what’s to stop players doing what Dott did so as to gain an advantage by not allowing their opponents to have the white in hand?

Stephen Maguire battled through a generally unattractive match against Mark King and will now take on Aussie Neil Robertson, who he has beaten seven times out of eight.

Robertson was one of a number of players seen fist-pumping and roaring into cameras.

This from a sport we are constantly told has ‘no characters.’

Personally, I’m all for it. There’s nothing wrong with some emotion as long as it doesn’t spill over into gamesmanship.

So, a great day and a great finish to the tournament to come. And then you open The Guardian and are confronted with a stream of drivel from Simon Hattenstone, who I have long suspected has an obsession with Ronnie O’Sullivan that borders on the unhealthy.

His column is a predictable mishmash of clich├ęs and in any case contradictory – he says the championship is no good without O’Sullivan having already stated he regards snooker as the most boring sport.

Fine, Simon. Don’t watch.

But those who do tune in are likely to witness one of the best conclusions to any World Championship you could wish for.

27.4.09

FIVE YEARS ON...

My good friends from IMG Media, who produce the BBC’s snooker coverage, have once again invited me to lay myself open to public ridicule by revisiting a feature first run five years ago in which a bunch of experts were asked to predict which players would comprise the top eight in 2009.

Well, 2009 has come and with it the reckoning.

Actually, I did pretty well but the sting in the tail is that we have now been asked to look forward another five years and predict the top eight in 2014.

This will be shown during the coverage of the final so I won’t spoil things by giving away our various choices but was wondering what everyone else’s selections would be?

PLAYER LOSES MATCH...TOURNAMENT CONTINUES

Inevitably, Ronnie O’Sullivan’s exit from the Betfred.com World Championship has led to much handwringing as to whether the tournament is now over as a spectacle.

Well, I had a look in the Crucible arena yesterday and the tables are still up, which is a promising sign.

And for all the stick Stephen Maguire and Mark King got for their record breaking 75-minute frame yesterday, the snooker served up by John Higgins and Jamie Cope last night was sensational, and the drama by Neil Robertson and Ali Carter gripping.

The blunt truth is this: Ronnie, for all his pulling power, does not represent the future of snooker. At 33 he is, to use a golfing term, on the back nine of his career.

The likes of Allen, just 23, have the potential to still be top stars in a decade’s time.

“The established stars such as Hendry, O'Sullivan and Higgins have been great for the game but the new breed are announcing themselves and proving that the game is in a very healthy state,” a World Snooker spokesman told the Daily Mirror.

This is certainly true with the talent on the table. (Off the table is a different story – Allen could win the World Championship in the same year his home event, the Northern Ireland Trophy, is axed from the calendar).

The Mirror story predicts viewing figures will fall after O’Sullivan’s exit but, actually, the three world finals he has won attracted lower figures than the two Mark Williams won or Peter Ebdon’s deciding frame victory over Stephen Hendry in 2002.

Allen, like O’Sullivan himself, doesn’t demur from speaking his mind, something I think he should be congratulated on even if you don’t necessarily agree with what he says.

Here’s what he told the Sun and Express newspapers about O’Sullivan’s claim at the Masters that snooker is ‘dying':

“Sometimes he says things he doesn’t think about and they do more damage to the game than he thinks.

“I think Ronnie made a comment that he’s carrying the game on his shoulders and I don’t see it that way.

“And if Ronnie believes that, he should walk away. Maybe they do need to try new things to get the popularity back but you don’t want loads of people drinking and shouting like the darts. It’s a gentleman’s sport.

“There are more than enough players to take the mantle over from Ronnie. The game has never been in better health player-wise. In any sport there should never be one player who runs it and over the last few years it does seem Ronnie has.

“He seems to get away with things other players wouldn’t.”

Does Allen have a point?

Possibly. I certainly think it’s unhealthy to pin an entire sport’s hopes on the shoulders of one man, particularly when that man is a maverick who doesn’t enjoy playing ball with the authorities, who have never really known whether to apply the carrot or stick approach to punishing his transgressions.

But, he is easily the most popular player when it comes to attracting spectators and, by extension, sponsors and broadcasters.

Ronnie has brought many new fans to the game who otherwise may never have been interested in watching it.

Snooker fans won’t turn off because O’Sullivan has been beaten at the Crucible but the likes of Allen still have a long way to go before assuming his mantle and emulating his status.

But, of course, the Northern Irishman can begin that process if he lands the title a week today.

26.4.09

THE LONGEST FRAME

Stephen Maguire has just won a frame against Mark King of exactly 75 minutes duration - the longest ever at the Crucible.

It beat the 74 minute, 8 second grind that Graeme Dott and Peter Ebdon served up during the 2006 final.

Could be a long old match.

JACK'S THE LAD

Jack Lisowski, 17, has been awarded the Paul Hunter Scholarship by the WPBSA for next season.

Jack is an outstanding prospect and has recently recovered from Hodgkins Lymphona, a form of cancer.

He will receive funding to practice at the World Snooker Academy in Sheffield for the next year.

Earlier this year, he reached the final of one of the events on the Pontin’s International Open Series.

“I started playing when I was seven. I used to play on the lounge carpet with ping pong balls,” Jack said.

“I’m looking forward to the next year and working on my game. I can’t wait to turn professional.”

The scholarship was set up in memory of Hunter, who died of cancer in 2006.

Daniel Wells, who came within a frame of qualifying for the Crucible this year, was the first recipient in 2007 and Adam Duffy was this season’s scholar.

Jack has a very good attitude so good luck to him.

25.4.09

FULL MARKS TO ALLEN

Ronnie O'Sullivan has many loyal fans and they will be very disappointed by his early Crucible exit but the Betfred.com World Championship goes on and the rest of the field will now be fancying their chances.

I thought Mark Allen was sensational. He took the game to Ronnie and was fearless in attacking at every opportunity.

O'Sullivan seemed to feel the pressure, proving that anyone can crack in the heat of the Crucible.

Can Allen go all the way?

I'd say he can. He was used to winning before he even turned professional. Indeed, he won every conceivable title as an amateur - the Northern Ireland crown at all age levels and the world, European and European under 19 titles.

On his television debut at the 2005 Northern Ireland Trophy he beat Steve Davis 4-0 and then John Higgins 4-1.

He's fiercely determined and will be full of confidence after his defeat of O'Sullivan.

And he clearly has the game to put the fear of God into anyone left in the tournament.

BEWARE DARK HORSE DAY

Nobody really talked about Ryan Day as a possible winner of the Betfred.com World Championship but they will have to now he is through to the quarter-finals – a remarkable Nigel Bond recovery notwithstanding.

Ryan has had a somewhat Jekyll and Hyde season. He began it well, reaching the Grand Prix final, but then entered a mini-slump before getting to the China Open semi-finals earlier this month.

Confidence is so important in any sport, particularly one like snooker that rests largely on mental fortitude.

There’s no doubt that Day is very talented but, like any player, he needs to truly believe he can be a winner.

I was surprised he didn’t win the Grand Prix having played the best snooker of the tournament.

Perhaps the mental barrier presented by not having won a ranking title before was a factor.

The same was possibly true for Graeme Dott, though, and after losing in four finals he won his first ranking event trophy at the Crucible in 2006.

There’s been great attention on a number of players leading up to and throughout the World Championship.

There’s been hardly any on dark horse Ryan Day and this is probably going to help him go even further.

24.4.09

GRAND FORM FROM HENDRY

Class, pure class.

Stephen Hendry has just won his 1,000th frame at the Crucible with a 140 total clearance, equalling the highest break so far set on day one by Ronnie O'Sullivan.

To put this into context: only five players have even played 1,000 frames at the Crucible.

MURPHY BOOED AT CRUCIBLE

Shaun Murphy was booed by some members of the crowd as he was introduced into the Crucible arena today. It didn't seem to bother him as he carved out a 7-1 lead over Marco Fu.

I don't know what this was all about or whether it was related to his marriage break up and the well publicised spat with his wife but I have no time for this sort of behaviour.

Relationships break up all the time but most do so in private. Murphy is to an extent a public figure but this does not mean his personal life should become an issue on the table.

I realise Shaun is not to everyone's taste, but who is?

I'd be prepared to bet that many of those who have taken against him have never met him in person.

The rights and wrongs of relationship breakdowns are rarely clearcut. Whatever has happened in private, I don't believe Murphy deserves this kind of treatment at the World Championship.

RONNIE STILL IN WITH A SHOUT

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s performance at the Crucible last night was his worst in a single session since he lost all eight frames to Graeme Dott in the third session of their 2006 semi-final.

He missed easy balls and seemed generally ill at ease but – and here comes the positive for Ronnie fans – he still came out of it level with Mark Allen at 4-4.

‘Pants’ was his verdict on one shot, although neither player was helped by a high number of kicks.

Allen has a couple of supporters in who could do with calming down a touch.

One of them shouted out so loud that he put Stephen Maguire off on the other table.

There’s nothing wrong with atmosphere but the Crucible arena is so small that noise is amplified.

23.4.09

TK TAKES IT TO THE MAX

Tony Knowles reached three Crucible semi-finals without winning the world title but has today captured the first six reds event to be played at the famous Sheffield venue.

Knowles beat teenager Ross Muir 52-18 in their one frame match.

There's been a lot of rubbish written about the six reds format in the build up to the championship. I'm basically of the view that there's nothing wrong with snooker as it is.

There are many problems with the sport but the game itself isn't one of them.

However, it occurs to me that six reds might be the answer for seniors snooker.

Let's be honest, the old boys would struggle to produce much in the way of form on current tournament tables over the traditional format.

But the shorter game might be an idea for an over 40s tournament featuring stars of the 1980s and those who have recently turned 40.

This is ironic in a way because Sir Rodney Walker appears to believe six reds will bring a new generation to the game.

I think if it does anything it might actually rekindle interest from some of those harking back to the boom years.

WHY SHOULD STEVE DAVIS RETIRE?

For what it's worth, I don't see why Steve Davis should be pressured into retirement.

He is still good enough to be ranked among the top 32. He is still good enough to have appeared in two ranking tournament quarter-finals this season. He is still good enough to have qualified for the Crucible.

OK, so he was poor in losing 10-2 to Neil Robertson in the first round of the Betfred.com World Championship but this doesn't mean he should put his cue away for good.

Steve has more than earned the right to carry on. In fact, having him in tournaments enhances them because of his legendary status.

He seemed to get a louder cheer than any of the other 31 players when he was introduced into the arena.

If he wants to carry on, why shouldn't he?

It doesn't diminish his past achievements and the fact that he can still turn the odd trick some 31 years into his professional career is surely worth celebrating, not carping about.

TALKING A GOOD GAME

Rob Walker may have to be cloned judging by the various duties he is performing at the Betfred.com World Championship, which include master of ceremonies and interviews for BBC television.

And I credit him for his contributions to worldsnooker.com's coverage of the event, which come in the form of audio reports and packages featuring interviews with the players.

I think snooker fans would prefer to listen to the players speak in their own words rather than read what they have to say filtered through journalists (although the excerpts are obviously edited down versions of what has been said).

What you don't get when written down is the intonation of what has been said. For instance, Stephen Hendry joked last year about the number of ice buckets in the arena and it became a big deal.

The sponsors, Betfred, could not be more enthusiastic about their involvement with snooker's biggest event and they are running video interviews with players on their special website.

By the way, I'm not doing any podcasts during the tournament because I figured that with 13 hours plus of live snooker every day nobody would have time to listen!

ON TO THE SECOND ROUND

It hasn't been a vintage Betfred.com World Championship yet but it's only day six of 17 and the second round line-up is brimming with quality.

So far, 12 members of the top 16 are through with Stephen Maguire and John Higgins well placed to join them.

There are some mouth-watering matches to come.

Ronnie O'Sullivan continues his title defence against Mark Allen, which should be a fast flowing, high scoring affair.

Stephen Hendry takes on Ding Junhui, just as he did last year, beating him 13-7.

Mark Selby faces Graeme Dott in a contest I think could be very close.

Ali Carter against Neil Robertson promises to be another entertaining affair.

Shaun Murphy plays Marco Fu in a repeat of this season's UK Championship final, which was a poor match that was nevertheless gripping right to the end.

I sometimes wonder if best of 25 frames in the last 16 is too long as there have, in the past, been a lot of runaway victories.

I don't think there'll be many this year.

22.4.09

HOLT STILL IN WITH A CHANCE

Michael Holt can still beat John Higgins tomorrow despite losing the last three frames of their opening session this afternoon at the Betfred.com World Championship.

Holt has enjoyed his most consistent ever season, winning his opening match in all but one of the eight world ranking events.

Being 5-4 down isn't a crisis by any means and he showed enough in the way of good form to suggest he can still cause an upset.

But...he must first believe he can win. This is his biggest problem, which is why I'm not sure being 6-3 up overnight would have really done him many favours, as stupid as that sounds.

He would most likely have spent a sleepless night worrying about ways in which he could lose.

At least now the match is evenly balanced and Higgins has made enough mistakes to not yet be secure, even though he finished the session well.

All in all an interesting match and nicely poised.

PHONEY WAR

World Snooker are held in low esteem generally by the media and the governing body's reputation has fallen even lower by its failure to install any phones in the press room at the Crucible.

These phones have been ordered by journalists whose newspapers have to pay for them. They should have been installed last week before the event began. It is now day five and there's no sign of them.

Would this happen at Wimbledon? Would it happen at the Open Golf Championship?

Do World Snooker wonder why they get such a bad press?

BOND BREAKS EBDON

I wasn't that surprised that Nigel Bond beat Peter Ebdon last night. Indeed, I tipped him to in the Snooker Scene podcast prior to the tournament.

For me, the match was always going to be scrappy with chances abounding on both sides. Ebdon would have been unable to dictate the style of the match because Bond is comfortable playing the same sort of game.

Nevertheless, after winning the China Open a first round exit at the Crucible will be a big disappointment to Ebdon.

He said recently that he considered the Betfred.com World Championship to be more important than all of the other events put together.

21.4.09

DING PROVES HIS METTLE

Ding Junhui passed a major test of character in holding off Liang Wenbo at the Crucible today.

In a match that kept tens of millions of television viewers back in China transfixed, Ding stepped it up when it mattered most to win 10-8 in their Betfred.com World Championship first round clash.

Ding didn’t pot a ball for three frames as Liang powered from 7-4 down to lead 8-7. However, hitting the front for the first time in the match brought its own pressure and he started to falter.

On the other hand, Ding grew strong, winning two frames on the spin with breaks of 111 and 91 before making 63 to clinch victory.

And what an important victory it could be for him. In fact, it could turn his entire career around.

He arrived at the Crucible having won only four matches in ranking events all season and not guaranteed to stay in the top 16.

He may relax a little now as he has proved to everyone – and most importantly himself – that he can handle the pressure.

And that makes him very dangerous for the rest of the tournament.

SEEDS FAIL TO SCATTER

Eight players through to the second round of the Betfred.com World Championship and all eight are members of the top 16.

Can all 16 seeds make it through for the first time ever?

And if not, where will the shocks come?

20.4.09

SELBY SENDS OUT TITLE WARNING

I thought Mark Selby was very impressive in completing his 10-6 victory over Ricky Walden.

Sometimes, players who resume with a 6-3 overnight lead panic a little as they know they could not forgive themselves if they squander their advantage.

But Selby held strong. He started off the session with a century and made two more in running out the winner.

All facets of his game were on show. His safety was good and he fashioned openings from which he made big breaks to win frames.

Mark knew he had to be on his game after drawing the dangerous Walden, who beat him in the semi-finals of this season’s Shanghai Masters.

They’ve known each other since their junior days and it was always going be a tough match to call, but the fact Walden was making his Crucible debut proved to be a factor: he made a bad start and never recovered.

So Selby is through and looks a good bet to go a long way.

The draw doesn’t get any easier. He has Graeme Dott now to possibly play John Higgins with Ronnie O’Sullivan looming in the semi-finals.

However, I’m not sure anyone would want to draw Selby if he’s on top form.

TIPPING POINT

Stephen Hendry is snooker's greatest ever player and greatest ever champion and demonstrated that the desire for further success burns deep within him at the Crucible last night.

But his match against Mark Williams at the Betfred.com World Championship also proved that, in sport, the unexpected can play a major part.

We all studied the form and made predictions based on it but nobody would have thought that Williams would have problems with his tip.

It played on his mind from the start of the final session and, at the end of the 12th frame, he asked the referee, Alan Chamberlain, if he could take a time-out to replace it.

The rule is that the tip has to have come off or at least be about to come off for this to happen.

Very sportingly, Hendry said he had no problem taking an early interval.

But as it transpired, the new tip - which will always take time to bed in - did for Williams. He fell apart as a succession of misses handed Hendry the chances he needed to win his 65fh match from the 81 he has played in 24 appearances at the Crucible.

This win clearly meant a lot to him.

This was no surprise. Great champions relish only one thing: winning.

And Hendry still believes he is a winner.

19.4.09

CLASH OF THE TITANS

Rishi Persad, presenting the Betfred.com World Championship for the BBC, made a particularly pertinent comment on his blog for the corporation’s website.

“Despite what some marketing people may say, the very essence of what makes a sport attractive is the action it provides and the men and women who provide it.”

Rishi’s absolutely right. In snooker, as in all sports, PR types obsess about everything on the periphery without realising that what really matters to people is what happens on the field of play, especially when the big guns are in action.

Tonight, two legends of snooker will cross cues. Stephen Hendry and Mark Williams have appeared in 12 world finals between them. Theirs is a match to relish.

It started yesterday and Hendry looked sharp early on, building a 4-1 lead before letting things slip a little. Williams came back to lead 5-4 and set up what should be a fascinating finish.

Barring a very strange set of results both Hendry and Williams will be safe for the elite top 16 next season.

But they are both proud men and great champions and defeat will be a bitter disappointment for whoever fails to make it to ten frames.

The whole session is live tonight on British Eurosport2 and the BBC red button and I for one can’t wait.

This is an authentic clash of the titans and one not to be missed.

GET THE COCOA ON

I'd say the last thing the Mark King v Rory McLeod match needed was a re-rack, but that's what has just happened in frame ten.

It seems certain they will come back tonight to finish the match off in an extra session, although this will most likely be on the first available table.

However, both matches this evening are resuming at 5-4, so a very late finish is on the cards.

Credit to King, though. He's just made a 114 break, only his second century of the season.

CENTURY RECORD UNDER THREAT

I think the centuries record may well go at this year's Betfred.com World Championship.

From the first day's play, it was clear the pockets were slightly more generous than usual. Balls were going in off jaws that would often stay out.

Also, World Snooker has taken on board the critical comments of players and will re-cloth the tables an extra time this year, which should aid scoring.

There were five tons on the first day compared with six throughout the whole of the 1977 championship, the first to be held at the Crucible.

But, of course, snooker has changed a great deal in the last 32 years.

The record is 68 centuries set at the 2002 championship and equalled two years ago.

Stephen Hendry made the most in a single World Championship - 16 in 2002.

O'Sullivan already has three to his name but will surely need to reach the final to supersede Hendry's record.

18.4.09

O'SULLIVAN STILL NO.1

Ronnie O'Sullivan is guaranteed to be world no.1 again next season after beating Stuart Bingham 10-5 in the first round of the Betfred.com World Championship.

This was not O'Sullivan at his imperious best but the defending champion still made three centuries and finished off with 365 points without reply.

It means his closest challenger in the rankings, Stephen Maguire, cannot catch him even if the Scot wins the title.

O'Sullivan will need to improve his long potting and safety but you can always improve as long as you are in the tournament.

Bingham will reflect on what was a rotten draw to get. He played well in patches and probably would have beaten some of the other players in the event, but was up against the heaviest scorer in the game.

SWEET CHARITY

Some news on a few charity donations.

Firstly, World Snooker are supporting the Teenage Cancer Trust and have invited Jack Lisowski, a talented young player who has recently recovered from Hodgkins Lymphona, a form of cancer, to present the Junior Pot Black trophy at the Crucible on Thursday.

Fred Done, boss of tournament sponsors Betfred.com, will donate £147,000 to the BBC’s Sport Relief if any player makes a 147 break.

Meanwhile, Ali Carter, who has suffered from Crohn’s disease, is backing MedicAlert, which raises awareness of men’s health issues.

All of which is to be commended and shows that snooker’s high profile, particularly during these 17 days, can be used to good effect.

ROCKET LAUNCH

Ronnie's struggling.

A 140 total clearance in the second frame.

It's like he's never been away.

RORY MAKES HISTORY

Rory McLeod today makes history as the first black player ever to compete at the Crucible.

It's a strange anomaly. Snooker is not an elitist sport. Anyone can join a club and start playing.

Rory himself isn't one to make a big deal of it but it's a noteworthy achievement.

He's up against Mark King at 10am (UK time).

You can read my general preview of the Betfred.com World Championship in this morning's Independent here.

WAKE UP CALL

I woke up a short time ago to hear the words 'and the World Snooker Championship gets underway today at the Crucible' on the BBC's Breakfast programme.

Great, I thought! A preview of the big event is coming up.

Instead we were treated to a few minutes of free publicity for World Snooker's 'Hotshot's' scheme - a meaningless PR campaign that will very probably be discontinued at the end of the season.

'World Snooker are taking giant strides to get youngsters involved,' said the unquestioning BBC reporter.

How does the Hotshots do that exactly? It wasn't actually explained.

I really can't wait for the action to start so we can concentrate on what's important and what people are actually interested in.

It's called snooker.

17.4.09

THIS IS IT

When you walk into the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, you walk into history itself.

These are the corridors where legends have trod. This is the arena where reputations have been made and destroyed.

Nobody would choose the Crucible as a venue for the game’s biggest event today. It is far too small. It is prosaic and cramped and not the modern, forward looking location for a major sporting event.

Equally, nobody would take it away from Sheffield unless they had a very good reason. For all its faults, the Crucible remains a magical place, its status enhanced by the myths and legends of its past.

If you shut your eyes, you can see them, those iconic moments that, stitched together, form a rich tapestry of snooker history: Terry Griffiths an exhausted first time champion...Barry Hearn barrelling across the stage into Steve Davis after his first title...Alex Higgins in tears, beckoning his wife and child...Cliff Thorburn’s 147...Dennis Taylor’s black...Stephen Hendry at 17...Jimmy White’s maximum...Hendry and Hendry again...Ronnie O’Sullivan’s record breaking 147...John Higgins...Mark Williams...Shaun Murphy...

This is where it all happened and this is where it will all happen again over the next 17 days.

There will be drama. There will be shocks. There will be controversy and things said that can’t be unsaid and unexpected misses and fine potting and big breaks and one man left standing from the field of 32 who start out.

This is what the whole snooker year is based around. This is what people look forward to. This is what really matters.

Soon, the talking will be done. The predictions will be made and it will be time only for action.

And I for one can’t wait.

STEPHEN MAGUIRE STATEMENT

Stephen Maguire's management agency 110sport has issued the following statement:

Further to press statements concerning alleged unusual betting patterns between Stephen Maguire and Jamie Burnett at this season's UK Championship, we can confirm that Stephen Maguire is to meet with police officers in the near future.

It is regrettable this matter raises it's ugly head on the eve of snooker's biggest event, the World Championship in Sheffield.

It is ludicrous to suggest that Stephen Maguire, the world No 2, would in any way be involved in alleged unusual betting activity.

At this stage there will be no further comment on the matter and we would ask the press to allow Stephen Maguire to concentrate on preparing for the World Championship.

However, 110sport lawyers will be examining the reasons why this investigation has taken four months and why it has been made public on the eve of the World Championship.


My thoughts: how long do 110sport think the investigation should take and who are they to determine how long it should last?

The police have only just been brought in. It was made public presumably because journalists found out about it - as happens in many cases.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO CARTER

Ali Carter's had a lot to say for himself in the run up to the Betfred.com World Championship.

And good for him. A year ago few journalists weren't interested in him.

All that changed with his excellent run to the Crucible final last year. He goes to Sheffield this season as a live contender for the title.

However, Ali was badly advised - assuming he was advised at all - with his comments over the current match fixing inquiry involving the Stephen Maguire v Jamie Burnett match at last December's UK Championship.

"Match-fixing is 100 per cent wrong and I don't hear of anything like that going on. The bookmakers want it all their own way, they want to win all the time," he told the Yorkshire Post.

"If they were creaming off millions of pounds, the bookmakers wouldn't be saying a word. But the fact a few quid has gone on and they have lost – wipe your mouth and get on with it like the punter has to when he has a bet and loses."

Is Ali seriously suggesting that if bookmakers suspect a major conspiracy to commit fraud - which is what it amounts to - then they should ignore it?

Nobody knows how the Maguire v Burnett inquiry will pan out. It may well be that there is no case to answer but, as the police are now involved, the players face jail if found guilty of any impropriety.

Carter has also written off Ronnie O'Sullivan's chances of even making the final.

I suspect he'll be hoping his prediction comes true: they've played 11 times and O'Sullivan leads him 11-0.

DEAN REYNOLDS SUFFERS STROKE

Dean Reynolds, twice a ranking tournament finalist and a former member of the top 16, has suffered a stroke.

He was a very good player in his day and we here at Snooker Scene wish him well for his recovery.

There's more in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph.

PICKING A WINNER

The good people at global-snooker.com have been kind enough to describe me as an 'expert' for their Betfred.com World Championship preview.

Most interesting is that Luca Brecel, the 14 year-old Belgian who recently won the EBSA European Under 19 Championship, thinks Stephen Hendry will win the title.

More info here.

16.4.09

PODCAST#8...WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW

Our latest podcast features me and my fellow snooker anorak Phil Yates discussing the first round matches in the upcoming Betfred.com World Championship.

This was actually recorded just after the draw was made and therefore before the China Open.

So when you hear us saying what rotten form Peter Ebdon has been in, please bear that in mind!

Also, it descends into a bit of a shambles when I forget to mention one of the matches.

I'm selling this really well aren't I?

Anyway, you can listen here.

MAGUIRE V BURNETT: POLICE CALLED IN

Strathclyde Police are now involved in the investigation into the Stephen Maguire v Jamie Burnett match at last December's UK Championship.

This match is the subject of an investigation by the Gambling Commission following a heavy volume of bets for Maguire to win 9-3, which was the final result.

And the Glasgow Evening Times reports that the investigation has moved a step further.

A spokeswoman for Strathclyde Police told the newspaper: "After consultation with the Procurator Fiscal's Office, our Economic Crime Unit is carrying out inquiries."

The police are likely to interview both players as well as tournament staff and other parties.

Maguire plays Burnett again in the Betfred.com World Championship at the Crucible next week.

The Evening Times story is here.

HARD SHOULDER...CONTINUED

Further to my post about Neil Robertson yesterday, Hector Nunns of the Daily Express has got to the bottom of the Aussie's shoulder injury.

You can read his story here.

BEWARE BALLRUN

Stuart Bingham is not a player to be underestimated.

Nine years ago, he made his Crucible debut against Stephen Hendry, then the defending champion and still one of the leading contenders for the world title.

Bingham won 10-7.

This year he faces Ronnie O’Sullivan, who goes to Sheffield looking to win a fourth world title.

Bingham knows all about Ronnie’s game because they practice together. He won’t be overawed playing the game’s no.1 because he is so used to it.

O’Sullivan starts favourite, as he does for every match he plays in but Bingham is not a pushover.

Here are some facts about Stuart:

- Is nicknamed ‘Ballrun’

- Won the 1996 world amateur championship

- Made a 147 during an event in the 1999 UK Tour and another during the 2005 Masters qualifiers

- Is the only player to make a 146 break in the World Championship

- Missed the pink on 134 with a maximum on against Ken Doherty at the Crucible in 2002

- Is the only player to win the Masters qualifying event twice

- Is one of only 29 players to have made a century of competitive centuries

- Is a member of Crondon Park Golf Club, home of the Championship League

15.4.09

SHEFFIELD, 1989

The Hillsborough disaster happened on the opening day of the 1989 World Championship across the city from the Crucible at the home of Sheffield Wednesday.

The tragedy unfolded live on the BBC's Grandstand, which should have been showing the snooker.

John Parrott, an Everton fan, would wear a black arm band during his emotional first round victory over Steve James.

The BBC's snooker correspondent at the time was Alan Green, now radio's best known commentator. He was at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest that afternoon, April 15, in which 96 fans lost their lives.

He writes in his book, The Green Line, of coming back to the Crucible that night:

"In a daze, I walked along the familiar corridor, past the dressing rooms, the press canteen, towards the press room itself. Within a couple of yards of the entrance, I bumped into Steve Acteson [formerly snooker correspondent of The Times]. He didn't say anything. He looked into my eyes. Everyone there knew what had happened and they were anxiously awaiting my arrival, not knowing what to expect.

"Steve was, and remains, a very good friend. I broke down, collapsing into his arms. He dragged me into the gents' toilets where I sobbed incontrollably. In came Tony Knowles.

"He was yet to play his first round match and though he'd heard of the tragedy at Hillsborough, he didn't know that I'd been there. Steve told him, and Tony forgot about his match. He was only concerned for my welfare.

"That evening, I was comforted by the support of colleagues who were also good friends, people like Steve, Clive Everton and Janice Hale [formerly of Snooker Scene].

"The snooker went on around me but I was obvlivious to it. Writers and broadcasters, most of whom were dear friends, approached me frequently but warily. Was I all right? Could they do anything to help? Could they get me another drink?

"I drank a lot that evening and deep into the night, enough alcohol to have seen me pass out. Somehow, I didn't. No amount could make me forget, erase the hurt.

"Knowles finished his match [two days later]. He lost and, unless there's a specific request otherwise, only winning players are expected to face the media afterwards.

"Tony was well beaten and must have wished for the comfort of Bolton. Yet he came to the press room to seek me out. How was I? We talked for a few minutes and it was a gesture that I will never forget.

"It was typical of the snooker scene that I loved and still miss."

WHERE THE MONEY WENT

Matthew Syed, who was recently named Sportswriter of the Year at the British Press Awards, has investigated the finances of the WPBSA for The Times.

You can read his findings here.

It makes for pretty astonishing reading for those who are not already aware of the facts.

HARD SHOULDER

What I always enjoy about the build up to the Crucible are the little bits of rumour and tittle tattle that fly around before the big event actually gets underway.

I've been told at least four players are ill without any actual evidence. However, Neil Robertson is reported to have injured his shoulder and I give more credence to this claim as he withdrew from a planned appearance in the mixed doubles event that formed part of the women's world championship last week.

I hope for Neil's sake that this is just a minor thing. The last player you want to be up against when you've got an injury is the granite-like Steve Davis, who is unlikely to show any mercy.

14.4.09

SAME OLD, SAME OLD

They - and by 'they' I mean newspaper columnists who write about snooker once a year - say there are no 'characters' in the game.

I disagree, mainly because I know the players and I know who the characters are.

However, I would agree that many of them have not emerged fully and do not come across to the public at large.

But this is a vicious circle. Last night, BBC1's Inside Sport interviewed Jimmy White as a Betfred.com World Championship preview.

Why?

I think Jimmy's a great guy but he's not at the Crucible.

Why not interview someone who actually is?

Ronnie O'Sullivan is profiled in today's Guardian. The interview is interesting enough but follows exactly the same pattern as all his other interviews: the tortured genius, the father in prison, the bad behaviour, the charm, the contradiction etc etc...

Ronnie and Jimmy are modern day versions of Macbeth which, back in the day, used to be by far Shakespeare's most popular play. If a theatre was staging it all the other theatres would know it was in trouble and having to rely on something established to get the punters in.

This is how even saying the name Macbeth became to be regarded as unlucky.

I know Ronnie is popular and fascinating, but there are 32 players at the Crucible this year and many TV viewers will know next to nothing about many of them.

This does not mean they are not 'characters'.

But if nobody ever bothers to interview them then they will remain largely anonymous.

This is snooker's biggest problem. It can only be solved by encouraging players to speak their minds and reveal their personalities.

Jimmy White isn't in the World Championship. Ronnie O'Sullivan could lose on the opening day.

If he does, there are 31 other players taking part.

It would be nice if some of them could get some recognition.

13.4.09

WATCH OUT FOR MAGUIRE

Stephen Maguire is my tip for the Betfred.com World Championship.

You can read why in my Betfair column here.

ANDREW'S DAY

The first qualifier for the Crucible this year was Andrew Higginson, who finally made it through to snooker’s theatre of dreams after 14 attempts.

Higginson famously went from the first qualifying round to within a frame of winning the Welsh Open two years ago.

He won many friends along the way. It warms the cockles of even the most cynical of hearts to see a hard working journeyman finally realise his potential.

Andrew’s problem was that as a result of this great run to the final in Newport he put himself under pressure to continue on the up and up, which is far easier said than done in snooker’s hard fought qualifying jungle.

“Getting to the final was unexpected for most people but because I got there I put pressure on myself,” he said.

“I don’t want to be a flash in the pan, getting to the final and then not being seen again.”

Well, he’ll be seen against Shaun Murphy, the 2005 winner, in the first round of the Betfred.com World Championship and is capable of causing a shock.

Murphy, after all, has had a strangely inconsistent season. He won the UK Championship but has done little else.

Higginson, though, is making his Crucible debut and that has to count against him.

He has been to the Sheffield venue before. In fact, he attended two of Ronnie O’Sullivan’s final victories.

It may be going some to imagine this likeable 31 year-old from Widnes in the final himself but he is determined to enjoy his Crucible experience.

“You won’t see me with a sad face at the Crucible,” he told me after qualifying.

After all the years of practising and many disappointments in the qualifiers, his dream is about to come true.

Good luck to him.

12.4.09

KEEPING TABBS ON THE CRUCIBLE FINAL

Michaela Tabb will this year become the first woman ever to referee the world final.

You can read my interview with her in the Sunday Herald here.

THE WHITE STUFF

Snooker legend Jimmy White has called on TV bosses to put the sport on at an earlier hour.

This week, WPBSA chairman Sir Rodney Walker announced plans for a ‘6 reds’ experiment in a bid to raise popularity with younger viewers.

However, many of these viewers are currently disenfranchised because major finals finish at close to or after midnight.

For viewers watching in mainland Europe it is an hour later.

The last session of this year’s Betfred.com World Championship final will start at 8pm, with 11 frames to be played.

If it goes close, the peak viewing audience is likely to be long before the final ball goes down.

“The game’s never been so popular worldwide but we need to get our act together and get it on at a proper time,” White told BBC radio’s Sportsweek.

“We seem to be on really late at night, like it’s the last thing on all the time."

White said he didn’t mind 6 reds snooker but called for the return of the World Doubles Championship and a team event, such as the World Cup.

He wants the World Championship to remain at the Crucible. “It’s the absolute place. It’s just an amazing venue,” he said.

White will also be interviewed on BBC1’s Inside Sport at 11.10pm on Monday.

BARRY HEARN INTERVIEW

There's an interesting interview with Matchroom boss Barry Hearn in today's Independent on Sunday.

Barry's been hugely successful in a number of different sports, including snooker.

You can read the interview here.

10.4.09

THE TEN GREATEST COMEBACKS IN CRUCIBLE HISTORY: 1

I hope you've enjoyed this look back at the greatest Crucible comebacks.

For a whole host of reasons, notably being there that afternoon and watching the drama unfold and its aftermath, there was only one choice for the winner for me...


1) KEN DOHERTY 17, PAUL HUNTER 16 (Semi-finals, 2003)

Ken Doherty could have been forgiven for being exhausted before his semi-final with Paul Hunter even began. He had come through 10-9 on the black against Shaun Murphy, in a decider over Graeme Dott and 13-8 from 10-0 up to John Higgins.

Perhaps tiredness played a part as he fell 15-9 behind. The inspiration that sets great champions apart certainly played a part in him fighting back to record one of the most dramatic victories ever seen on a snooker table.

The final session was held on a Saturday afternoon. Organisers, worried the public would see just two frames, were making plans for an exhibition.

In a way the audience did see one, courtesy of the 1997 champion. Crucially, he won two close frames to shake Hunter’s resolve and himself grew in confidence as he hit back with everything he had.

Hunter did get to 16-14 but his game fell apart as Doherty got stronger, coming through in a one-sided decider.

It was fine snooker but what also set this match apart was the spirit in which it was played. Backstage, Hunter wished Doherty all the best for the final. He embraced the Irishman’s friend, Mick. He was gracious in the press conference.

Doherty too paid tribute to Hunter for his performance. It would have been hard to discern for anyone wandering into the Crucible who had won and who had lost.

Disappointment for Hunter was tempered by the widely held belief that, one day, the world title would be his. Cruelly, fate would intervene in a manner that remains both tragic and shocking.

THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY

Jin Long has been fined £150 by the WPBSA disciplinary committee for conceding frames early during the Masters qualifiers last November.

I don’t know how early these concessions were but the rule has since been changed to allow the referee to use discretion.

It was wrong for Ronnie O’Sullivan to concede a frame against Joe Perry at 23-0 during the UK Championship but for a player to leave the blue over the pocket when it’s all his opponent needs and then be warned seems absurd.

Thankfully, common sense has prevailed.

Speaking of which, snooker journalists made an approach to the WPBSA to ask them to start making the results of disciplinary hearings known in the spirit of open government.

They have agreed to do so from now on, for which we are grateful.

9.4.09

THE TEN GREATEST COMEBACKS IN CRUCIBLE HISTORY: 2

2) NIGEL BOND 10, CLIFF THORBURN 9 (First round, 1994)

You think of Cliff Thorburn, you think of a granite-like match-player, a grinder, a formidable battler of the old school.

You don’t think of collapses. You don’t think of surrendering big leads. At least you didn’t until 1994 when he suffered an astonishing defeat from 9-2 up to Bond.

Thorburn was back at the Crucible for the first time since 1990 and highlighted his procession towards the second round with a 139 total clearance.

But he couldn’t quite finish the job and Bond recovered to 9-7, whereupon the match was taken off to avoid it running into the next session.

In the time before they resumed, Thorburn's mind must have been in a jam jar as he contemplated the possibility of a humiliating reversal.

He had his chances to put it away but lost two black ball frames before Bond took the decider in the early hours of the morning.

Bond went on to reach the final the following year. Thorburn never again played at the Crucible. Indeed, his career came to an end just a couple of years later.

WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP ON THE BBC

The BBC has announced details of its coverage of the Betfred.com World Championship.

Hazel Irvine is missing from the team this year as she has just given birth (a baby girl, mother and daughter doing fine).

Presenting duties will thus fall to Ray Stubbs and Rishi Persad, joined as usual by Steve Davis (when he isn't playing) and John Parrott.

The commentators are Clive Everton, Willie Thorne, Dennis Taylor, John Virgo, Neal Foulds, Terry Griffiths and Ken Doherty.

Live action from both tables will be shown on the BBC website and red button for digital viewers.

One new addition this year is 'Snooker on the Red,' a nightly highlights programme on the red button at 6pm presented by MC Rob Walker.

Hopefully this will include interviews as this is the one thing missing from red button coverage.

The World Championship will also be shown extensively on Eurosport, who will show coverage of the second table on the online Eurosport Player.

THE TEN GREATEST COMEBACKS IN CRUCIBLE HISTORY: 3

3) DENNIS TAYLOR 18, STEVE DAVIS 17 (Final, 1985)

That Steve Davis could lose any match, never mind a world final, having held a seemingly unimpeachable position was proof that, in snooker and in sport, anything is possible.

He led Dennis Taylor 8-0. At that point it was no certainty Taylor would even win a frame.

In the ninth frame, Davis missed a green to effectively make it 9-0 and the match turned. Taylor pulled back to trail only 9-7 overnight and then drew level at 15-15.

Davis got ahead again at 17-15 but could not shake the bespectacled Northern Irishman off. Taylor levelled at 17-17 and potted brown, blue and pink (all great pots, by the way) to take the final down to the final ball.

By now, 18.5m BBC2 viewers were transfixed. At had gone midnight but nobody could turn away.

The climax is forever written into snooker folklore: Davis has the black to win...he overcuts it...Taylor pots it...he raises his cue...he wags his finger...he holds the trophy aloft.

ON MESSAGE

World Snooker's disastrous tie-up with the Press Association (see posts passim) - which has seen press coverage during tournaments dwindle to its lowest level since the 1970s - has hit a new low.

This screenshot is taken from the sportinglife website, the copy for which is supplied by the PA (thanks to a regular reader for sending it on).

You will notice that despite running the story that Betfred are sponsoring the World Championship, it still refers to 888.com as the sponsor in several stories.

I'm sure Fred Done will be delighted.

8.4.09

GOOD NEWS DAY

So I’ve spent the day in London where I attended the announcement of the worst kept secret in snooker – that Betfred are to sponsor the World Championship.

I thought World Snooker staged the press conference in a very professional manner and that their chairman, Sir Rodney Walker, spoke well, although I think it’s fair to say he’s not a man who suffers from low self esteem.

“We live in difficult economic times. Many sports are finding it hard to find new sponsors or keep existing ones so the fact that a company such as Betfred has the confidence to invest in World Snooker is something about which we’re enormously pleased,” he said.

Walker also said that he could not reveal the amount being invested but that it was a “four year, multi million pound deal.”

Betfred’s boss is Fred Done, a personable sports enthusiast who joked that his company could only afford the sponsorship because of all the money it took on the Grand National, which was won by a 100/1 outsider.

“We’ve paid a lot of money for this sponsorship but I like to be associated with the best. We’re sponsors at Manchester United and Wembley and now we’ve made up the trio,” he said.

The press conference was attended by reigning world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan, the man he beat in last year’s final, Ali Carter, losing semi-finalist Joe Perry, 2002 winner Peter Ebdon and world no.15 Mark King.

“Betfred’s events feel like events whereas some of the other tournaments lack that enthusiasm and dynamism and personality. It will be a pleasure to be there,” O’Sullivan said.

Certainly Betfred seem very enthusiastic and I think they will be good for the tournament. They have previously sponsored the Premier League and are keen to support the World Championship not just with money but also through activities around it.

Everyone in the sport must be pleased to see a company coming forward to invest in snooker.

“I’ve often wondered in the last few years why major companies have not had the vision and foresight to see that snooker is the best value for money sport and I’m very pleased that the people at Betfred have seen the huge opportunity to sponsor it,” Ebdon said.

The players then went off to pose for pictures and journalists were informed they would return for interviews.

They all came back except for O’Sullivan, who decided to leave.

Given the choice of spending the afternoon talking to snooker journalists or going home I can see his point but he’s the world champion and as such should fulfil his duties.

Of course, O’Sullivan claimed snooker was ‘dying’ during the Masters and Walker seems to have taken the point.

“There are many things that we can be doing and will be doing to make the sport more attractive to a younger audience. There will be a lot of exciting developments going on in the next 12 months and beyond,” he said.

Details are sketchy as to what this will involve but I understand there are plans for more tournaments (good news) but that existing prize money levels will be spread more thinly and the ranking points allocation will also be altered.

Will this be a version of what I suggested back in January? Time will tell.

I also learned that making the sport ‘more attractive to a younger audience’ will involve a tournament played with only seven reds.

I must admit my heart sank when I heard this, although I will await more details before commenting fully.

One point I would make: if you really want to get kids interested in snooker, don’t dumb it down but play the major finals at a time when they can watch them, as opposed to these ridiculous post-midnight finishes.

Six – or seven – red versions of the game possibly have their place in countries where snooker isn’t popular or has declined in popularity. Hence, in Thailand in July a big 6-reds event won last year by Ricky Walden will be staged for a second time.

Anyway, we will see what World Snooker’s proposals are in due course.

Walker also revealed that the BBC are keen to open negotiations for their new TV contract later this year and that he is having discussions in Sheffield next week that are likely to conclude with the Crucible keeping the World Championship.

A very interesting day all in all.

THE TEN GREATEST COMEBACKS IN CRUCIBLE HISTORY: 4

4) STEPHEN HENDRY 18, JIMMY WHITE 14 (Final, 1992)

It’s hard to explain to younger readers or those who have only just discovered snooker the huge wave of goodwill there was towards Jimmy White as he sought the game’s ultimate prize.

It wasn’t through dislike of any of his opponents or any other factor than the public’s genuine love for Jimmy, who had put them through so many trials and tribulations over the years.

By 1992 he was appearing in his fourth world final and third in succession. He’d had a good season but was up against the all conquering king in Stephen Hendry.

Their final began closely but White built a 10-6 overnight lead and at 12-6 looked like he would canter to victory. At 14-8 he still looked a certainty but Hendry won the next and, crucially, the last of the afternoon session, potting a brown that remains one of the best shots of his, or anyone else’s, career.

In the couple of hours before play resumed, White had to countenance thoughts that his likely victory may yet turn into another disappointing defeat.

He lost the first frame on the black and Hendry flew from that point, finishing the match with back to back centuries, two of three he made in the final session.

White was, as ever, gracious in defeat. He had lost to a Hendry who was, at the time, a force of nature.

White’s fans consoled themselves with the thought that there was always next year, but they and the Whirlwind himself were well aware that Hendry would be there as well. As he would the year after that and the year after that and...

THE TEN GREATEST COMEBACKS IN CRUCIBLE HISTORY: 5

5) SHAUN MURPHY 13, MATTHEW STEVENS 12 (Quarter-finals, 2007)

For all Jimmy White’s many achievements, people always tend to bring up his six world final defeats when they mention him. Matthew Stevens, a fine player and winner of two of the game’s top three titles, is unfortunately destined to be similarly remembered for his nearlyman status.

By 2007, he had lost two world finals from winning positions and three close semi-finals. In the quarter-finals, he needed to beat Murphy to remain in the top 16. Leading 12-7 surely nothing could go wrong?

What followed was a slow burning drama as thrilling as any the Crucible has had to offer.

As Murphy, surely himself believing his challenge had ended, started to swing his cue at the balls the mental scars of earlier close defeats re-opened in Stevens’s mind.

He missed his chance to win 13-7, sat out a couple of big breaks from Murphy, lost another close frame and, all of a sudden, it was 12-11.

A grimly scrappy frame followed and it became clear that Stevens could not win. He lost it and failed to pot a ball in the decider.

Stevens was thus relegated from the top 16. He hasn’t qualified this year.

7.4.09

THE TEN GREATEST COMEBACKS IN CRUCIBLE HISTORY: 6

6) PETER EBDON 13, RONNIE O’SULLIVAN 11 (Quarter-finals, 2005)

This was perhaps the most controversial match ever played at the Crucible as Ebdon pulled off a great comeback and O’Sullivan mentally imploded.

O’Sullivan’s title defence looked to be on track when he led 8-2 and heading into the final session with a 10-6 lead he was widely regarded to be a dead cert for the semi-finals.

And then Ebdon got stuck in. And how. The pace slowed right down and the grinding began.

He had long been methodical but rarely this methodical. One break of 12 took five minutes to compile. Ebdon later claimed he had not slowed down deliberately but he must have been aware that he got under the notoriously fragile O’Sullivan’s skin.

The scenes inside the Crucible arena were bizarre: O’Sullivan dragging his nails into his forehead until he drew blood, standing on his chair, laughing and, above all, losing.

Ebdon’s victory was ultimately completed within the rules as he wasn’t warned for time wasting. Some thought it a victory for an old style match player using all he had to get the result. Others thought it a disgrace.

Either way, he was in the semi-finals and O’Sullivan wasn’t.

THE TEN GREATEST COMEBACKS IN CRUCIBLE HISTORY: 8-7

We continue the countdown with choices 8 to 7...


8) JOE JOHNSON 13, TERRY GRIFFITHS 12 (Quarter-finals, 1986)

The 1986 final looked a done deal by the time the quarter-finals came around: Steve Davis, the game’s top dog despite his black ball defeat to Dennis Taylor the previous year, against Terry Griffiths, the former champion who had edged Alex Higgins in a decider in the previous round.

Joe Johnson had other ideas. The 150/1 title outsider had quietly arrived in the last eight and held a 9-7 lead over Griffiths entering their final session.

Griffiths, though, seized control, taking five frames on the spin to lead 12-9. “Terry was one of my big stumbling blocks. He’d always given me a big thumping,” Joe told me recently on the Snooker Scene podcast.

“I was always in front in the match but from 9-7 he got into some kind of a groove. I remember thinking to myself, what have I done? How have I got myself into this place? The old Griff’s going to do me again. So I just thought to myself, I’m going to have a go.”

And have a go he did. Breaks of 104 and 110 were the highlights as Johnson won four frames in just 52 minutes to complete the recovery and win 13-12.

You could forgive the losing player being speechless after such a defeat. In fact, Griffiths took Johnson aside and gave him some advice on how to handle winning the title if he went on to do so, which speaks volumes about the Welshman.


7) MARK WILLIAMS 17, JOHN HIGGINS 15 (Semi-finals, 2000)

It’s hard to believe a non-existent handshake could play a pivotal role in snooker history but that was the key factor in John Higgins losing seven of the final session’s eight frames to deny him a place in the 2000 world final and, in all probability, a second world title.

Higgins led 14-10 going into the evening's play. Williams had already packed his cases for home between sessions.

At the start of the last session, Williams, perhaps too relaxed, forgot to shake Higgins’s hand. For some reason, the Scotsman allowed this to affect him, worried that he had done something to offend the Welsh left-hander.

What transpired was a rare Higgins collapse from a winning position. He got 15-11 ahead but failed to win another frame as Williams battled through.

Higgins regards the defeat as the most disappointing of his career. “What I should have done is just gone over to Mark and shaken his hand, but I let it play on my mind all evening,” he told me during the Snooker Scene Podcast.

Williams would win the final against Matthew Stevens while Higgins would have to wait another seven years for his second world title.

6.4.09

HERE COME THE GIRLS

Women's snooker has rather fallen off the radar in recent years so it may surprise you to know that the World Championship is on right now at Cambridge Snooker Centre.

Gone are the days when this tournament was shown on television.

The greats of women's snooker - Allison Fisher, Karen Corr and Kelly Fisher - have all gone to the USA to play on the far more lucrative pool circuit, and they have all done very well out of it.

Reanne Evans is the current world champion and a very good player as well. Indeed, Reanne has just made it through the first qualifying section of the English Amateur Championship and will take her place in the last 32.

She is through to the semi-finals of the World Championship after a 4-0 victory over Tina Owen-Sevilton and will tomorrow face Emma Bonney.

The best chance women's snooker had for real success was when the WPBSA took the circuit under its wing in 1997. Major finals were staged at men's tournaments and at least gave the women some additional exposure.

However, the writing was on the wall when the finalists for the 2003 World Championship turned up at the Crucible only to find the balls were locked away in one of the cupboards, a key for which couldn't be found.

Not the best omen.

And indeed the women were cut adrift once again.

Credit goes to Mandy Fisher, the long time chair of the WLBSA, for persevering in the way she has. Without committed, enthusiastic people - WLBSA's press officer fits into this category - enterprises such as this could just wither and die.

The financial rewards on the women's circuit are derisory but sport isn't just played for money.

Sometimes it's enough that it's being played at all.

You can follow the results from the women's World Championship here.

THE TEN GREATEST COMEBACKS IN CRUCIBLE HISTORY: 10-9

You may have noticed that the World Championship will soon be upon us.

And so, I have decided to do a countdown this week highlighting some of the best comeback victories ever seen at the Crucible.

My top ten will take into account the deficit erased, the significance of the match and the manner in which the recovery was completed.

As ever, these are my choices - you may well disagree with them - and it is only a bit of fun.

First up, numbers 10 to 9...


10) JOE SWAIL 13, JOHN PARROTT 12 (Second round, 2000)

Joe Swail’s career has been defined by him winning matches he probably should have lost. To qualify for the 2000 World Championship he came from 9-6 down to edge Stephen Maguire in a decider – Maguire missing the pink for a 10-6 victory.

The battling Belfast man won many friends with his emotional run to the semi-finals at the Crucible that year, the highlight of which was his recovery from 12-8 down against John Parrott.

The 1991 world champion scored only four points in the two frames following the interval as Swail came back at him. Swail comfortably won the next, captured the hard fought 24th frame on the colours and he took the match with Parrott potting only one ball in the decider.

It was the perfect encapsulation of Swail’s never-say-die attitude and poise under pressure.

On the other hand, the defeat heralded a decline for Parrott that was rapid and soon saw him relegated from the game’s elite. In fact, he’s never really been the same since.


9) TERRY GRIFFITHS 10, JAMIE BURNETT 9 (First round, 1996)

By 1996, Terry Griffiths’s great career had all but come to an end. He seemed certain to drop out of the elite top 16 and was about to put his cue away for good.

But this wiliest of old foxes still possessed plenty of tactical nous and somehow plotted a course to victory after making the worst possible start against Burnett – going 6-0 down.

At 9-5, it still looked bleak for the 1979 champion but he made a couple of half century breaks and used all his experience to win two close frames and force a decider.

Even so, he looked certain to lose 10-9 when Burnett needed only the brown to leave him requiring a snooker. Burnett potted it but inexplicably screwed back for position on the blue and the cue ball found a middle pocket.

Griffiths would eventually sink a long black for the most dramatic of victories and his clenched fist at the end proved that, even in the autumn of his career, a win at the Crucible meant a lot to him.

Meanwhile, Burnett has had to wait 13 years to get back to the Crucible. “I know they’ll be re-showing that shot over and over before my first round match,” he said after qualifying this year.

5.4.09

NOT SO BLUE PETER

Peter Ebdon's eighth world ranking title came after a typically hard fought battle, which he finally edged 10-8 against John Higgins.

The new Bank of Beijing China Open champion is one of the most resolutely determined match players the game has ever seen.

Ebdon would have been at home against the likes of Cliff Thorburn, Terry Griffiths and Dennis Taylor - hard as nails cueists of days gone by.

To win another title 16 years after his first ranking triumph is a considerable achievement given his rotten form all season.

It shows what can be achieved with hard work and commitment.

And it further cements his place as one of snooker's greatest ever champions.

BETFRED REVEALED AS WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP SPONSOR

I decided not to reveal the identity of the new World Championship sponsor on here out of respect for them and the official process.

However, the WPBSA appear to have leaked the story to the News of the World - a 'source' from the governing body is quoted in their article.

Betfred are reported to be investing £2m over four years.

There will be an official announcement at a press conference on Wednesday.

Journalists have been invited but many will wonder what the point is in going when the cat is already out of the bag.

4.4.09

THE LAST FOUR

Peter Ebdon's run to the semi-finals of the Bank of Beijing China Open has gone against the formbook.

In fact, he's had such a bad season that it's come as a big surprise.

Ebdon played very well indeed to beat Stephen Hendry 5-1 in the quarter-finals and will start a heavy favourite against Stuart Pettman today as the Preston man is appearing in his first ever ranking event semi-final.

John Higgins's 5-4 defeat of Ronnie O'Sullivan yesterday was the match of the tournament, not in terms of quality but because of the high level of drama and entertainment it served up.

It was proof that even great players feel pressure. There was no other reason for Higgins and O'Sullivan to miss as many balls as they did towards the end but it added to the spectacle.

Higgins now plays Ryan Day, who I tipped to win the Welsh Open only for him to lose in the first round (thanks a lot, Ryan!).

He's obviously got himself together for Beijing and is capable of winning the title, but must avoid the sort of flat performance he put up in last October's Grand Prix final against Higgins.

If Higgins doesn't win the title we will have a seventh different winner from as many ranking tournaments this season.

3.4.09

PETTMAN STEPS INTO THE SPOTLIGHT

And from nowhere, just as with Andrew Higginson at the Welsh Open two years ago, Stuart Pettman reaches a ranking event semi-final.

Well done to him. He seems to have played pretty solidly all season without quite making the breakthrough – until now.

Stuart has long been one of those very capable players who looks tough to beat in qualifiers but who struggles in front of the TV cameras.

He’s never minded travelling, though, and has played in and won tournaments in Thailand as an invited British professional. Indeed, two of his three last 16 appearances prior to this week came in ranking events outside the UK.

Stuart runs a snooker club in Preston with Shokat Ali. It was a sensible move because his on table earnings in 17 years as a professional are modest – £275,720, an average of £16,000 a year, not much for a member of the circuit in one of TV’s biggest sports.

His semi-final against Peter Ebdon may be a match too far. Ebdon was superb in putting away Stephen Hendry 5-1 and has all the experience at this level. He’s beaten Pettman three times in three previous meetings and is used to the TV conditions.

But even if Stuart’s great run does end tomorrow, it serves of a reminder as Higginson’s did that, on any given week in any given tournament, a member of the game’s supporting cast can emerge to play a leading role.

CHAMPIONS DOMINATE LAST EIGHT

There are six world champions in the last eight of the Bank of Beijing China Open.

So much for the players not taking this event seriously...

Deadly rivals Stephen Hendry and Peter Ebdon are never going to be Facebook friends but they have shown their class by shrugging off poor seasons to make the quarter-finals.

Ronnie O'Sullivan and John Higgins may well serve up a snooker classic - they have many times before.

Shaun Murphy faces a tough tie against a resurgent Ryan Day while Graeme Dott meets Stuart Pettman, appearing in his first quarter-final in 17 years as a professional.

Dott, like Hendry and Ebdon, has shown the qualities world champions possess: the ability to dig in and fight for every victory despite the vagaries of form.

He's got as good a chance of any of the quarter-finalists of winning the title.

But with such a high quality line up, who'd want to call it right now?

2.4.09

RONNIE'S INTERVIEW

I don't think there's much doubt that Ronnie O'Sullivan has a low boredom threshold.

There's also little doubt that interviews by the Chinese media are long winded affairs, with the questions and answers translated back and forth.

Add in the fact that Ronnie hadn't slept at all last night and you get...this.

PETTMAN'S PROGRESS

Congratulations to Stuart Pettman who has ended 17 years of hurt as a professional by finally reaching his first ranking event quarter-final.

Stuart beat Ali Carter 5-2 in the Bank of Beijing China Open today.

He's been a journeyman for most of his career but his progress proves the strength in depth on the circuit.

It's strange that he never had much success at Preston Guild Hall - his local venue - but has found some half way around the world.

DAY FOUR THOUGHTS

Stephen Hendry is now unlikely to drop out of the elite top 16 after his 5-3 win yesterday over Robert Milkins at the Bank of Beijing China Open.

Hendry can stay in even if he loses today to Ricky Walden and to Mark Williams in the first round of the World Championship.

Journalistic impartiality and all, but I'm glad. I like legends to be doing well, or at least not mired in the qualifying scramble.

Speaking of legends, Ronnie O'Sullivan and John Higgins will play each other in the quarter-finals in Beijing if they respectively beat wildcards Xiao Guodong and Tian Pengfei today.

I think O'Sullivan will win easily but Higgins could have his work cut out. Tian impressed me very much in beating Marco Fu. He didn't start to twitch in the way Xiao did against Ding Junhui.

Despite a few shocks, the likes of Ali Carter, Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy are still going strong and we're set for a fascinating finish to the tournament.

It has been well attended so far. This isn't always apparent from the TV pictures but huge numbers of people sit towards the back of the arena in - to put it bluntly - the cheaper seats.

The media attendance dwarfs anything seen in the UK and the event receives huge amounts of coverage in China.

All this can only be for the good of the game.

Speaking of which, I know who is going to be sponsoring the World Championship but it would be wrong for me to pre-empt the official announcement next week.

All I can say is that they have sponsored snooker before and are a 'proper' company that will be good for the tournament.

1.4.09

SHOULD THERE BE WILDCARDS?

Another day, another wildcard causes an upset at the Bank of Beijing China Open.

Tian Pengfei played superbly to beat Marco Fu 5-2 and join his compatriot Xiao Guodong – who defeated Ding Junhui 5-3 yesterday – in the last 16.

Gone are the days when the wildcards in ranking tournaments outside the UK were mere pushovers.

These guys can play and, in front of local support with nothing to lose, are a match for the game’s top stars.

But is it fair that they’re in the tournament to start with?

Why should the players who have already come through the tough Prestatyn qualifying school have to play them at all?

Some believe they shouldn’t. On balance, I’m not one of them.

This is because I was at the 2005 China Open. The event had not been held for three years and it was a real effort to get it on again.

It was a one-year deal with no guarantee it would take place again.

Ding was entered into the final stages as a wildcard and won the title. This sparked a snooker boom that persuaded the Chinese Billiards and Snooker Association to underwite the staging costs for the China Open for five years.

So without the initial decision to have wildcards the tournament may not now be on.

It's a difficult balancing act but sometimes the bigger picture is more important than the notion of 'fairness' and this is one of those times.

RONNIE CENTRE STAGE

Today is April 1 and I did think of doing an 'hilarious' April Fool's Day post but it occurred to me that the snooker world is so absurd that it would probably turn out to be true.

Instead, attention turns today to Ronnie O'Sullivan who can pretty much tie up the world no.1 spot in Beijing this week following the defeat of his closest challenger, Stephen Maguire, yesterday.

Ronnie arrived in China early to do some promotional work. He won't take Fergal O'Brien - who has beaten him two times out of three - lightly and I just get the feeling he may turn on the style.

And as we know, my predictions are rarely wrong.