Ronnie O'Sullivan gets a Chinese Rocket
Ronnie O'Sullivan claimed in January that snooker is ‘dying' but at least one match in the Betfred.com World Championship, which starts today, will pull in a global television audience that will dwarf any other sporting contest over the next fortnight.
Ding Junhui, the Chinese no.1, has been drawn to play his compatriot Liang Wenbo, who reached the quarter-finals last year. Their first round match is expected to attract more than 100 million viewers in China, where the game is booming as it was in the UK 25 years ago.
Both Ding and Liang are adopted sons of Sheffield, where the Crucible Theatre has hosted the game's showpiece event since 1977. They practice hour after hour, day after day at the World Snooker Academy in the steel city but Ding is undergoing a crisis of confidence and may have to beat his friend to stay in the elite top 16 and avoid having to qualify next year.
There has been talk that a Chinese consortium is bidding to stage the championship but a new contract with the Crucible is likely to be signed shortly. However, snooker's long term future lies outside the UK, where its popularity has declined. BBC viewing figures are still strong but participation levels have fallen and many snooker clubs have closed down, partly as a result of the smoking ban which has eroded their status as social hubs.
There has been talk of a need for change, including O'Sullivan's impassioned plea for a sexing up of the game at the Masters three months ago.
In this spirit, a new shorter form version of the game using six reds instead of the traditional 15 is being trialled on the BBC's interactive service during the championship but few within the sport expect this to be anything other than a sideshow.
Michaela Tabb, a mother of two from Dunfermline, will make history as the first woman to referee the world final, an appointment based on merit, which should yield positive publicity for a sport with something of an image problem.
Less welcome is the fact that Stephen Maguire and Jamie Burnett have drawn each other in the first round.
Their match at the same stage of last December's UK Championship is being investigated by the Gambling Commission after a heavy volume of bets were placed on Maguire to win 9-3, which he duly did. This week, the economic crime unit of Strathclyde Police were called in to investigate and will interview both players, the referee and other figures on the circuit. Maguire and Burnett vehemently deny any wrong doing but even the suggestion of match fixing is damaging and an air of embarrassment hangs over their Crucible meeting.
No world champion has defended the crown since Stephen Hendry did so in 1996 and O'Sullivan, who beat Ali Carter 18-8 to land a third title last year, will have to battle his own fractious temperament and self destructive urges as much as his rivals over the next 17 days.
He starts out today against Basildon's Stuart Bingham, a regular practice partner, and is drawn in the same half as authentic title challengers John Higgins and Mark Selby.
Of the veteran contingent, Hendry, now 40, has been handed perhaps the toughest of all first round draws against Mark Williams, who he beat in the final ten years ago to win a record seventh title.