Monday, 27 December 2010

My predictions for 2011

I'm about to go on a Christmas break now. After a quiet Christmas with my family, I'm going away to Scotland with my girlfriend, to celebarte New Year.

I've really enjoyed starting the OnCue snooker blog, and am looking forward to continuing back in January.

But in the meantime, here are my predictions for 2011...
  1. Mark Allen will reach his first ranking final
  2. Stephen Hendry and Peter Ebdon will fall out of the top 16
  3. John Higgins will not lose the world number one slot all year
  4. Stuart Bingham and Stephen Lee will break into the top 16
  5. Neil Robertson will win the Masters but will fall to the Crucible Curse
  6. Mark Williams and Shaun Murphy will both win a major ranking event
  7. Ronnie O'Sullivan will play in Asia and turn up to more PTC events
  8. Martin Gould will win a PTC title
  9. Michael Holt will regain his place in the top 32
  10. Alan McManus will fall out of the top 64.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Merry Christmas OnCue readers

Afternoon snooker fans!

Here's a quick Christmas note from OnCue

I hope you're all enjoying your Christmas crackers, turkey dinners, and more sweets than you'd eat any other day of the year.

I wish you, and all your families, a wonderful day.

Seasons Greetings!


Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Paul Collier EXCLUSIVE column - December 2010 - Standard of snooker is on the rise

Seasons greetings all OnCue readers!

It's less than a week to go, and it looks like we're in store for a white Christmas.

I'm lucky I've been a lot more organised this year than usual, because I wouldn't have liked to take a chance getting the car off of my drive with the amount of snow we've had fall at the weekend.

I live only about half a mile off the M4, but my street is on a slight incline, and can be difficult to tackle. I've managed to venture out on foot for a few things, but like most people, I've tried not to do too much with the weather so bad.

I managed to escape the poor weather on my way back from the UK Championship as well actually.

In the end, I was asked by World Snooker to stay an extra day because of the absence of Jan Verhaas and Erian Williams. It worked out really well, because my journey ended up being a lot easier than it would have been otherwise.

Monday, 20 December 2010

2010: A look back... part one

The year is nearly drawing to a close.

On the baize, it's been one to remember. OnCue takes a trip down memory lane with a month-by-month review of the stand-out moments from a cracking year.

Here's the first in a two-part blog looking back...

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Ambitious Selby is a "breath of fresh air"

Mark Selby is one of  the best pressure players in a generation.
The Leicester man has a knack of producing his very finest snooker when his back is against the wall. And he's not one to shy away from a challenge.

In an era where professional sportsmen are renowned for playing down their chances, complimenting their opponents, and saying 'it could go either way' or 'I'm just concentrating on my game', Selby has done the exact opposite in the build-up to January's Masters.

And it's this kind of media honesty that I admire.

Selby has a quite remarkable remarkable record at Wembley.

In his last 12 matches, he's won 11, winning the tournament twice and finishing runner-up twice.

If he lifts the trophy again in 2011, he'll equal the great Paul Hunter's record of three Masters titles in four years. Rather than play down his chances, he's talking them up. He admits he's eyeing up the record. He believes he can do it, and knowing his own ability to play under pressure, maybe by declaring his target, he hopes it will trigger championship-winning form.

But I must say it really is really a breath of fresh air to hear a player speak so positively, and not shy away from revealing his lofty aims.

Good on ya Selby!

Young guns come of age to qualify for German Masters

There's never been a better time to be a young player in the game than now.

With the new-look PTC series and rolling ranking system, it's giving the players of tomorrow a chance to regularly play top professionals in competition snooker.

And the reward for going all over Europe this season is the chance to pick up ranking points, and establish themselves on tour.

Two players who have really stood up to be counted this season are Jack Liswoski and Anthony McGill.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Mark Joyce: EXCLUSIVE interview

Mike Joyce was without doubt the fairytale story of this year's UK Championship.

The world number 60 came through four qualifying matches, before beating Ali Carter and Judd Trump to make it to the quarter-finals, where he narrowly lost out to eventual runner-up Mark Williams.

This great run has elevated him up to 47 in the world rankings. It's the first time he's broken into the top 48, which crucially cuts down his route to future tournaments, with less qualifying matches to play.

OnCue caught up with the man of the moment in an exclusive interview. Here's his views on a number of topics...

Monday, 13 December 2010

The comeback competition

The 2010 UK Championship will live long in the memories of all snooker fans.

It was a fantastic tournament to watch, and in my opinion, it marks  the start of a new chapter for the game, as we enter an era where the sport puts itself back on the map.

Anyone who watched yesterday's thrilling final in Telford, cannot accuse snooker of being a boring anymore. Just like the good old days, a tense finish made for stellar viewing, as it captured the excitement of a large television audience. It was everything I love about snooker.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

UK Championship - Day nine - Comeback complete as Higgins lifts UK trophy

John Higgins has been on one of the most remarkable journey's imaginable.

But tonight, he completed his resurrection. The new world number one recovered from both 7-2 and 9-5 down to win a nail-biting final 10-9 against Mark Williams.

The snooker was sensational, and a well worthy final for what was one of the best tournaments the sport has seen in a number of years.

The emotion all over Higgins' face as he lifted the trophy spoke volumes. You can only sit back and admire his tenacity.

It's safe to say John Higgins is back!

Check OnCue tomorrow for more reaction to this year's epic UK final....

Saturday, 11 December 2010

UK Championship - Day eight - Williams digs deep to win thrilling semi

Strength of the character is one of the most important ingredients of a snooker champion.

Mark Williams proved he has plenty of it after beating Shaun Murphy 9-8 in today's dramatic UK Championship semi-final.

A lot has been made of the Welshman's run to the last four. Despite wins over Mark Davis, Stephen Hendry and Mark Joyce so far in Telford, his form has been compared to that of a horror show by the BBC. He's always been renowned as one of the best players for earning results when not at his best.

But this week, he's rode his luck to the full. His long game has been close to non-existent.

Everyone said he needed to play ten times better to beat Shaun Murphy, who has been striking the cue ball as sweet as a nut this week. In the first session, he wasn't quite back to his best, but he was definitely on the up. He still struggled with his long game, but in among the balls, he looked confident, so built up a 5-3 lead.

This evening, he nicked the first and compiled a 34-point lead in frame 10. But then, as he looked on the verge of hitting top form, he completely fell apart. He went 74 minutes without potting a single ball and had slumped to 8-6 behind.

The match was virtually over. Murphy was playing as well as he had all week, potting every ball in sight, but when it seemed impossible, Williams did what all great champions must, by digging deep and pulling himself out of the mire.

He won the last three frames, and went from not looking like potting any long ball, to hardly missing one. His comeback was remarkable. How it happened? I have no idea. It was all about shear determination and power of thought. He told himself he could play, and play he did.

So now he finds himself in the final of the second most important snooker tournament of the season, with of tournament-high break of just 82.

While his form is still some way away from his best, with this kind of never-say-die attitude, how can you write him off?

Tomorrow he faces John Higgins, in a re-match of the same UK final a decade ago.

If it's even a patch on the drama we witnessed today, I simply cannot wait.

Well played Mark!

UK Championship - Day seven - Higgins defeats Allen to make final

There are still many John Higgins sceptics out there.

He's got plenty of admirers of course. But anyone who thinks all is forgotten, is sadly very misinformed. For every snooker who wants to move on from the scandal which left a stinking black cloud above the sport in May, there's another who wishes the book was thrown at the three-time world champion. There are people out there who still want him banned.

Whatever your view on this thorny issue, you cannot deny the class Higgins brings to the table.

His record since returning keeps getting better and better.

After beating Mark Allen 9-5 in today's UK semi-final, he's played 20 matches, and won 19 of them. That's just a remarkable record from any angle.

His win in Telford against the world number 11 was actually even better than that though. At one stage in this match he was 4-2 behind, but came back to win seven of the next eight to clinch the match.

Despite all the controversy, Higgins has managed to retain his champion-like attributes. And that's why, no matter what has gone, I  cannot help but admire his bouncebackability.

On Sunday, he'll be competing in the UK Championship final, a feat which was hardly deemed feasible just six months ago.

Whether you believe justice was done, or he's a very lucky boy, his comeback has been magnificent. He's entered into the second chapter of his career, and he's playing as well as ever.

On this week's showing alone, he deserves to be in that final.

John Higgins, I salute you!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

UK Championship - Day six - Murphy and Williams into the last four

Another day at Telford, and another two quarter-finals ending 9-7.

The first saw Shaun Murphy beat world number one and world champion Neil Robertson, in a very high quality match.

It was even throughout, but maybe Shaun's run of the balls made the key difference.

You could also argue Robertson wasn't quite ready for this test. He's been playing great snooker this week, but after thrashing Rory McLeod in round one, and racing into a 7-0 lead over Andrew Higginson in the last 16, suddenly coming up against a player like Murphy, may have been too bigger step to make so soon.

I'm not making excuses for Robertson. He doesn't really need them, because he did enough to win the match in truth. But I just wonder what may have happened in this match if the Australian had been pushed all the way in the previous round, like Murphy was against Ryan Day.

That said, maybe Murphy was due this win, after twice being beaten by Robertson in meetings at the UK Championship. It may have just been a case of third time lucky.

Murphy will fancy his chances of going all the way in this tournament now. He's striking the ball sweetly and has shown in the past he's not afraid of the big stage. He's enjoying a fantastic season, proved when he topped the PTC Order of Merit, and now he'll have his eyes on a third UK title in two years.

He'll face Mark Williams in the next round, who ran out winner against the tournament's fairytale story, Mark Joyce.

The world number 60 won six matches to get to this stage of the tournament, and even had to miss his local club league match tonight to compete in the quarter-finals at Telford today.

He's played a good game of percentages all week. He didn't meet the best Ali Carter in the first round, but played very well to defeat Judd Trump in the last 16. He's looked calm on the television cameras, and at no point looked over-awed by the occasion, which bodes well for the future.

The difference in this match though, was Williams' ability to deliver when the pressure rose. At 4-0 up in the afternoon session, it looked as if the Weslhman would coast through the game, until Joyce won the next four to somehow level up.

Tonight, the momentum could easily have been in favour of Joyce, but Williams won the first frame, one he really needed to, to stop the rot. From there, he still struggled at times, but stepped his game up when it really mattered, and the finishing line became in sight.

It's fair to say Williams probably comes into the last four as the most out of form player. He hasn't quite hit his fluid best, like the other players. But, playing well under pressure has got him this far, and will be invaluable if he wants to win this competition. He'll have to improve to beat Murphy, but there's no reason why he can't.

For Joyce, this week has the best in his career without any doubt. Before, he was a relatively unknown quantity from Walsall. Now, everyone in snooker knows Mark Joyce. He'll be one qualifier no-one will want to draw.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

UK Championship - Day five - Higgins and Allen advance to semis

It's hard to grumble at the level of snooker being produced this week in Telford, but today we saw arguably the best match of this year's UK Championship so far.

John Higgins was the eventual 9-7 winner against his old pal Stephen Maguire, but it really was an absolute classic.

We were treated to a feast of snooker with big breaks, astute safety play and some individual pots right out of the top drawer.

In the first session, there was hardly anything between them, but Higgins managed to salvage a 5-3 advantage, and it wasn't until this evening that both players really turned on the style.

With a two-frame lead, Maguire knew he needed something special, and after winning the first three frames of the evening session, we all thought he might have it in his locker.

He was playing with fantastic confidence, but probably the key moment of the match was in frame 12. Higgins managed to snatch it and go in level at the interval. This frame gave the world number two some momentum, which he used to take the first two after the break, making it three on the spin, just as Maguire had produced earlier in the evening.

A seventh century in the tournament for Maguire brought him back within one frame, but Higgins dug deep to nick the match in the 16th and the match.

Either player could easily have won this tie. The snooker was of the highest quality, as we've come to expect from matches between these great two players.

Higgins enjoyed a slight rub of the green to creep past Graeme Dott in the last round, and although I wouldn't put this win down to fortune, things seem to be running his way. His never-say-die attitude and massive push on the practice table since returning to the sport, seem to be translating into his results.

In any sport, although it may be cliche, you do create your own luck. And Higgins is without doubt being handsomely rewarded for all the hard graft he's putting into his game.

Higgins was always going to take some beating, but even Maguire, who played as well as he has for a while, couldn't quite muster it. The Wizard of Wishaw showed again he's made of steel. I really enjoyed this match.

He'll now face Mark Allen in the semi-finals who overcame qualifier Stuart Bingham by the same scoreline.

Like Higgins, young gun Allen managed to retain the two-frame lead he built up in the afternoon session.

The Northern Ireland player was a strong favourite for this match, but Bingham was never one to be under-estimated. He's been too hot to handle for Ronnie O'Sullivan and Marco Fu already this week, and if Allen had believed his hype, he probably would have fallen foul too.

Bingham beat him in Shanghai earlier this season, and that probably helped him get his game head on for this one.

Allen has built up a vast reputation for being one of the game's great potters, but has often fallen over in other more tactical areas of the game, hence why he's yet to play in a ranking final. Bingham, who was bidding to reach his first ever ranking semi-final, is also a very open and capable attacking player, so would have fancied his chances had Allen's weakness come to the fore again.

But from this match, you got the sense Allen has maybe learned a lesson or two and matured his game. He's never going to be the most safety-aware player on the circuit, but he showed more brain in his game, and ended up winning the match.

Despite trailing, Bingham got this game right back to 7-7, clawing into Allen's lead, just like Ding Junhui had done in the last round. But on this showing, Allen's ability to fight off players coming back at him, looks like it could develop into one of his best attributes.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

UK Championship - Day four - Eight remain in Telford

Tournament snooker is a cutthroat business.

We've played less than half of this nine-day event, and already 75 per cent of the field have been sent packing, and we're down to the final eight.

We're officially at the business end of the competition, and there's nowhere to hide. Every player who remains in the hat, has had to come through two tough matches to get here, so no-one can be written off.

There was no easy matches in the first place, such has been the standard of snooker, but now even more so, because every player has proved they're in good form too.

The quarter-finals kick-off tomorrow, and here's a round-up of the eight who remain...

Mark Allen

The world number 11 has yet to play on a televised table in the competition so far, but being shunned from the cameras has hardly dampened his confidence. Today he dispatched of reigning UK champion Ding Junhui in a deciding frame shoot-out. The Chinese cue man was hitting the ball perfectly in his first round match against Matthew Stevens, but Allen, who has never been afraid to go after his shots, profited from his fearless attitude. The way he's potting, he'll take some stopping.

Title credentials: The Northern Ireland man is still waiting for his first ranking final. He's shown he's in enough form to make it this time, but we'll have to see whether he has the self-belief to go that step further.

Stuart Bingham

Everyone is talking about his famous win against Ronnie O'Sullivan, but beating Marco Fu 9-2 today is right up there with that result as well. The Hong Kong man is never easy to play against, but with an obvious confidence boost from defeating the Rocket, he blew him to pieces. Stuart has always been a class act , and it looks like this is his week to shine. A good run here is doing wonders for his chances to break into the top 16. This is his fifth appearance at a ranking event quarter-final, but he's never gone any further. I doubt he's been playing any better than this though.

Title credentials: It would be ludicrous to write off the man who beat Ronnie. He'll not want to get ahead of himself either, and his next match will be difficult against Allen. He might not be the bookies favourite in that match, but in their last meeting, at this season's Shanghai Masters, he beat him. So watch out.

Stephen Maguire

Another player who has yet to appear on the television in Telford this year. It's rather surprising given his outstanding record at this competition. In his six visits, he's lifted the title once, finished runner-up once and reached the last four on another two occasions. Today he knocked out crowd favourite Mark Selby 9-7, so he's definitely playing well. His last ranking title came in 2008 in China, so he's due another for a player currently ranked number five in the world. Maguire is very good pressure player and has a solid all-round game

Title credentials: The UK Championship has been a successful hunting ground for Stephen over the years, and he'll hoping it proves so again. Probably not the strongest player left, but should never be written off.

John Higgins

No-one can accuse the Wizard of Wishaw of taking an easy route if he wins this competition. He beat a superb Stephen Lee in the first round and then was forced to come through a nail-biting decider against his good friend Graeme Dott. Since his return to the game, he's suffered just one defeat in 16 matches. He must be as determined as ever, so therefore as dangerous as ever. Another Scot awaits next when he faces Maguire. The way he's playing, he'll be favourite. His safety this week has been particularly impressive.

Title credentials: John has always been one of the game's most natural champions. He has both the quality and steel it takes to win titles. He's already shown this week he can deal with the nerves. He'll be a match for anyone. He'll take some beating.

Mark Joyce

Far and away the surprise package of this competition so far. He must have thought he was in dreamland when he beat world number three Ali Carter. Today, he did it again. This time beating young gun Judd Trump 9-7. He's won six matches to make it to the last eight, and he'll be loving every minute of it. Carter was definitely out of sorts when they met, and Trump is always beatable, such is his aggressive approach to the game. Not to take anything away from his achievements, but tougher assignments lie ahead. Whatever happens now, he'll go home happy. There's no pressure on him and that's a pleasurable way to play. Moving forward, it'll be interesting to see whether this run is a flash in the pan, that he'll be remembered for forever, or whether it's the start of his rise up the rankings.

Title credentials: It would be disrespectful to write him off altogether, but he's certainly the rank outsider. He's just got to enjoy it and see what happens. No-one will want to play him though.

Mark Williams

Yet to hit absolute top form so far in Telford. But against Mark Davis and a below par Stephen Hendry, he hasn't had to yet. Joyce is up next. He'll have to tread carefully, but should win that match too. In the semi-finals, anything is possible, but he's shown in years gone by that he's the master of playing his way into tournaments. He's back alongside the big boys and doesn't look out of place in the slightest.

Title credentials:

Shaun Murphy

Shaun is another player, who hasn't hit his peak yet. He's cueing well enough, but probably still has more in the tank. Players like that are dangerous in these kind of tournaments. He was one of the highly-fancied players at the start of this tournament, and nothing much has changed. He laboured at times against Ryan Day, before eventually winning the match 9-8. Playing in a big quarter-final has become common place for him. He's a cool character, and always one capable of taking the trophy.

Title credentials: World number one Neil Robertson is next. It doesn't come much tougher than that. He'll have to up his game to beat him, but you'd expect him to. He's won tournaments before in this kind of form, and lost others playing better in the early rounds. Always a good shout to finish the job.

Neil Robertson

The most impressive player this week as he targets a 2009 BBC treble by winning in Telford. He ripped Rory McLeod apart in round one and did the same in large sections of his 9-5 victory against Andrew Higginson. Despite a slight wobble at the start of the final session, he's been in total control. He's been making high breaks for fun, his potting is scary, and he's just oozing confidence.

Title credentials: He's the world champion. He's the man everyone has to beat.

Monday, 6 December 2010

UK Championship - Day three - Bingham bounces past erratic Ronnie

We've been spoilt with some exceptionally high quality snooker so far at this year's UK Championship, perhaps even the best televised event to hit our screens in a while.

But today, thanks to two unthinkable surprises, the entertainment value went through the roof.

Stuart Bingham took the biggest scalp of the day, knocking out red-hot favourite Ronnie O'Sullivan. The world number 23 rolled in five consecutive frames after falling 6-4 behind, to win the match 9-6.

But for as well as the Basildon potter played and the composure he showed, a lack of focus from the Rocket clearly played a major part in deciding the outcome of this match.

This slap dash attitude from Ronnie reared its ugly again, and I have no idea why because he's been in such great form leading into this tournament. 

It was almost as if a switch flicked, and from that point on, he was slapping the balls all over the table and going for just about every ball at full pace. Bingham knows he can play even better than this but he just had to keep his cool to get the job done, because even if derailed, this is maybe when O'Sullivan is at his most dangerous. Without a care in the world, he can always turn on the magic.

But Bingham had to forget who he was up against, and just play the balls in front of him. He did that, and the reward was probably earning the best result of his career so far, alongside his famous first round win over reigning world champion Stephen Hendry at the Crucible in 2000.

Had it not been for Bingham, Mark Joyce probably would have led this article, as he without doubt enjoyed the best result of his career today.

The world number 60 defied all the odds to beat world number three Ali Carter 9-6. He was well worth his win too, playing the best snooker of the two players in both sessions. While Carter may not be viewed as a scalp on the scale of O'Sullivan, it's not far away, merely because this result was so unlike Ali. He's done well to climb so high in the rankings in recent seasons, and most of it comes down to his consistency. Such is his temperament and methodical approach to the game, he rarely slips up when he shouldn't. Today was a different story. Joyce never allowed him to settle in this match, and he was rewarded.

Although these giant killings make for great TV, the most entertaining match of the day though was between White and Hendry. Locked at 4-4 overnight, this final session was touted as a classic, and so it proved. They were nip and tick all the way until Hendry eventually nicked the match 9-8, winning the final two frames, with White right at the winning post.

It's this kind of nerves of steel from Hendry that has seen him reap so much success throughout his career. It was vintage Hendry. As throughout most of career, when the pressure was on again today, he switched into a machine of a player to finish the job. Jimmy can take heart from his run to the first round though, and will surely be even more hungry for televised matches.

Ryan Day won the other dramatic deciding frame of the afternoon. He eventually beat Mark King, who recovered from 5-3 down to lead 8-7 in this match. The final frame went all the way to the final black, before the Welshman stole it in dramatic fashion.

He'll face Shaun Muprhy in the next round, who finished off Patrick Wallace 9-5 in their second session. In the other non-televised matches, Mark Williams stormed past Mark Davis 9-3, Judd Trump retained his overnight lead to beat Jamie Cope 9-6 and Marco Fu beat Barry Hawkins 9-7.

Tonight's evening session saw the start of four second round matches.

I said after Neil Robertson's first match that it was too early to judge his credentials to win this year's UK Championship. He smashed Rory McLeod 9-1 in the first round. But it was such a routine match for him, I wanted to reserve my judgement.

But after he stormed into an 7-1 lead against Andrew Higginson tonight, amassing a total of 677 points, it's safe to say he's turned into the man to beat now. His break building has been relentless. In this form, it doesn't look like it matters who he's playing. He's just flying.

Another player in tremendous nick is Mark Allen. We all saw how well reigning champion Ding Junhui played in his first match, but on the non-televised table, he trails the Northern Ireland man 6-2 ,and was 4-0 down at the interval. It's difficult to judge how much that match is down to Allen playing well or Ding being out of sorts, but in truth, it's probably a mix of both. If Allen advances to the quarter-finals, it will be interesting to judge him for myself.

In the battle of Scotland, John Higgins and Graeme Dott are level pegging at 4-4 in an interesting match with neither player giving much away. And when I logged off for the day, Stephen Maguire and Mark Selby were at 2-2.

Not a bad day at Telford. Roll on number four!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

UK Championship - Day two - Dott comes out fighting to sink Gould

Poor weather conditions across the UK this week have without doubt contributed to low attendances at Telford on day one.

But with Ronnie O'Sullivan on show along with the classic match-up between Stephen Hendry and Jimmy White in store on day two, it was no surprise to see crowd numbers perk up.

And those fans who were prepared to pay a mere £25 for an all-day admission ticket, had a poll of 24 players that they could go and see play. That's 75 per cent of all the players in this year's UK Championship.

It's safe to say your average fan would have enjoyed the variety, but the quality wasn't to be sniffed at either.

In one of the day's early games, Graeme Dott would have been disappointed to leave his match against Martin Gould 5-3 down overnight. But just as I predicted, the Pocket Dynamo was never going to go down without a fight.

In fact, he blew the Pinner potter away. He won six frames on the bounce to complete an outstanding comeback and win the match 9-5. Gould will feel good fortune evaded him at key moments in their second session, but you cannot take anything away from Dott. He will be delighted with his win against a player many people tipped to be the tournament's dark horse.

Although Martin has been widely acknowledged as the most improved player on the circuit in 2010, this defeat does cap a miserable year for him at the sport's two biggest events.

At the Crucible in April, he famously surrendered an 11-5 lead against eventual champion Neil Robertson in round two, and here again, he's let a lead slip. While this comeback was never on the same scale, it will be interesting to see how he reacts moving forward.

One man who can be satisfied with his day's work is world number 25 Andrew Higginson, who became the first qualifier to make it past the first round so far. He beat Peter Ebdon 9-7 in a closely fought battle.

Ebdon, who won the UK title back in 2006, continues a bad run at Telford where he's only won two matches since lifting the trophy four years ago.

John Higgins made it safely through his return match to the last 16. After being level with Stephen Lee overnight, he ended up a 9-6 winner despite the world number 18 boasting an impressive 96 per cent shot success rate throughout the match.

The Wizard of Wishaw did well to hide any nerves he had of returning to the televised stages after his six-month ban from the game. But he was involved in a controversial moment in his 12th frame, where he asked the referee to re-spot the pink ball just before he played it. The official made a basic error, when in fact, he should have refused the request. Higgins though looks a real contender for the title.

World number one Neil Robertson was the other player to book his place in the last 16. He grabbed the two frames he needed to beat Rory McLeod 9-1. It's difficult to judge him in what was a very straightforward exercise.

There were another eight matches which played their first session today, and there's no prizes for guessing which one was most eagerly anticipated.

Two of the sport's biggest legends, Hendry and White, locked horns for the 57th time in their careers, and still the appeal hasn't dwindled. This famous old battle is most famous for Hendry beating White in no fewer than four Crucible finals.

You could see why this match had captured the snooker world's imagination after the first two frames. Both men made a century as the match raced to 1-1. But from that point onwards, it turned as many people predicted into a nerve-jangling tie. Both players struggled to get to grips with the pace of the cloth , with a series of poor positional shots. While a number of easy pots pots were missed by both, the pressure of the occasion was getting the better of them. The session ended locked at 4-4, although Hendry probably had more chances to come out in front.

Nonetheless, the scoreline has set up for a classic conclusion tomorrow.

The same can be said about the day's other main attraction. Ronnie O'Sullivan and Stuart Bingham are tied at 4-4 overnight. But after a thoroughly entertaining first session, the Basildon qualifier will count himself unlucky not have opened up an advantage.

Bingham, who formerly practiced with Ronnie, showed no fear in this match as he went after his shots and looked to build big breaks, making three over 70 in fact. He led probably most crucially 4-2, but two fine breaks from the Rocket denied Bingham the chance to assume the driving seat.

You can't help but feel that Bingham may live to regret it when Ronnie inevitably ups a gear tomorrow.

One player who will have to up a gear tomorrow is Mark Davis. He trails one of the tournament's front runners, Mark Williams, 6-2. He faces an uphill struggle, and will have to take at least three of the first four frames to stand any chance.

Still with a shout of causing an upset though is world ranked number 60 Mark Joyce. He showed few signs of nerves to take 4-4 overnight against Ali Carter. Leading the match 3-1, he might be thinking what could of been though, against the world number three.

Another match still finely poised is Marco Fu against Barry Hawkins. The Hong Kong player won the last two frames to escape level.

BBC certainly missed a trick as Cope knocked in the high break of the tournament so far, with a clearance of 142.

Welshman Ryan Day has a handy lead as well. Qualifying for this event at all must have seemed a success alone, after the form he's been in. But after being handed a winnable first round match against Mark King, he seems to be taking his chance, and leads 5-3.

The day's last match to finish was between 2008 winner Shaun Murphy and the lowest ranked player in the competition, Patrick Wallace.  It wasn't the most entertaining match so far, and when I decided to go to bed ready for my 6am alarm, Murphy was 4-3 up in an even contest.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

UK Championship - Day one - Ding dazzles to begin title defence

They say practice makes perfect, and it's clear the standard of snooker at this year's UK Championship is the highest we've seen for many years.

There's only one reason for that. And it's the positive changes to the snooker calendar. With many more tournaments for players to get their teeth into, it's no surprise to see the quality of snooker has soared in Telford.

Instead of being limited merely to the practice table, players can now play competitive snooker nearly every weekend, with the PTC events coming thick and fast.

On an action-packed opening day of the UK Championship, the centuries were being rattled in. John Higgins made two in as many frames on his return to televised snooker, and Ding Junhui got his title defence off to a fantastic start with a contribution of 135 in the opening frame of the event.

Ding continued his fine form throughout the first session as he raced into a 7-1 lead over Matthew Stevens. It's been a difficult start to the season for the Chinese player, who has yet to find a decent level of consistency in his play. But today, his break building was as good as I've seen it. When he's on song like this, he can land the cue ball on six pence. His positional play was fantastic. He was playing like a champion.

He came back this evening intent on finishing off what seemed a simple task of booking his place in the last 16. He won the first frame, but then spurned a few chances, before eventually crossing the line with a 9-4 win.

The second man to make it to the last 16 was Norther Ireland's highly-fancied Mark Allen. He beat qualifier Tom Ford 9-5 on one of the non-televised tables to show why people are tipping him as an outside to lift the trophy. He's played some impressive matches so far this season, but hasn't yet got it together for an entire tournament. Success here could see him reach his first ranking event final.

Mark Selby overcame what was a tricky opening match on paper against Ricky Walden. Despite being toe-to-toe in the first 10 frames, the Jester from Leicester showed a touch of class in the closing stages to win the match 9-6, and show his ability to perform under pressure again.

Stephen Maguire has a fantastic record at the UK Championship. In his six appearances, he's twice made the semi-finals, once been runner-up and also won the event on another occasion.

He continued his fine form at the venue beating Ken Doherty 9-6 away from the television cameras.

In the day's other matches, world champion Neil Robertson showed he's determined to join an elite list of players who have won both the world and UK champion in the same calendar year, by racing into a surely unassailable 7-1 lead against Rory McLeod. The Aussie lost the first frame but never looked back, as he takes a commanding lead into tomorrow's final session.

Martin Gould confirmed why he's making plenty of waves in the game. He's the only qualifier with a lead over a top 16 player overnight. He leads a tenacious Graeme Dott 5-3, but I'm sure the Scot will put up a fight tomorrow.

Stephen Lee played some of his best snooker for years against Higgins today. Despite losing the first two frames, he brought the score back to 4-4 and is showing signs of taking this match all the way.

In the day's only other game, Peter Ebdon and Andrew Higginson are all square.

Friday, 3 December 2010

UK Championship - prediction panel

I'm sure it hasn't escaped any snooker fans that this year's UK Championship kicks off tomorrow.

With key changes in the snooker calendar this season, and so many players going to Telford in good form, it stands a good chance of being one of the best tournaments of its kind in a number of years.

As usual, there are a clutch of the world's top player being backed to lift the trophy, but even beyond that, there's bound to be a susrprise or two.

No matter who you speak to in the snooker world, everyone has their opinion.

OnCue asked a select panel to give their views ahead of the action by looking into their crystal ball...

Paul Collier EXCLUSIVE column - It's great to be back with World Snooker

I’m back writing my third column for OnCue snooker blog and it’s been a massively busy month for me.
I refereed my first match for World Snooker in more than five years, and pulled the curtain down on what has been one of the most enjoyable Premier League events since it began back in 1987.

Barry Hearn has delivered some great news on my homeland competition, the Welsh Open, and I'm looking forward to a return to Telford where a clutch of the top players are enjoying a fine spell of form, which should result in a massive tussle for the title. 

I've enjoyed no end of good moments on the baize in November but unfortunately the month didn't end on the highest note...

Thursday, 2 December 2010

UK qualifiers: Those who made it

A strong field of qualifiers for this year's Pukka Pies UK Championships has finally been whittled down to the 16 who will travel to the International Centre at Telford.

Advancing to the venue of the two biggest events in snooker is always a marker of a successful season for players outside of the top 16, and for these players who got their game together this week at the Sheffield Academy, it's time to pack their suitcases and head to Shropshire.

Among the qualifiers this year includes fans favourites Jimmy White, Matthew Stevens and Ken Doherty, as well as less household names such as Mark Joyce and Patrick Wallace.

Now comes the business end as the big boys await.

OnCue brings you a run down of all those who made it through the gruelling qualifiers, how they got there and who they face at the televised stages...