Saturday, 2 April 2011

Crucible Countdown: 14 days to go

It's only a fortnight now until the curtains are raised for this year's World Championship.

The field is probably as open as it's ever been and people are predicting the most exciting tournament of all time.

That's quite a bold claim. But with the quality of ranking events we've already enjoyed this season, you wouldn't bet against it, and you certainly won't want to be missing too much of the action either.

In the second edition of OnCue's Crucible Countdown, I'm looking back at what happened just 12 months ago, when Neil Robertson became the first Australian to lift the world title.

Young, fresh and good-looking.

Robertson looked to have the world at the end of his cue when he stood inside the Crucible holding the famous world trophy with the Australian flag draped around him.

This will become an iconic image of this great old tournament. The first Australian winner and the first winner from outside the the UK and Ireland since Canada's Cliff Thorburn in 1980.

This was history in the making, and a fresh impetuous for a competition with a grand heritage. As years go by, the 2010 World Championship will be remembered fondly, but while it's still fresh, it's a pity scandal and a lack of quality marred its conclusion.

On the day of the final, the News of the World rocked the sport with a front page exclusive story that world number one John Higgins had agreed to throw frames in upcoming ranking events. He has since been acquitted of match-fixing, but this left a dark cloud hanging over snooker while the final itself was fairly drab too.

Runner-up Graeme Dott had been through a marathon of action to make it there and was suffering from severe fatigue, while Robertson not at his rhythmic best, was happy to see the job out. And who can blame him?

At the time, it seemed wrong for snooker to be so low when it should be so high. The game was being dragged through the mud, and while the true followers knew the final itself, was only one of a handful of bad world finals we've had over the years, the tabloid stories were bringing shame to the baize.

You couldn't do much but feel sorrow for Robertson, whose glorious moment was somewhat being overshadowed by matters outside of his control.

Unfortunately, this was a sour end to what had otherwise been a terrific tournament.

The final may have been below par, but you cannot say the same about many of the other matches.

The pick of the crop came in round two, where Steve Davis rolled back the years with a 1980s vintage performance to beat reigning world champion Higgins 13-11 in arguably one of the greatest matches in the tournament's 83-year history.

People said Davis should have retired long before. But trailing 6-2 after the first session, the Nugget rolled up his sleeves, used every ounce of his determination and proved once again what an incredible player he is. His face as he won the match could hardly have summed it up any better. He couldn't believe he'd won it. And neither could we.

In the same round, we also saw one of the great Crucible comebacks. Eventual champion Robertson found himself 11-5 down toMartin Gould after the second session. The Pinner potter was playing without nerves and full of confidence, then somehow lost the match 13-12. Robertson had a lucky escape but perhaps it proved to be fate.

Entertainer Ronnie O'Sullivan was also on hand to bring us another two fine matches last year. In the last 16, he rattled in three centuries in the final session to defeat in-form Mark Williams 13-10 and then in the quarter-finals after leading the match, he was beaten 13-11 by Mark Selby because he chose to down tools when the going got tough. But again Selby proved why he's widely-regarded as one of the game's top match players.

In the same round, Ali Carter stormed back from 8-4 down to beat Shaun Murphy 13-12 and finalist Dott won all of his final three frames to pip Mark Allen by the same scoreline

The final three most memorable matches were all first round nail-biters.

Stephen Hendry needed all 19 frames to see off debutant Anda Zhang in the first round.

Davis was involved in another classic, eventually edging out Mark King on a decider to become the oldest Crucible match winner for more than two decades and Gould dished up a fabulous break of 90 to beat Marco Fu in the final frame

Every year we get our fair share of entertaining matches. That's a good reminder of some of last year's best. Here's to more again this time round...

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