Monday, 30 April 2012

Captain fantastic and time for the quarters....

Ali Carter produced a miraculous comeback at the Crucible today to knock-out World Championship favourite Judd Trump and shake off the effects of a disappointing campaign.

His last-gasp 13-12 win against the stylish Bristolian was not only the most exciting match of the tournament so far, but his path to the quarter-final also marks a timely return to form.

Picture by Monqiue Limbos
The Captain has struggled all season with the impact of crohn's disease taking its toll, but coming to the Crucible appears to have helped him recapture the best of his battling qualities.

Yesterday I blogged about my admiration for Trump and how he worked his way through the gears to reassert control of his second round match. But today was about Carter digging his heels in when he was on the brink of defeat.

At 12-9 behind, he was all but beaten. Instead of rolling over and letting Judd march on, he stubbornly started to grind. You could be critical of Carter for refusing plenty of pots but with it he also managed to stifle Judd.

Last year's finalist started to show some chinks in his usually robust armoury. He was missing balls you would never dream of seeing him miss as the Crucible heat was telling.

This coupled with Carter's tight approach was enough to see him over the line. It is a milestone win for Ali in a season where there has been little else to cheer about.

Carter made some fantastic pressure breaks and fought like a warrior to earn a surprise place in quarter-finals.

But Ali wasn't the only one defying the odds to reach the last eight. Tonight produced another episode from the vastly entertaining Jamie Jones show as he closed out a 13-10 win against Andrew Higginson.

Picture by Monique Limbos
The Welshman has played like it means absolutely nothing when in fact it means everything on his Crucible debut. He's riding the crest of optimism and his run in Sheffield could prove to be career-defining. As long as he continues to enjoy it, who knows how far he can go.

His match with Carter promises to be a thriller but the box office tie of the quarter-final sees Neil Robertson take on Ronnie O'Sullivan. This is the meeting of the tournament's two most impressive players so far and is worthy of any final.

O'Sullivan has glided to the final eight in great form but will face his biggest task yet against Robertson, who is a matchplay animal.

The Aussie is proficient in every department and will have to be bashed and bashed again harder to be beaten.

Elsewhere in the draw we've got the all-Scottish match between Stephen Maguire and Stephen Hendry as a form man meets the Crucible legend.

Hendry was Maguire's childhood hero but now he has a chance to make his own mark on the great venue.

Then there's an all-Welsh battle between Ryan Day and Matthew Stevens. Both are talented cuemen but are liable to faltering under pressure.

They're great friends off the table but will do battle with the chance to turn a mediocre season into a special one playing under the lights of a one-table set-up at the Crucible.

We're down to the business end, and I cannot wait.

Quarter-final draw:

Ronnie O'Sullivan v Neil Robertson
Ryan Day v Matthew Stevens
Stephen Maguire v Stephen Hendry
Ali Carter v Jamie Jones

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Going up the gears

Top players always find a way of stepping up their game when it matters most.

Ronnie O'Sullivan and Judd Trump both did exactly that at the Crucible this afternoon, coming out and letting their opponents feel the force.

Picture by Monique Limbos
The Rocket was particularly in fine tune. Starting out 5-3 ahead of Mark Williams he strung together a run of six straight frames to take the tie almost beyond the Welshman. Although the two-time champion nicked the last two frames to finish the session at 11-5, Ronnie's place in the quarter-finals is almost assured.

O'Sullivan was confident and stylish; he was unplayable at times, showing the kind of form that could put him in with a real chance of a fourth world title.

You could do little but feel sorry for Williams who always seems to meet Ronnie on the top of his game.

While it was easy to admire the Rocket's panache, it's worth remembering that his chances were arriving easily. If he is to complete the job and meet Neil Robertson in the quarter-final, he'll be made to work a whole lot harder.

As for Judd, it was great to see him back to his old self.

Picture by Monique Limbos
After labouring past Dominic Dale in round one while plagued by food poisoning, he didn't start his second round match with Ali Carter much better either. He trailed 5-3 after the first session but came out all guns blazing on the other side of the curtain to Ronnie, to haul himself back into the match.

Trump was back playing with great attacking intent and stole six of the eight frames on offer to swing the momentum of the match back in his favour to lead 9-7.

It felt as if this was the session Judd needed to up his level of performance, and that's exactly what he did.

Carter bemoaned Trump's run of the ball but luck favours the brave and the manner in which he took the game to Ali definitely deserved rich reward.

Ronnie and Judd showed the streak of champions today, upping the gears at the crucial moment in their matches. They're both on course for a place in the final eight and will take confidence from a draw that has quickly opened up with some high profile casualties in round one.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Hendry back at the business end

Stephen Hendry always draws huge support at the big events - but this week he's been able to pay his loyal fans back with a timely burst of form.

The seven-time Crucible champion completed a 13-4 rout of defending champion John Higgins today to set up his 19th appearance at a Crucible quarter-final.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Although the Scot is clearly more comfortable than most in snooker's finest venue, before this year he'd only been as far as the last eight stage of the tournament once in the last seven attempts.

In typical Hendry fashion, he played down talk of his 'run' at this year's tournament stating he'd only won two matches. But when you consider he was forced to qualify for his place at a 27th consecutive World Championship and has lit up the venue with a 147 in a comfortable win against Stuart Bingham and has now beaten defending champion Higgins, it's quite a marked turnaround.

While Hendry has maintained his game was still there in practice, he has long struggled to bring it consistently into matches and has struggled to record victories against players in the top 16.

But this week it's just clicked.

He was excellently ruthless against Bingham and made some excellent breaks to beat Higgins.

That said, four-time Crucible winner John did his best to help him to victory. His performance in last night's second session was woeful, the worst he's ever produced at the Crucible and perhaps in his entire professional career.

Hendry has never been one to take pity on his opponent though. He's a born winner and dispatched of his old friend Higgins without so much of a whimper.

His progress so far has already got his legion of fans dreaming of an eighth world title but there's still a lot of work to be done. It's great to see him competing at the business end of tournament again and he looks to be enjoying every second of it.

The big matches are what Hendry thrives on and his next one one is massive. He meets another Scotsman, Stephen Maguire, who has looked in great form himself this week.

He arrived in Sheffield as one of the form men at the top of the game and has carried it on to that effect. His 13-7 win against Joe Perry showed again how he's playing with great confidence and authority.

He's been bullying the balls around the table like he does at his best and even winning frames he shouldn't be, such are his matchplay credentials.

Maguire definitely possesses the raw ability to challenge for a world title but it's keeping his sometimes wandering temperament in check that will determine whether he can go all the way.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Robertson is the man to beat

Neil Robertson is the first man through to the quarter-finals of this year's World Championship - and is the player everyone else needs to beat.
The Australian booked his place in the last eight tonight with a 13-9 victory against world number 68 David Gilbert, after seeing off Ken Doherty 10-4 in the round one.

Picture by Monique Limbos
So far I've been impressed with the 2010 champion more than anyone else in the tournament and his performances have already seen him become the bookmakers' new favourite or the title.

But why the rave reviews so far? Put simply, he's showed a little bit of everything.

Robertson is universally regarded as being the most consistent player on the circuit this season and that comes through having such an excellent all-round game. This will help him last the distance in such a long tournament and equips him to win a second world title.

His long-potting has been at its scary best, he's made plenty of big breaks at key moments in matches and has again showcased the great strides he's made in his safety game. His knowledge of the tactical side of the game has developed massively and he's a more patient player than ever before.

This winning combination makes beating him a huge task, of course. But it's his ability to rise through the gears during each match that makes him so well pruned for Crucible triumph.

In establishing a 10-6 lead against Gilbert after two sessions, he twice won three out of four frames after the mid-session. This ability to get away from his opponent at the crucial moments shows he can step it up when it matters.

Then, when his Tamworth opponent threatened a revival in the final session he switched to scrapping mode to get himself over the line. He takes his chances, stifles his opponent and varies his game to great effect.

Bigger tests are sure to come before he'll get the chance to lift the trophy, but I can't help feeling he still has more to give and is capable of controlling his opponents.

With a week down at the Crucible, Robertson's displays have been by far the most complete. He will take some stopping from here...

Legends meet

Sixteen years of Crucible champions meet in the second round of this year's World Championship.

Seven-time winner Stephen Hendry plays his four-time winning fellow countryman John Higgins and three-time champion Ronnie O'Sullivan meet two-time winner Mark Williams.

And these two ties promise to be the stand-out matches in a second round line-up offering a great mix of seeds and qualifiers.

Not only will we see the meeting of four of the sport's legends who have won 16 of the last 22 Crucible crowns, but there's an even greater plot to each of these matches too.

Hendry and Higgins have remarkably never played each other at the biggest event despite a huge career crossover, and this is arguably a tie Scotland's snooker fans have always been waiting for.

Well, now they have it. Defending champion Higgins has had a below par season when compared with his last but showed his trademark hard-to-beat style in his first round match against Liang Wenbo, while Hendry played as well as he has in a long time to see off Stuart Bingham.

Higgins goes into the match as favourite. He's got a proven track record of winning when he's not at his best while I have doubts whether Hendry can produce the same standard as he did earlier in the week.

In the other match, O'Sullivan has gone a decade without defeat to Williams.

The Welshman never seems to produce his best against the Rocket but is looking for a run in Sheffield to remedy a season that has turned rather flat since his defeat in the Shanghai Masters final back in September.

Ronnie appears to be in the right frame of mind for an assault at the title probably enjoys playing free-flowing Williams more than most other professionals.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Williams jeered by Crucible crowd

Twitter funnyman Mark Williams has more than a World Snooker fine to worry about.

The two-time Crucible champion was booed into the arena ahead of his match with Liu Chuang, after calling the venue a "shithole" a day before the start of the tournament.
Picture by Monique Limbos

His twitter remarks were already described as "absolute lunacy" by snooker supremo Barry Hearn, and a fine is almost certain to follow.

But yesterday, the fans expressed their disgust as he walked out to play greeted with a chorus of boos, showing his reputation has taken a major battering.

Williams has enjoyed many great moments at the Crucible down the years but these appear to be count for very little among large sections of the crowd following his harsh comments.

It's actually no secret that the Welshman dislikes the venue. He's not been shy in saying before that he finds it too small. But it was the timing and lack of tact about his tweets that seem to have caused such a stir.

Snooker prides itself on the professionalism of its players and these twitter comments clearly broke that mould. While many people believe fury for Williams will subside, it's worth considering how rare it is for a player to receive such a frosty reception, and especially with such force.

I'm not so sure the Sheffield crowd will be quick to forget.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012


The Crucible madness continued today as more seeded players fell like flies.

World number one Mark Selby, Ding Junhui and former champion Graeme Dott all endured World Championship horror shows, dumped out by lower-ranked qualifiers.

That takes the total number of seeded players knocked out in round one to eight, which is a joint record with the number beaten at the same stage 20 years ago in 1992.

Before I dissect today's defeated seeds, it's worth considering why we're seeing so many falling by the wayside.

In general, I think the qualifiers have really profited from securing their path to the tournament just a week before the big kick-off. Every qualifier has looked match sharp and high on momentum while their top 16 opponents have taken time to settle having last played at the China Open.

Picture by Monique Limbos
This isn't the only reason, of course.

The new ranking system has sharpened up the game of all the players and seen some lower down the pecking pecking order playing as good as ever

We've said before that the Crucible can be an unforgiving place to play snooker when things aren't going your way and Dott found this out more than anyone.

He lost 10-1 to Joe Perry and it could well have been a whitewash. By his own admission, he was absolutely awful, playing the worst snooker he has at the venue, and possibly of his entire professional career.

Graeme has been a little off-colour all season but you can usually rely on him delivering in Sheffield. His performance here was so bad I can't help but feel he may be one of the most vulnerable top 16 players at start of next season.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Selby didn't fare much better. He fell to a 10-3 defeat against Barry Hawkins. This surprise defeat of the world number one obviously has a lot to do with poor preparation for the tournament. Selby has been limited in practice by a neck injury and despite assuring fans he was ready, he clearly wasn't and struggled badly.

Then there was Ding. He suffered arguably the biggest disappointment. After leading Ryan Day 9-6, he lost four frames on the trot en route to defeat. The pressure completely got the better of him and his game fell apart.

His performance a year ago at the Crucible suggested he was acquiring more bottle but this was like the Chinese star of old with his temperament not withstanding the test.

His frustrations were highlighted when he took a wild swipe at the Crucible crowd in his post-match press conference. He said the table and the fans were both "rubbish" in an out-of-character press chat.

It's been a decent season for Ding but like many this will finish it on a low. He needs to take a break and come back stronger next time.

Day five ends with many snooker fans left dumbfounded by the wreckage of the tournament so far.

The form book has gone way out of the window and the tournament is fast becoming all about the qualifiers grabbing their chances with both hands.

At the moment, it's shock after shock.

It's hard to predict what might happen next...

But you won't want to miss it.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Can Ronnie go all the way?

Ronnie O'Sulllivan has a real chance of winning a fourth world title.

They were the words being whispered around the Crucible today as he completed his safe passage into last the 16 of a so far unpredictable World Championship.

Picture by Monique Limbos
On a day when Stephen Lee joined Shaun Murphy and Mark Allen as seeded players to fall as first round vicitms, Graeme Dott looks set to follow and Ding Junhui and Mark Selby are also up against it.

But the Rocket has so far emerged as one of the few title contenders to breeze through his opening match without any war wounds.

His 10-4 victory was as routine as the scoreline suggests and has seen optimism from his legion of fans crank up already.

So, can Ronnie build on this and go all the way?

Of course he can. O'Sullivan has had a decent season with maintaining his place among the top 16 an achievement in itself. And he's also added three ranking trophies to his collection.

He's started winning again and, so far in this tournament, looks to be in good spirits.

The Rocket appeared level-headed and ready for anything Ebdon was going to throw at him.

That said, Peter actually threw very little at him. He will face far sterner tests along the way and his frailties could yet be exposed.

Ebdon made life very easy for O'Sullivan. He failed to deliver the kind of challenge the build-up to this match promised. Instead, he passed Ronnie chance after chance and it was only a matter of time until he took them.

O'Sullivan played well enough but will have to get even better with the likes of Neil Robertson still likely to make up his journey to a fourth world title.

While many of the game's top stars are falling in the first round, O'Sullivan's route to the final still looks tough. He's probably not got any better of a chance of winning the title than he did when he arrived in Sheffield but he could benefit from going quietly about his business.

He said in his press conference today that he just wants to take one match at a time and this is exactly the right attitude.

It's so far so good for Ronnie. He's made an excellent start and still has some gears left to glide through but it's too early to get excited yet.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Barry Hearn press conferences

Snooker supremo Barry Hearn responds to recent player outbursts and announces changes to the tour...

Dazzling debutants

This year's World Championship is fast becoming a golden one for its debutants.

Following on from Cao Yupeng's stunning win against Mark Allen yesterday, Jamie Jones knocked out 2005 champion Shaun Murphy today and Luca Brecel has done his reputation no harm either.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Making your debut at the Crucible can be a nerve-wracking experience but this year's trio of hopefuls have grasped their chance and made the most of it.

Jones' 10-8 victory against Murphy earlier was rich reward for what has been an excellent season for the 24-year-old Welshman, who is a stand-out candidate for this year's most improved player award.

He's put his life and soul into playing on the circuit this season and deserves his success for all the hard work.

For most of the campaign he's earned plaudits in the qualifiers and the smaller PTC events for his excellent break-building ability.

But here in Sheffield and after beating John Higgins in a deciding frame at the PTC Grand Finals in Galway, he's showed us the strength of his snooker brain.

Performing in the major ranking events is about know-how as much as quality. Jones showed maturity beyond his CV against Murphy and was brave enough to take his chances when they came along.

I understand Jones works fairly closely with Terry Griffiths away from the tournament and it really shows. You can't under-estimate the benefit of having such an experienced champion fighting in your corner.

As well as a terrific player, who has secured his place in the top 32 of the world rankings ahead of next season, Jones is also an outgoing young lad who will enjoy his success, and rightly so.

He's taken his chance to show the snooker world exactly what he's made of and, for tonight at least, is a shining star of the World Championship.

Luca Brecel has reason to be proud of his Crucible debut too.

The 17-year-old Belgium wonderkid may have suffered a 10-5 defeat to Stephen Maguire but has come out of the tournament with an even further enhanced reputation.

After a rocky first four frames which saw him gift Maguire early advantage with some inexperienced shot selections, he dusted himself down and went on to showcase his great talent.

He went on to outscore the Scot in the first session despite finishing it trailing 6-3 and played some blinding snooker. He wasn't afraid to go for his balls and pulled off some frightening pots.

He played with a huge smile on his face and proved what a great natural talent he is by playing nearly a dozen shots with his left-hand and still knocking them all in.

Composed around the table and keen put on a show for the crowd, he looks on track to be a future world champion once he naturally matures his game in some other areas.

Brecel became the youngest player ever to play at the Crucible - two months younger than Stephen Hendry was on debut - and definitely got people talking with a close to textbook cue action.

Will he back? Well, Barry Hearn confirmed his wildcard today for a two-year professional card starting from next season and I'm sure he'll have gained confidence from this run.

His excellent path to the Crucible has not only shown his great talent again but also proved he's got the game when the pressure is on.

God these boys coming through are good.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Mark Allen press conference

Listen to Mark Allen after his World Championship exit...

Cao says ciao to Allen

China's Cao Yupeng scored one of the great Crucible shocks today - knocking out World Open champion Mark Allen 10-6.

Picture by Monique Limbos
The world number 81 arrived at the Crucible with little or no reputation outside of snooker's most devoted fans but his excellent performance is sure to get everyone talking.

The 21-year-old showed a great touch at the table as he quickly and efficiently went about his business of waving goodbye to the Northern Ireland man.

This was a debutant performance that will live long in the memory.

He took on brave long pots, made some tidy big breaks and proved yet again the strength of the army of Chinese players coming through the professional ranks.

While Cao's win will go down as a big World Championship upset, he's not without previous.

He's the current under-21 Asian champion and won an impressive four matches to book his place here. None of Kurt Maflin, Dave Harold, Nigel Bond or Tom Ford could prevent his march to the venue and he's not done yet.

Passage to the last 16 here is his best ranking event performance in this his first season on the tour and with £16,000 of prize money already in the bag, that will now nearly treble his total career earnings.

While Cao can certainly celebrate his great victory this evening, such is the standard on the current circuit, he'll have to win one more match to secure his card for another season. And, that could be against Ding Junhui.

The excitement among the Chinese snooker media is boiling.

Scotland's finest

Scotland's two greatest players took centre stage at the Crucible on a pulsating opening day of the World Championship.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Stephen Hendry and John Higgins - who boast an impressive 11 world titles between them - brought the Sheffield crowd to its feet, not for the first time, by doing what they do best.

Seven-time champion Hendry is known as the King of the Crucible and set another record with a stunning 147 against Stuart Bingham.

This makes him the first qualifier to hit a maximum at the venue and it came in a session where he roared to an 8-1 lead with a vintage display, reminiscent of his dominance in the 1990s.

The fine break also takes him level with Ronnie O'Sullivan on 11 televised 147 breaks.

Watch this moment of magic again here....

This excellent session left many people asking where this sudden burst of form has come from.

While it's obvious Hendry still gets a huge buzz from playing at the Crucible, it's also conceivable he could be benefiting from life outside the top 16.

Picture by Monique Limbos
The pressure is off him and he can get back to playing snooker rather than continuously looking over his shoulder.

Four-time champion Higgins also wowed the Sheffield contingent, albeit with less swagger.

He delivered a trademark combative performance to beat Liang Wenbo 10-9 in a dramatic opening match.

Higgins - clearly suffering from the nerves of starting a tournament as the defending champion - was 8-6 down at one stage of the match but rallied to win four of the last five frames and get over the line.

John has struggled this season without adding a trophy to his cabinet since he triumphed here a year ago but this tournament matters to him more than any and he's always maintained that a first round win could spark him into life.

I believe Higgins will be all the better for this hard-fought opening test and he now has the three-session matches to get his teeth into.

As much as people write off Higgins for title, he still needs beating and that is no easy task over these longer matches. He's the biggest fighter of them all.

It was a great first day and, for Scotland, it really couldn't have been a better start.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Crucible doors ready to open

It's finally time to get the boys on the baize, after weeks of anticipation.

Sheffield is set and the final touches are being made inside the great Crucible venue, because the World Championship is almost here.

This is the greatest festival of snooker on the planet - and you won't want to miss a second of it.

We're sure to see it all. There will be sensational potting, big breaks, well-crafted safety and even a few flukes along the way. There will be scenes of joy, moments of disappointment and even controversy, no doubt.

Thirty-two fine players are preparing to play in the  biggest tournament of the year and all that matters is winning.

Only one player will be left standing after 17 days of wall-to-wall snooker drama. It takes more than just ability to be crowned King of the Crucible.

Winning the World Championship is the biggest test for any player. You need bundles of talent, great bottle, patience and the ability to weather the storm when it's not going your way.

The Crucible experience is like none other. The longer matches create a slow-burning drama and add to the twists and turns of the tournament.

The cast is ready. Let's get the World Championship soap opera under way.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Crucible Countdown: Fans prediction panel

A blog is nothing without its readers.

Thousands of snooker fans will be flocking to Sheffield over the next couple of weeks to catch a glimpse of the World Championship action.

For a second season in succession, OnCue asked a selection of its loyal readers what they think will happen.

Here's what they had to say...

Martin Endersby said: "I think Mark Selby will win it this year. I feel like he's at the right stage of his career where he's ready to step up to the plate, even though most other people seem to be tipping Neil Robertson and Ding Junhui.

"Stephen Lee could be the player to stop Selby, if anyone. He's the form man of 2012 and could be a major force if his stamina holds up to the test."

Ian Wagstaff said: "Ding Junhui is going to win the World Championship this year. China's finest player looks primed for a massive assault on the title this year. He's been placed in the toughest quarter of the draw but possesses all the qualities in his game to wear the Crucible crown. His temperament has improved massively over the past two seasons.

"I'm going to be keeping a careful eye on Matthew Stevens as well this year. He's back in the top 16 and probably benefiting from playing in more tournaments since Barry Hearn took over the sport. He's got lots of class and is confident at the Crucible. I think he'll get close but sadly I fear his chance to win the biggest event has probably already passed him by.

"I'm looking forward to watching the Belgium kid Luca Brecel too. He's absolute class and has a fluently effortless style of play."

Kellie Barker said: "I'm back at the Crucible this year with a ticket for all the sessions for the 17 days. There's no place I'd rather be.

"Picking a winner is so difficult  after the season we've had. There are so many players in form going to Sheffield. But I think it could be time for Neil Robertson to win a second title. He's been very solid in most events, he's a complete player and knows how to win at the Crucible."

Phil Pedlow said: "I'm tempted to plump for John Higgins to win a fifth title but a defending champion rarely comes back to it again so I'll say Judd Trump. I think he'll return to the iconic Crucible and raise his game with the memories of how well he did here last season.

"Outside of those two players, Martin Gould is worth a look. I believe this guy has the ability to beat anyone on his day and I think the other players know it as well. He's lost to eventual finalists in both of the last two seasons but maybe this year it could be him.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see Liu Chaung win a match or two as well. He beat everyone's favourite, Jimmy White, in qualifying, is showing all the right signs of having a bright future and has already sampled the Crucible atmosphere as a youngster back in 2008."

Martin Linton said: "It's going to be very tough for John Higgins to defend his title judging by the form he's shown this season. Judd Trump is the boomakers' favourite and, although he's a danger with last year's final under his belt, I also think he's not quite ready to win it yet. It's always difficult to pick a winner but I think it could be Mark Selby or Ding Junhui.

"I've got a feeling Peter Ebdon could be a very dark horse this season as well. He had a horrible start to the year but bounced back by winning the China Open and beating Alfie Burden 10-0 to qualify for Sheffield. He can't be ruled out.

"I'm interested to see David Gilbert in action. He had some good qualifying wins and stands a chance of going further with Martin  Gould up next, who has had a hit-and-miss season."

Donna Evans said: "I feel under pressure after predicting the correct winner at the World Championship last season. I can't believe Judd Trump is the favourite. I think it's crazy and if I was putting any money on, I'd pick Mark Williams. I'm looking forward to Peter Ebdon's match with Ronnie O'Sullivan and I also have a feeling Barry Hawkins could give a good account of himself."

Daniel Burke said: "I'm going to say Ronnie O'Sullivan. He's been the best player this season despite the amount of events he's missed. He's in great form, his long game looks better and he looks like he's adopted a tougher and more positive outlook to playing. He's a real contender.

"Mark Selby's mindset is too negative to win so my second and third favourites would be Mark Allen and Ding Junhui respectively."

Crucible Countdown: Blogger verdicts

There are plenty of committed snooker bloggers out there today giving the game a greater online presence than its ever had.

Their views on the game vary and their style of reporting polarise but they all have their different qualities.

With the World Championship now only a stone's throw away, OnCue asked them for their Crucible verdicts...

Dave Hendon, Snooker Scene

Winner: Neil Robertson
Runner-up: Judd Trump
Dark horse: Stephen Maguire (if he counts as a dark horse)
Qualifier to watch: Marco Fu
Tournament plans: I will be commentating on all 17 days for Eurosport
Greatest Crucible moment: Stephen Hendry setting a modern record by winning his seventh world title. I was there that day and it felt historic.
Why I love the Crucible: Its continuity, its history and its importance. A very special place and a very special time of year.

Matthew Huart, Pro Snooker Blog

Winner: Neil Robertson
Runner-up: Judd Trump
Dark horse: Peter Ebdon
Qualifier to watch: Peter Ebdon
Tournament plans: I'm booked in for the first nine and last three days. I will have to see about the other five but, knowing me, I'll find a way to be there.
Greatest Crucible moment: Of the matches that I have attended, Stephen Hendry's 10-9 win against Mark Allen in 2008 stands out as a particular favourite.
Why I love the Crucible: The people, the snooker and the drama.

Roland Cox, Snooker Island

Winner: Mark Selby
Runner-up: Stephen Maguire
Dark horse: Peter Ebdon
Qualifier to watch: Luca Brecel and Liu Chuang
Tournament plans: I'll be there in bursts of two or three days at a time. 17 days is a long time. I live nearby and was at the latter stages a lot last year so this time I'm focusing more on the first 10 days, but I'll watch the rest on the box.
Greatest Crucible moment: It's impossible to narrow it down to one moment. But at the time of writing, I will go with Mark Williams coming back from 13-7 down against Matthew Stevens in the 2000 final. He was my favourite player at the time and it made up for all the heartbreak of being a Jimmy White fan throughout my childhood. He played absolutely awesome to win from six frames down.
Why I love the Crucible: It's synonymous with spring, the weather getting warmer, the new leaves on trees being lush green and having time off work or skiving from school. For as long as I can remember, there are so many great memories. The venue itself is awesome. Once you're inside and focused on the snooker, there is no place like it. Every spectator seat has a good view and the snooker on display is the most dramatic you will ever see. The atmosphere makes the hairs stand up on your neck. 


Winner: Neil Robertson 
Runner-up: Probably Stephen Maguire but his price puts me off backing him  
Dark horse: Not that dark but Mark Allen is still a decent price and has a big chance 
Qualifier to watch: David Gilbert as I think he has the best chance of getting beyond the last 32. I'd like Luca Brecel to make an impact on the tournament as well. 
Tournament plans: I'm going up to Sheffield on Crucible Eve to soak up the atmosphere and then pressing it for week one. I'll probably return home on week two as I've always preferred the first week. There's more of a buzz about the place.
Greatest Crucible moment: Alex Higgins against Jimmy White in the 1982 semi-final.
Why I love the Crucible: It's part of my life. I grew up watching it on the TV and now I am lucky enough to see behind the scenes. The improvements to the area surrounding the arena are also staggering and the Olympic village feel it has is addictive. I also enjoy watching the local nutter who turns up every year and swears at the BBC vans and shouts about a murder in Doncaster. It's all part of the magic.

Steve Kent, Maximum Snooker

Winner: Neil Robertson
Runner-up: Stephen Lee
Dark horse: Stephen Maguire
Qualifier to watch: Peter Ebdon
Tournament plans: I will be attending most of the first week and reporting from home for the rest. I'll be going to the final as well because I managed to buy tickets on the morning they went on sale.
Greatest Crucible moment: Ronnie O'Sullivan's brilliance, fluency and speed around the table in his fastest 147 in 1997.
Why I love the Crucible: Being able to get right up close and personal to the action. No other venue offers the same atmosphere. It's also the most important event to the players.

David Caulfield, Snooker HQ

Winner:  Neil Robertson
Runner-up: Shaun Murphy
Dark horse: I don't think any complete outsider will challenge for the title so I'll be watching out for Ding Junhui and Ronnie O'Sullivan. 
Qualifier to watch: Peter Ebdon 
Tournament plans: I'll be watching and writing from home in Dublin for most of the event. I'm over for the quarter-finals though. This will be my first time at the Crucible after watching it on TV for 20 years. 
Greatest Crucible moment: My greatest moment will probably be this year when I go. From behind the TV, my favourite moment is a toss up between Ken Doherty winning the title in 1997 or the standing ovation John Higgins and Judd Trump received before the final session of last year's final. I wasn't even there and it was spine-tingling. 
Why I love the Crucible: It's a cliche but the atmosphere is unique. No other sport would have its World Championship played in such a confined setting.

Monique Limbos, photographer

Winner: Stephen Maguire 
Runner-up: Ding Junhui 
Dark horse: Ronnie O'Sullivan 
Qualifier to watch: Peter Ebdon 
Tournament plans: I'll be there for the duration of the tournament. 
Greatest Crucible moment: Steve Davis beating John Higgins in 2010. I was taking pictures from the commentary box. The atmosphere in the Crucible was just unreal. It's hard to describe the tension and the emotion. Most viewers were living it with Steve. 
Why I love the Crucible: Just because it's the Crucible. You have to live it to fully understand what it means.

And, now it's my turn.... 

Gary Moss, OnCue

Winner: Ding Junhui 
Runner-up: Judd Trump 
Dark horse: Graeme Dott 
Qualifier to watch: Marco Fu 
Tournament plans: I will be at the tournament for eight days and watch the rest on TV. 
Greatest Crucible moment: My first trip still ranks as my best because I've been hooked ever since. I had been watching snooker for a few years as a boy before my Dad took me to Sheffield for the first time in 2001. We arrived at the hotel late on the Friday night of the second weekend where I got an autograph and had a chat with Steve Davis. That was a dream come true and then as soon as I walked into the venue the following morning, I could feel it was a special place. In my first session I watched Joe Swail come from behind to beat defending champion Mark Williams. Joe made a break of 140 along the way and I was pictured on the news that night on the BBC sports report. That was a sensational experience. I get excited going back ever year. 
Why I love the Crucible:The length of the tournament and its matches make for plenty of twists and turns. The Crucible is the World Championship. All the greatest moments in the sport's history have happened under this roof. I also love the buzz around the venue. All snooker fans come together and unite.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Question time... with Gould and Bingham

Martin Gould and Stuart Bingham are two of the top 16's newest members.

After breaking into the elite in the last year, they both skipped qualifying and are looking forward to playing at the Crucible as seeds.

OnCue asked them some quickfire questions as the World Championship draws ever closer....

Picture by Monique Limbos
How are you feeling for form going into the tournament?

Stuart: Not too good but not too bad either. I've won a few games since the Masters and I feel like I'm playing ok. I've run into Judd a few times this season and he just seems to be riding a wave at the moment. It's tough getting used to being in the top 16 because you're coming into games cold whereas qualifiers have a win already. It feels different. Maybe my priorities have been a little bit different this season because I''ve got a new baby but I've managed to get some practice under my belt and feel ready to go.

Martin: I've been playing a bit mediocre in the last few tournaments. There's been a lot of travelling this season and I've felt quite tired from it all. I've got into the top 16 but I've kicked back a bit and have struggled. I've made a few small adjustments to my cue action recently though and I feel like I'm hitting the ball a lot sweeter again. Confidence has been an issue for me but I had a chat with John Higgins and asked him how he copes when he's out of form. He told me that I've got to grin and bear it. I've played through it and felt like I played a lot better in China. I just want to go to the Crucible and not let myself down.

Picture by Monique Limbos
Do you ever do anything differently going into the Crucible as opposed to other tournaments?

Stuart: Not really in terms of the snooker but I've been trying a diet and have got a personal trainer to try to lose a few pounds and get fitter.

Martin: I've just done a mix different types of practice for the tournament. There's been a few days on my own, a couple of sessions with other pros and younger players in my area plus some exhibitions. I do pretty much the same for each tournament. If you have a good mix of practice, it helps you to hit the ground running  when you arrive at the venue to play. 

Are you looking forward to a new experience of being a seeded player at the Crucible?

Stuart: Yeah it will be nice and a little bit different but when you get out there it doesn't matter, it's just another match. It's tough whatever.

Martin: I think it will feel a bit different. I'm used to going there as the qualifier and the underdog but now I'm expected to produce. But I'm pleased to be in the top 16. I know the pressures and I'm working hard and stay at the top.

Stephen Lee EXCLUSIVE interview: "It's a graft and I'm prepared for the fight"

Stephen Lee goes into the World Championship this weekend at Sheffield as one of the real form players on the circuit.

With victory at the PTC Grand Finals and a string of other runs to the business end of ranking tournaments, many tipsters are shouting his name as a possible winner for the title.

OnCue spoke to the Wiltshire man as he prepares for the biggest tournament of the season.

You've been on an excellent run of form leading into this tournament with events coming thick and fast, was there even time for you to draw breath?

No, not really. I've had some great results with a win, another final, two semi-finals and a quarter-final in the last five ranking events. I didn't really see it coming. I'm enjoying playing and it's all down to Barry Hearn. He's given me a chance to turn it around and it's been a big part of my life.

It's great that my kids can now see my playing as a snooker player rather than just a part-timer.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Higgins: "Going to win it this year would be amazing."

Defending world champion John Higgins will be kicking off the tournament this year in keeping with tradition..

He's not had the greatest season but is ready to have another crack at the top prize in the game. Here's what he had to say last week at the tournament press launch....

Picture by Monique Limbos
"I don't feel too confident but I'm really looking forward to it. I've been hard on the practice table for the last couple of weeks and I've just been sharpening up my game like I think I need to.

"I can't wait to get down there and play again.

"The atmosphere in the final against Judd Trump last year was the best I've ever played in in my life. It's an atmosphere I'd love to get back to again. I'll be trying my best.

"This year has not been anywhere near good enough but I know the reasons why. It's up to myself to rectify that. I've been to the World Championship before not feeling that good and managed to win and last year I went there with people expecting me to do well and holding it together. I've done it from both ends. Going to win it this year would be amazing.

"If I win my first game at the Crucible it could all change. It's a very important one. If you get through it, you feel like you're in the tournament and things can start to happen for you.

"I've kicked off the tournament three times before as defending champion. It's the most nerve-wracking experience you've got as a snooker player. You don't feel pressure like it and I'm sure it will be the same again.

"Every time you win the World Championship it's the most special one. Last year was a special moment for different reasons but I don't think you can differentiate between any of them because they're all great achievements. To win it four times is probably beyond my wildest dreams when I turned to be a professional snooker player.

"To win it a fifth time and get closer to players like Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry would be amazing but it will tough as always.

"I've probably not strung a week of practice together all year until the build-up to this tournament. I've always been a big believer that you only get out life what you put in and I've got out of this season what I've deserved. It's only me that can put it right. I'm going to be a different player next season. I'll definitely be competing better.

"I'm excited for the World Championship. I know if you go to the Crucible and play well, it's the best place in the world to play. It's a great event."

Monday, 16 April 2012

Crucible Countdown: The draw

This year's first round draw is loaded with absolutely mouth-watering matches.

But it was always going to happen. Among the seeded players we have more people capable of winning the World Championship than perhaps ever before. Among the qualifiers we have one of the most exciting and diverse set of playing styles.

With this kind of mix of player at our disposal, the draw was only ever going one way.

I've had time to have a good look at the draw. Here are my reactions to the opening 16 matches at the Crucible...

John Higgins v Liang Wenbo

An excellent curtain-raising match at the Crucible. Higgins has struggled for form this season and would have wanted an easier starter. Wenbo is a fearless player who could easily find his groove and cause some problems. He seems much happier since moving away from his former base in Sheffield and it wouldn't surprise me to see him get back to somewhere near his best. He'll need to play well because Higgins has experience on his side on the big stage.

Stuart Bingham v Stephen Hendry

A re-run of an absolute classic back in 2000. Stuart made his snooker name by beating Hendry in the first round clash over a decade ago. Bingham has come a long way since then and Stephen struggles against the top 16 players. He'll be happy just to be back after having to fight through the qualifiers to continue his run of consecutive years at the Crucible. The crowd will be behind Hendry and I expect this to be a close match.

Stephen Maguire v Luca Brecel

Maguire is the form man and should win this against the 17-year-old Crucible novice. But the young Belgian has won four matches to get here and has a massive chance to put himself on the map. Luca is renowned for his extreme composure around the table. He's a future star in the making and should focus on enjoying this. All the pressure is on Maguire. You'd expect him to have too much and some people are even tipping him to go all the way but funnier things have happened.

Graeme Dott v Joe Perry

Two very experienced players. Dott is annually written off at the World Championship but regularly produces his best at this tournament. He's played in three Crucible finals and you can't discount another. Perry has got as far as the semi-final here himself. He's had a solid season and is more than capable. Not one of the headline matches but expect a good tussle.

Shaun Murphy v Jamie Jones

This is the highlight of what has been an excellent season for Welshman Jones. He's been steadily boiling away throughout the campaign and has looked like one of the real dangermen in the qualifiers. Murphy won the event in 2005 and is well equipped to do well over the longer matches.  The quality of scoring should be high in this match as both like to pot early. This isn't a formality for Shaun. He knows a decent test awaits but a win would set him up perfectly.

Stephen Lee v Andrew Higginson

Lee couldn't come into this tournament in any better form. If he continues playing like he has, Higginson will be powerless. Andrew is a good all-rounder but Lee is flowing as well as ever. I can't see anything other than a seed win. Stephen could go deep into the second week.

Ali Carter v Mark Davis

Hardly a glamour tie and a possible win for the qualifier on the cards. It's tough watching Ali struggle so badly and you do fear his days in the game could be numbered. He doesn't look at all happy playing snooker as he continues to battle against crohn's disease. Mark on the other hand is still as thirsty as ever at the age of 39. He's done well to climb the rankings in recent seasons owing to great consistency. He goes quietly about his business and recorded an impressive 10-5 win against Robert Milkins in the qualifiers to get here.
Judd Trump v Dominic Dale

A difficult tie for Dominic who was unlucky to draw him in the UK Championship as well. People will call this a banker but Dale has had a good season and has the experience not to be scared of anyone. He'll need a gameplan to keep Judd on a leash but can take plenty of heart from reaching the event with an emphatic win against Ben Woollaston. I expect Judd to boss this one but Dominic can be relied upon to score if he gets chances from Trump missing some of his more attacking shots. Dale needs to take his chances when they come along. Trump will enjoy being back in front of the Sheffield crowd to put on a show. He's the favourite for the title and will take some stopping.

Mark Williams v Liu Chuang

Both players love to attack. This could be an exciting match. Mark needs to find some inspiration from somewhere after not finding his best since way back earlier in the season. Liu is one of a record four Chinese players at the Crucible players and was made to work hard for his place. He crept past Rod Lawler, Jimmy White and Jamie Cope to make it. His appearance here will evoke memories of his Crucible shock debut in 2008 where he locked horns with Ronnie O'Sullivan in round one. Williams may benefit from what is likely to be an open game and has the no-how to go far again.

Ronnie O'Sullivan v Peter Ebdon

The headline match and the one the entire snooker world was crying out for. O'Sullivan has a decent record against EbdonEbdon using tactically slow play to advance. Peter comes into this match off the back of winning the China Open and a 10-0 drubbing of Alfie Burden in the cubicles. Ronnie must be patient but fans will worry Peter could bog him down. If he gets on top of this match and wins it, he could do well this year. This is the match you don't want to miss.

Martin Gould v Dave Gilbert

This should be an open and entertaining match. Gould is low on confidence but capable of producing a potting masterclass. The Crucible could bring out the best of him. Gilbert has shown in qualifying what a good player we all know he is. He won four matches against Stuart Carrington, Jimmy Robertson, Mike Dunn and Fergal O'Brien to earn his place. That momentum should count for something but his temperament will be tested to the limit.

Neil Robertson v Ken Doherty

The battle of two great world champions. Robertson comes highly tipped this year and looks like he has the complete package to challenge for a second world title. He's had a fantastic season which has included a BBC win already at the Masters. He's got the steel and the ability to go all the way. A heavy favourite but you know he'll take nothing for granted. Doherty is guaranteed a warm Sheffield welcome with the fans fondly remembering his triumph in 1997. He'll need to pull out all the stops to make a match of this one. 

Ding Junhui v Ryan Day

Ding proved many people wrong with a spirited run to the semi-finals at the Crucible a year ago. This was the first time he'd gone past the second round and showed he could deliver on the biggest stage. Only an inspirational performance by Judd stopped him making the final. A lot of people are tipping him to build on that. He's got a difficult looking first match against Ryan. He had to come from behind to beat Gerard Greene and qualify but is always dangerous as he's been at the top end of the rankings before.

Mark Allen v Cao Yupeng

The year for Northern Ireland's number one to shine according to many. Allen has proved this season he's capable of winning titles and looks ready for a decent crack at the big one. Yupeng makes his debut here after sneaking his place with a tight 10-9 win versus Tom Ford in the final qualifying match.  He'll have to be at his best to keep in touch but this is a great chance to showcase his talents.

Matthew Stevens v Marco Fu

One of the toughest matches to call in round one. Two very classy players who can both beat anyone on their day. They've both been to finals before and can play in the big matches. You'd not expect either of these to win the title but they could be a danger if confidence starts to build. This will be a decent match to sit back and enjoy.

Mark Selby v Barry Hawkins

A big tournament for the world number one. He needs to prove himself on the biggest stage and will feel this is a title that has evaded him. Everything is in place for him to have a go. He has the good all-round game to challenge. His first round match is tough. Hawkins is a proficient scorer and enjoyed a decent run to the second round last season. He knocked out Maguire before losing on a decider to Allen for a place in the last eight. He'll be second favourite here. Big things are expected of Selby this time.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Crucible Countdown: The great shocks

In the pressure-cooker of the Crucible cauldron, there's no such thing as a formality.

Throughout the colourful history of this great venue, some of the greatest moments have been shaped by scenes of the unexpected.

Sometimes it feels like anything can happen at the World Championship.

There have been numerous Crucible shocks down the years, but here are my favourites....

Joe Johnson wins the 1986 title

Three-time Crucible champion Steve Davis was a huge favourite to win the trophy, especially having lost so dramatically a year earlier to Dennis Taylor. Having dominated the entire 1985/86 season including victory at three of the previous four ranking events, this should have been plain-sailing. But, no. Bradford's Joe Johnson - a 150-1 longhsot at the start of the tournament - beat the Nugget 18-12 in the final and would see his life transformed into that of a celebrity. This is one of the true fairytales of the Crucible.

Davis downs Higgins

This time the Nugget was on the other end of a 'David and Goliath' scaling in Sheffield. He beat defending world champion 13-11 in the second round in 2010; a monumental win. Davis is loved at the Crucible and was given a standing ovation after clinching the victory. The whole crowd got behind him and willed him to the winning post. A great of the 1980s rolled back the years for another day in the Crucible sunshine.

Bingham brushes past Hendry

Defending his seventh world title, Hendry lost 10-7 on the first day of the 2000 World Championship to plucky Crucible debutant Stuart Bingham. Ranked at number 92 in the world, he was a complete unknown talent but rode his luck to out a great.

Knowles rocks Davis

Tony Knowles ensured the Crucible Curse was to play tricks on Davis with a 10-1 demolition of the defending champion in round one in 1982. This heavy defeat was made all the more surprising because there was no obvious weakness to Steve's game. He was beaten by a player yet to make his mark on the game.

Murphy marches to title

Shaun Murphy came all the way through the qualifying rounds to lift the World Championship title in 2005. He'd not won a match at the Crucible before this tournament but went all the way with a catalogue of great potting. This made him the second-youngest champion behind Hendry after beating Chris Small, John Higgins, Steve Davis, Peter Ebdon and Matthew Stevens all en route to triumph.

Fred returns

Eight-time world champion Fred Davis reached the 1978 semi-finals 22 years after his latest championship win. This was a great achievement at the age of 64.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Crucible Countdown: Who's in charge?

Walking out at the Crucible isn't just a proud experience for the players; it's a huge honour for the referees as well.

No-one knows this better than my resident columnist Paul Collier. He's making his return to the World Championship after a seven-year absence, and is one of the eight officials taking charge in Sheffield this year.

He gives us a full round-up of the referees you'll see at the Crucible this year...

Paul Collier

I've not been a referee at the Crucible since 2005 and I'm delighted to be back. When I started refereeing for World Snooker again, this was the one I had missed most. There's such a large number of high quality referees in the game that I didn't know if I'd get the chance again but I'm excited I have. I've been at the qualifiers this week and I took a wander up to the Crucible to take some pictures and I'm really excited. It's the place to be and doing the 2004 final here was the highlight of my career.

Michaela Tabb

Michaela is returning and doing her second final at the Crucible this year. I think she's great for the game. She's refereed the finals in Australia and Brazil this season and it really sells the game. She looks great, is popular with the crowds and is very capable. She ticks all the boxes. People don't realise she's only on a reduced contract with World Snooker for 70 days of work per year. She's a big family woman but deserves to keep coming back because she's so good.

Jan Verhaas

Jan referees to a very high level. He's well-rated and one of the best. Jan is also one of the assessors for the referees on the circuit and does an excellent job because he's so approachable. You always see him helping and offering advice to up-and-coming referees.

Eirian Williams

Eirian is a fellow Welshman and I get on with him great. He's a very experienced and respected referee. He qualified as a referee one year before me and has achieved a lot in the game. We were on the same shifts as each other in Galway for the PTC Grand Finals. We spent a lot of time together and I know he's still as excited about the Crucible as he's ever been.

Olivier Marteel

I don't see a great deal of Olivier because he has another full-time job working in a hospital as a radiographer. He mixes the two well and deserves to be where he is in snooker. He is very involved with the amateur game in Europe and is definitely one of the best referees from that part of the world.

Brendan Moore

I get on better with Brendan than any other referee. We shared a room together at the Championship League at Crondon Park this season and get on well. A few people have seen us being sarcastic to each other on Facebook and think we don't get on but we always play along. He lives in Sheffield so this is a great tournament for him.

Leo Scullion

Leo has done quite a few different jobs down the years. He's a former policeman, has driven taxis and still has quite a busy schedule. He's been around a long time but this will be only his third season at Crucible. He's another of the many excellent referees in Sheffield this season.

Zhu Ying

Known as 'Ivy'. It's her debut at the Crucible this season and that's a massive deal for anyone. She's one of the best referees from China and has done a great job at the qualifiers and in the PTCs this season. She's put a lot of hard work into learning English  and improving her refereeing. I hope she does well like she did at the Masters and the Welsh Open.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Crucible Countdown: Quizzing CJ

CJ De Mooi is one of a few famous faces you will see in and out of the Crucible this year.

The former Eggheads brainbox loves his snooker and has become a popular figure at the bigger venues on the circuit. He's a regular in Sheffield and when he visits it evokes great memories for him as he's also performed on the stage of the theatre.

CJ is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to life on the baize.

OnCue spoke to him in the build-up to the World Championship to find out how he got into the game, why he's hooked and what he thinks ahead of this year's tournament.

How did you first get into snooker?

I can't remember an exact moment but one of my earliest memories was watching Eddie Charlton play. You would have thought that would put me off of snooker but I remember seeing it on TV and being absolutely fascinated. I've watched it ever since.

I was still at school when the 1985 world final revolutionised snooker but I got hooked just before that. I remember the battles between Cliff Thorburn and Terry Griffiths in the early 1980s.

I loved most of the great players of that era but I never got the hang of Alex Higgins. I could never see the fascination other people had with him.

I'm not a massive sports fan but snooker just seems to taken my interest. I've tried watching other sports but none of them mean anything to me. Every time I watch snooker, it comes out of the screen and I can watch it. It's one of my earliest memories and it automatically connected to me. Maybe just as a young child I saw the pretty colours and it was nice to look at. 

Have you got a favourite player of all-time?

This is a really difficult question because how can you judge so many great players? Like most people I would count Stephen Hendry as the greatest and Ronnie O'Sullivan as the most naturally-gifted but I tend to choose players who I think redefined the game at certain points in time.

It's tempting to pick people like Steve Davis or Ronnie but I have to say Jimmy White simply because he massively popularised the game. I know he would swap all his wins and achievements for one world title but, in some ways, that's made him even more popular.

How does the game differ now to when you started out watching it?

You had players dominate in the past. Ray Reardon won six world titles in the 1970s although he didn't dominate the game. He just happened to be very successful in the World Championship. You had Steve Davis in the 1980s with six and Stephen Hendry won seven in the 1990s.

I wouldn't mind seeing one player becoming the number one and a player to beat in every tournament. We've got Mark Selby there at the moment but he's never reached a UK Championship final and has only reached one World Championship final.

You can probably count Judd Trump as a player everyone wants to beat but still there are so many top quality players and I think we will continue to get lots of different winners of ranking events for a while.

You've been a regular at the Crucible for a few seasons now. What are your plans this year?

I can only make three days because of my plate tour. It really upsets me. I'm delighted to be doing my tour but last year I went to 10 or 11 days of the tournament. If I don't have to work, I'd be there every day. That's how much I love it.

Who do you think will do well this year?

I'm going to put my neck on the block here and say there will be some very big names casualties in the first round because of the pressure. I think Mark Allen and Trump will go out in the first two rounds. I'd love to see Shaun Murphy do well and I think someone from the lower end of the top 16 get to the semi-finals. I wouldn't be surprised to see Stuart Bingham at the quarter-finals at the least.

It's one of the most difficult World Championships to call but I think John Higgins will win his fifth world title. He's been a little out of form but he'll have some time in the longer matches to settle in and tends to get stronger and stronger in the bigger tournaments.

Why is the Crucible special for you?

I've performed on the Crucible stage a number of times so it's always nice for me to go back because of that. I love the venue for snooker because of its great moments.

One of my favourites was Steve Davis beating John Higgins 13-11 in the second round in 2010. Steve got a standing ovation every time he came out and then when he won it, the place erupted and the match on the other table had to stop. That's what the Crucible is all about for me.

The support Steve got made him believe he could win that. That's what the Crucible can do. Results like that make the venue special.

You're known for your quizzing and you did the Snooker Eggheads in 2010. Did you enjoy that?

I loved every second of that. The snooker World Championship is my specialist subject. I was annoyed and still haven't forgiven John Parrott for beating me. Some of the questions were difficult. One question required seven answers to get it correct.

It was great. It combined quizzing, performance and my love of snooker.

We've talked about your snooker, but where does your love for quizzing come from?

The Eggheads that I started studying above casual quizzing.

It sounds incredibly nerdy but I love reading all the little stats in snooker. I wouldn't do it for any other sport. I don't really watch any other sport apart from snooker. I love the stats and pointless facts. I just like knowing them all.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Crucible Countdown: The return of Judd Trump

All eyes will be on Judd Trump in Sheffield this year after the heroics he produced here last time out.

The 22-year-old Bristolian was the star of the Crucible last season as he marched through the qualifiers, reached the final and was only denied the title of world champion at the final hurdle.

Picture by Monique Limbos
John Higgins was - in the end - a worthy winner but Judd had stole all the headlines, for sure.

His outrageous attacking ability wowed the Crucible crowd and it was clear a new star of snooker had been born. His victory at the tournament before, the China Open, was actually where it all started but only a few expected him to replicate the form he showed there on the biggest stage.

Stepping up to the plate was not a problem for Judd. He arrived in Sheffield with a dash of confidence from  his first ranking event win and picked up exactly where he left off. He was potting balls for fun, bulldozing down his opponents and playing without a care in the world.

His shot selection was fearless and he won admiration for lighting up the great venue. Comparisons were drawn between him and the legendary Jimmy White.

While Judd will enjoy being held in such high regard so early in his career, he'll also be keen not to adopt the Whirlwind's 'nearly man' tag after he lost out in no fewer than six World Championship finals.

Trump will be desperate to get his name on the great Crucible trophy, sooner rather than later because he believes he belongs alongside the very best.

This might sound a strange thing to say about a player so young but Judd will come back to the Crucible with a feeling of unfinished business. He enjoyed all the highs here a year ago. His experience had everything except the title at the end.

The big difference this time is expectation. Judd has gone from a raw, potential talent to one of the game's leading lights. The fans loved every second of watching him last time but they will want more of the same; and expect him to perform this time.

For a player like Judd, this isn't a problem. He's a natural showman, who loves to entertain and rises to the big occasion.

He's already got used to a season being the player everyone wants to beat. In that time, he's added the UK Championship to his trophy cabinet and climbed up to number two in the world rankings. He can clearly handle life at the top.

He's gone full-steam ahead this season and will be ready to raise it one last time for the biggest title of them all.

Don't expect Judd to change his game either. He obviously feeds off putting on a show for the fans and at his devastating best, his attacking game is too good for anyone. But you must be more than just a potter to triumph at the Crucible. He's been beaten plenty of times this season, often when he's taken one too many shots on.

A year ago everything was going his way. It would be wrong for him to curb his attacking instincts this year but, when things don't quite go for him, he needs to find another way to win. It might not always be possible to pot his way out of trouble.

The key to his success in Sheffield this season could be dependent on how he controls himself at the key moments in the tournament.

The buzz in the venue when Judd plays this year will be extraordinary. The fans won't forget how he dazzled last season but, in order to come away with the trophy this time, he has to show a year's worth of maturity to go alongside his incredible natural game. He could lift the title because of the balls he doesn't take on, rather than those that he does.

Judd is going to be up for this big time. Stand by your beds.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Crucible Countdown: Can Higgins defend his world title?

The prospect of John Higgins retaining his world title has already been dismissed by many.

But mark my words, writing off the four-time champion constitutes treading on extremely dangerous ground.

One flick through this season's formbook does suggest Higgins should be nowhere near lifting the trophy for fifth time.

The only major event he's been past the quarter-finals stages of this season was in the Masters, before he was knocked out 6-0 by Shaun Murphy.

In the ranking events, he's been a first round casualty in the PTC Grand Finals and the Australian Open, lost in another four events at the last 16 stage and lost in the other two events where he's reached the quarter-finals.

For a player who a season earlier won three ranking events including the UK and World Championship, this dip in form is alarming.

He's found no level of consistency and has looked completely flat.

Why should we hold any hope for him at the Crucible?

Because Higgins is a rare species of snooker player. While I'm not suggesting for one second that Higgins is able to just flick a switch and become a world beater, I also know he's as tough as old boots.

John has the best B-game of any player on the circuit. With the opportunity to play in the longer format matches at the World Championship, he definitely has enough about him - providing the draw is kind - to bed himself in and play his way into form.

His heroics last season taught me one important thing about Higgins.

He is at his devastating best when his back is against the wall. When he has a reason to win, critics to silence or a wrong to put right, he often produces his best.

Higgins goes to Sheffield this season in the shape of a dangerous package. No-one is tipping him to do well yet no-one will want to play him. He can play free from the expectation of others but driven on by his own hope of winning another world title.

His victory a year ago catapulted him into the highest band of world champions. It's obvious he really wants more, so he has massive motivation. Just like on his return to the sport after suspension where he set his sights on a return to number one in the world, he will crave another world title.

Higgins will be fighting for everything at the Crucible, so don't write him off.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The long road to the Crucible

The World Championship qualifiers really get down to business today with the start of the last 96 round.

For the players in action here, they're four wins away from a place at theatre of dreams. A long hard slog lies ahead of them but completing journey isn't beyond them.

Andrew Paggett came all the way through the pack last season and Zhang Anda also did it a year earlier.The qualifiers are renowned for being a rocky road and that will be no different this year.

The standard of player in every round is excellent with the mix of playing styles at both ends of the scale. Matches here are played across two sessions with 10 the target to progress. These longer matches make for compulsive viewing with the games like a story with a start, a middle and an end.

The players face a real test as they bid to qualify for the Crucible, which is a big deal for every player.

While some of the younger tour players are bidding to realise a dream to play at the sport's greatest venue for the very first time, there are also the older professionals who have been there and done it before but are desperate for more.

Stephen Hendry is the great seven-time world champion of the Crucible and has played at the game's show piece event for the last 26 seasons in succession. He'll want to keep that great record going and will view his one qualifying match of the season.

Jimmy White and Steve Davis have both played their part in a colourful story of the Crucible history. They need two wins each to return to Sheffield and get back to the special place.

Peter Ebdon needs one win to return a decade after winning his world title. Fresh from victory at the China Open, he'll be on a high and knows how to scrap through the tension.

There are plenty of plots just like these waiting to be played out. The matches are being played in Sheffield just a few miles down the road from the Crucible but getting there would be massive.

Many players will be disappointed but, for 16, there's a place at the holy grail of snooker waiting for them.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Crucible Countdown: The story last year

Can you believe it's nearly 12 months ago since John Higgins stood tall in the Crucible lifting his fourth world title?

Doesn't time fly when the year is packed to the rafters with tournaments organised by Barry Hearn.

It's been an excellent season but the cherry on top is just around the corner.

While my Crucible Countdown will mostly look back to some of the older golden moments and ahead to this year's World Championship, it's important we don't forget the tournament's recent history.

For Higgins, last year's event was one of epic proportion. His 18-15 win against Judd Trump in the final secured him a fourth World Championship and propelled him up into the bracket of legends. He edged one title ahead of Ronnie O'Sullivan and now only Ray Reardon, Steve Davis and and the-time record holder, Stephen Hendry have won more.

Higgins joined a truly illustrious and I was among those lauding praise upon him. 

The mastery of Higgins was plain but the 2012 World Championship will also be remembered by many for how Trump dazzled. His outrageous attacking prowess stole the headlines and his fearless performances saw him become the latest in a line of Crucible favourites.

The fans were salivating over how good he was. He fancied himself to pot anyone off the table. Everyone left talking about Judd. A new star was born.

In the end though, Higgins was just too strong. He proved without doubt he was the ultimate match player. He was like granite from start to finish and hauled himself to the title through sheer determination.

This win was about more than just lifting the trophy though. It was about redemption. A year earlier he was embroiled in a News of the World front-page exclusive exposing him agreeing to match-fixing. Couple this revelation with the loss of his father and, it's an under-statement to suggest the year in build-up to the tournament was difficult for John. He overcame it all to reach the top of his sport again. That was a magnificent achievement.

The plaudits for Higgins were huge. Davis went as far as describing him as the "best player in snooker history".

This was to be debated at length. But what was universally agreed was that Higgins was a worthy winner as experience told.

The final produced fireworks on the table but there was more afterwards. Trump was high off his great run  and Higgins set his sights high, challenging himself to match Hendry's seven wins.

The final was a classic; the best in many years. It even got snooker trending on Twitter with a 6.4 million audience watching the BBC's concluding coverage.

Click here and here to read how I reported the end of the World Championship 12 months ago.

But this tournament was about more than just one match. It was packed with great moments and an impressive 74 centuries gave the crowd a treat, as did these great shots...

I said back then it was one of the best tournaments in many years, and I stick by that.

Barring the final, here are my favourite matches from the World Championship 2012...

Second round: Ding Junhui 13-12 Stuart Bingham

The Chinese star struck four frames on the bounce to steal this match on a decider from 12-9 down. This was the first time Ding had ever reached the quarter-finals of the tournament and a sure sign of his growing strength in character.

Second round: Mark Selby 13-4 Stephen Hendry

This was a sad day for Hendry as fans feared he may retire but a great match nonetheless. Selby became the first player in Crucible history to make six centuries in a single match.

First round: Ronnie O'Sullivan 10-2 Dominic Dale

After a season of struggle, the Rocket found his swagger again. He turned it on to cruise to victory and made his 100th Crucible century to boot.

First round: Judd Trump 10-8 Neil Robertson

Difficult to remember a better match on the opening day at the Crucible. The Crucible Curse struck again. Defending world champion was sent home early as China Open champion Trump proved he could transfer his form onto the biggest stage.

Quarter-final: Mark Williams  13-5 Mark Allen

The Welshman looked a cut above as he strolled to his first Crucible semi-final since he won the title in 2003.

Semi-final: Judd Trump 17-15 Ding Junhui

A match of amazing quality which was watched by 30 million people in China. Trump secured his place as the second youngest Crucible finalist behind Hendry in 1990. It could have gone either way. Ding would have beaten anyone but Trump in this form. A breathtaking match.