Snooker: Chinese duel gives glimpse of the future

Ding Junhui and Liang Wenbo's World Championship tie will attract 100m viewers

Ronnie O'Sullivan claimed in January that snooker is "dying" but at least one match in the World Championship, which starts today, will pull in a global television audience that will dwarf any other sporting contest over the next fortnight. Ding Junhui, the Chinese No 1, has been drawn to play his compatriot Liang Wenbo, who reached the quarter-finals last year. Their first-round match is expected to attract more than 100m viewers in China, where the game is booming like it was in Britain, 25 years ago.

Both Ding (pictured) and Liang are adopted sons of Sheffield, where the Crucible Theatre has hosted the game's showpiece event since 1977. They practice hour after hour, day after day at the World Snooker Academy there but Ding is undergoing a crisis of confidence and may have to beat his friend to stay in the elite top 16 and avoid having to qualify next year.

There has been talk that a Chinese consortium is bidding to stage the championship but a new contract with the Crucible is likely to be signed shortly. However, snooker's long-term future lies outside the United Kingdom, where its popularity has declined. BBC viewing figures are still strong but participation levels have fallen and many snooker clubs have closed, partly as a result of the smoking ban which has eroded their status as social hubs.

There has been talk of a need for change, including O'Sullivan's impassioned plea for a "sexing up" of the game at the Masters three months ago. In this spirit, a new shorter version using six reds instead of the traditional 15 is being trialled on the BBC's interactive service during the championship but few within the sport expect this to be anything other than a sideshow.

Michaela Tabb, a mother of two from Dunfermline, will make history as the first woman to referee the world final, an appointment based on merit, which should yield positive publicity for a sport with something of an image problem. Less welcome is the fact that Stephen Maguire and Jamie Burnett have drawn each other in the first round. Their match at the same stage of last December's UK Championship in Telford is being investigated by the Gambling Commission after a heavy volume of bets were placed on Maguire to win 9-3, which he duly did.

This week, the economic crime unit of Strathclyde Police were called in to investigate and will interview both players, the referee and other figures on the circuit. Maguire and Burnett vehemently deny any wrongdoing but even the suggestion of match-fixing is damaging and an air of embarrassment hangs over their next meeting.

No world champion has successfully defended the crown since Stephen Hendry did so in 1996 and O'Sullivan, who beat Ali Carter 18-8 to land a third title last year, will have to battle his own fractious temperament as much as his rivals over the next 17 days.

He starts out today against Stuart Bingham, a regular practice partner, and is drawn in the same half as authentic challengers John Higgins and Mark Selby, although he cannot meet either until the semi-finals.

Of the veteran contingent, Hendry, now 40, has been handed perhaps the toughest of all first-round draws against Mark Williams, who he beat in the final 10 years ago to win a record seventh title. Williams, twice champion, was forced to qualify this year having slipped out of the top 16 last season.

Steve Davis, at 51 the professional circuit's oldest player, is competing at the Crucible for a 29th time having first played there in 1979. His first opponent is Neil Robertson, a talented Australian who comes into the tournament nursing a shoulder injury.

Worth cueing up to watch...

*Ronnie O'Sullivan (No 1 seed, right)

Snooker's dark knight has at times been an unstoppable force but at other times the agent of his own demise. He has won just one of this season's preceding seven ranking titles and does not believe he is playing as well as he was last year. However, if he hits top form he may be unbeatable.

Odds: 9/4

*Stephen Maguire (No 2)

Maguire is an attacking player aiming to emulate his fellow Scots Stephen Hendry, John Higgins and Graeme Dott by triumphing at the Crucible. He has the game to win but often allows frustration to get the better of him and will have to guard against this at a venue where anything and everything can go wrong.

Odds: 8/1

*Mark Selby (No 4)

Selby, 25, has matured into a first-rate match-player, mixing an attacking approach with the ability to close the shop and employ tactical play to great effect. He has not won a title this season and was a first-round loser at the Crucible last year but impressed in reaching the final in 2007.

Odds: 7/1

*Ali Carter (No 7)

Carter made a maximum en route to the final last year and has since enjoyed his best season, winning his first ranking title, the Welsh Open, and reaching three other semi-finals. Fiercely determined, he now has the silverware to back up the self-confidence and comes to Sheffield as the current campaign's form player.

Odds: 12/1

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot