Crucible Diary 2011: Day Nine + Ten Blog

It’s quarter-final day at the Crucible and time for me to have a much-needed rest day as the four last eight matches get underway. I will be back in town tomorrow as the matches come to a conclusion but in the meantime check below for my round-up of the last two days…

Day Nine

On Sunday I headed over to the Crucible for the opening session of the match between Rory McLeod and John Higgins, though having had a late night previously I was never going to be in a position to make it for the start.

As I checked the live scores upon parking the car however I was slightly taken aback to see Rory 2-0 up against the tournament favourite while over on table one Stuart Bingham was 3-0 up against the higher-ranked Ding Junhui.

John though did manage to make it 2-1 following which I was able to make it into the arena and as it would transpire, despite missing an hour and a half, I would certainly get value for money from the second part of the session. Neither player was able to find any sort of rhythm and both were unexpectedly missing easy balls when in, meaning that almost all of the frames were coming down to the final balls.

As I am sure will not have escaped your attention, Rory has come under fire from some quarters this week for his style of play and fairly or not it was to prove another slow session during which only seven of the scheduled eight frames could be completed. Despite not being close to his best though it was John who put a run together to finish 5-2 ahead.

The big screen on which the matches are televised outside of the Crucible

Over on the other table meanwhile Ding Junhui was able to close the gap but nevertheless it was Stuart who managed to emerge with a 5-3 lead heading into the evening’s second session.

Without a ticket for the afternoon session I decided to hang around the venue, taking in the second session between Shaun Murphy and Ronnie O’Sullivan outside on the big screen while Mark Selby set about winning his match with Stephen Hendry with a session to spare.

While he could not quite manage that, by all accounts it was to be an absolute masterclass from Mark as he set a new record for the amount of centuries scored in one match (six), and rounded the afternoon off by taking the final frame having needed four snookers! I spoke to a few people who had been in the arena and have been here at the Crucible for many more years than I have and all said that it was one of the best sessions that they had ever seen. Crucible statman Chris Downer described Mark’s performance as ‘beautiful’ which is a word not often associated with the snooker.

Back in for the evening session between Stuart Bingham and Ding Junhui, it was always going to be fascinating to see how it unfolded and with Stuart looking edgy early on it was the man from China who managed to take the opener to close to 5-4. From there however he struggled to take his chances, missing when in the balls during each of the following frames which not only hurt his own confidence but visibly helped Stuart to settle as he moved 8-4 clear at the break.

Duncan the cameraman celebrates his birthday with an interview by Rob Walker

As they resumed it was Ding who then finally began to show some form in this match, breaks of 93 and 75 reducing the deficit to two frames before a break of 61 put him strong favourite for the next also. Importantly however, Stuart was able to make a terrific break of 72 to ensure an overnight lead before Ding kept himself close at 9-7 with a final 91.

For me this left the match perfectly poised for Monday’s final session as from 8-4 Ding would have been pleased to get out no worse than he had started the session but having missed several opportunities could have been forgiven for being unhappy with his game. Similarly for Stuart he would have been pleased to have gone into the final session with a lead but at the same time knowing that it could have been more.

The other talking point from the session for me was that following the mid-session interval Ding’s Chinese fans out in the arena were to really find their voices. Indeed with several holding banners and a couple of Chinese flags being draped over the balcony it created a unique atmosphere at the Crucible and I wondered whether it was something that distracted Stuart in any way or whether it inspired Ding to make his comeback.

Stuart Bingham

Over on table two despite the decision from World Snooker to see John Higgins and Rory McLeod play just the eight scheduled frames, rather than add the additional ninth not completed from the morning session, there was still some mileage in it yet as Rory took three of the first four frames to reduce the gap to just one frame at the mid-session interval.

Following that however came probably the decisive period of the match as John won the next four to lead 10-5 overnight, although I must confess I had already left to the infamous Graduate with the great and the good of the snooker world during which I had a good chat with referee Colin Humphries amongst others.

Day Ten

Probably the most surreal day of the 2011 Crucible experience so far, Easter Monday was dominated by talk of whether or not Stephen Hendry would announce his retirement following his surely inevitable defeat to Mark Selby, coming into the session trailing 12-4 and being on the brink of losing his top 16 place with an evening win for Stuart Bingham.

Fittingly he was given a great reception into the arena for what may well prove to be his last appearance at the Crucible, but his time out there was to prove short-lived as Selby wasted little time finishing him off and securing his place in the quarter-finals for a third successive year.

Mark Selby and Stephen Hendry chat pre-match

As Rory took the opening frame of the morning over on table two which I was in the arena for, I made for the exits as I was keen to hear what Stephen Hendry had to say in his post-match press conference. As the soundbites began to come through on Twitter it was clear that he had decided not to rush into anything, instead stating that he would think about it over the summer and that he is not currently enjoying playing whilst not having the belief that he can win titles which for him is not what the game is about.

  • You can watch Stephen’s press conference here.

As the interval beckoned between John and Rory, I had another chat with the nice guy that is Judd Trump’s father Steve at the front of the Crucible before getting in for the climax of that match. The final frame effectively summed up the match as both continued to miss easy balls but for Rory he was to miss one too many and a relieved Higgins eventually managed to put the match to bed 12-7.

With the session completed by around 3:15pm following the earlier 1pm start there was then a lot of time to kill ahead of the evening session and I wandered around the venue for a bit, saying hello to Alfie Burden who has been back up for a few days while also watching Higgins attempt to play Street Snooker in his full match attire which was a surprisingly entertaining sight. Following that he headed into the Cue Zone to record an interview with the BBC team (during which I carefully ducked out of the way in the background), before being predictably mobbed by the onlooking spectators.

Watch Higgins try Street Snooker here!

Walking round the back of the Winter Gardens I also happened to bump into the elusive Neal Foulds who I had an enjoyable chat with before discussing what promised to be an enthralling evening session with a few of the fans around the venue.

Could Stuart hang on or would Ding prove his class? With Hendry out of the tournament Stuart now knew that a place inside the top 16 awaited him should he come through while ding had the monkey on his back of not having made it through to a Crucible quarter-final previously and people saying that he could not play here. Over on table two meanwhile could Ronnie re-discover his long game and would Shaun be able to kill off a few more frames in one-visit?

In for the Ding/Bingham game, it was Ding who took the opener and looked good to add a second before taking on what I thought was a very ambitious shot when on a break of 57, hampered by a red of the side-cushion and missing it by some distance to let Stuart in for 10-8. Personally I thought that he would have been better putting a colour safe but it is easy for me to say that and in fairness the consensus at the venue is that it was worth taking on. Regardless, Stuart from there was to produce some fabulous snooker, a tremendous 101 putting him 11-8 up before Ding added 88 to remain two behind at the interval.

My view prior to the match was that if Stuart could keep his nose in front then he had every chance but should Ding be able to level the match then I would fancy him to assert himself and show what he could do. When Stuart made it 12-9 with an excellent break of 134 it looked very much like the former would happen.

John in the studio

Ding is a player who has often been criticised for his inability to handle adversity, to battle and pertinently to play at the Crucible so his response at this stage was excellent, breaks of 92 and 114 putting him one behind at 12-11 before he looked set to force a decider with a break of 58 in frame 24. Stuart though did earn an opportunity and although he needed high value colours from a series of reds which were either in baulk or close to side-cushions, he made a great attempt to clear before eventually snookering himself on the final yellow. Attempting to escape via two cushions he unfortunately went around the back of it and following a a brief attempt to win back snookers lost it to the delight of the Chinese fans in the audience.

With the match concluded on the other side of the curtain the curtain was raised and the stage set for what would prove a predictably tense decider. The first two half-chances fell to Ding but missing them both comfortably the thought crossed my mind as to whether the occasion at the Crucible might be too much for him as it arguably has been in the past. The first chance therefore came to Stuart although with the colours not ideally placed it was always going to be a tough ask to clear and a poor positional shot on 30 proved to be end of break.

Taking the pressure and the situation of the balls into account, Ding’s response was to be excellent, a break of 55 putting him in pole position but as Stuart subsequently played a brilliant snooker, the match again hung in the balance. Ding’s first attempt was not only to miss but with a red close to the green pocket it looked as though Stuart would have a shot at it. Cruelly however he would finish hampered by the blue and then Ding’s second attempt hit at pace somehow managed to leave the balls safe.

Hazel records a piece of VT

From there you just got the feeling that perhaps it wasn’t going to be Stuart’s day and as he punched the table following a safety error a few shots later the writing was on the wall as Ding ended his top 16 hopes and moved into his first Crucible quarter-final.

Again the atmosphere was to be absolutely incredible, indeed on both sides of the curtain but particularly this one as at least half of the crowd must have been from China as they packed in to support their number one player. As was the case the previous night it created a really different atmosphere and the standing ovation at the end must have been a really special feeling for Ding has he finally proved that he can play here and come through under pressure.

I have to say though I was gutted for Stuart who finishes now in 17th place in the rankings and must be wondering what he has to do in order to reach a quarter-final here. I am sure that he will make it into the top 16 at some stage next season however and hopefully he will be able to get over this and not have it affect him next season.

Over on table two meanwhile judging by the oohs and aahs coming from the crowd it sounded like a dramatic match but eventually it was Ronnie O’Sullivan who managed to end the run of Shaun Murphy and come through 13-10 to secure a place in the quarter-finals for the seventh time in eight years.

“Enter the Dragon”

Having not seen the match it is hard for me to comment but judging by the quotes from the respective players in their post-match press conferences, neither was particularly happy with how they played.

A word for Shaun though who as some of you will be aware if you follow us on Twitter, I have been having a bit of banter with recently as I tipped him to win the tournament this year, much to his horror given my David Hendon-esque track record of predictions. Last night shortly after his loss Shaun messaged me to say:

“sorry Matt, the curse lives on!!!”

Which certainly raised a smile and I thought was good of him given the disappointment that he must have been feeling at the time. Hats off.

Following the on-table action the regulars descended upon The Graduate, referees, players and fans for some quarter-final discussion and I have to say it’s a really good atmosphere there on tournament evenings as you get a good mix of characters and the action on the pool table is almost as dramatic as that across the road. Almost.

Anyway I am back at the Crucible tomorrow and for the first time will hopefully be in the media room which will be a fantastic experience and hopefully will enable me to bring you some insight from backstage as well as from the usual fan perspective.