The Crucible – No Place Like It

While two of this year’s six Crucible débutantes were able to make it through to the last 16 stage at this year’s World Championship, the fact remains that since the turn of the century, just ten first-timers have been able to win their opening matches here.

But why is that? Click below for more, together with quotes from a few of those débutantes this week…

I noticed a comment on another snooker blog a few days ago asking why the surroundings are so different, with the venue being fundamentally the same as any other. Indeed, just as at the Barbican Centre or the Alexandra Palace, there is a snooker table, surrounded by spectators with two players and a referee, but that is where the similarities end.

Watching the tournament from in front of the television, you will have no doubt have heard all of the usual clichés, how the crowd here at the Crucible are almost on top of the action, how those on the front row could just reach out and touch the players if they wanted to and also how little room the cameramen have to work in, particularly at the two-table stage of this competition.

Unless you have actually visited the Sheffield venue for a session of World Championship snooker though, it is impossible to appreciate just how true all of those statements are, even as a spectator, let alone as a player, walking down those famous steps to compete here for the first time.

The first thing that most people will note upon entering the arena for the first time is just how small it is. Certainly as I visited the venue for the first time back in 2005 for the opening day match between Ronnie O’Sullivan and Stephen Maguire, that was my first impression, not just in terms of the audience, but also the playing area in the arena which could hardly be tighter.

It is hard to convey just how close those at the very front are to the action, indeed there is no other venue that comes close in that regard and it must be something that takes newcomers to the venue a long time to adjust to, particularly coming from the qualifying booths.

Take Sam Baird, the man who was arguably the start of qualifying a couple of weeks ago as he hit a career-high break of 142 on his way to a 10-4 demolition of former semi-finalist Joe Perry in the final qualifying round for this tournament.

Two weeks on at the Crucible however and it was a very different story, as he found himself on the wrong end of a 10-2 reverse at the hands of Stuart Bingham.

As Sam Baird told the BBC’s Jamie Broughton following his match:

“It’s not like any other place to play in. The atmosphere is a lot better, much different. The people are very close to you, not much room around the table. It’s unlike anything else really.”

Another man fancied to make a run this week was China Open quarter-finalist Jack Lisowski, who produced an excellent performance to defeat the experienced Fergal O’Brien at the EIS, only to find the going tougher against Barry Hawkins at the venue.

Like Sam, Jack spoke of the proximity of the crowd, as well as the need for him to improve his concentration when he returns to the venue in the future:

“I learned what the venue is like, that the crowd is really close, that your concentration has got to be 100% to compete. I just need to improve my concentration.”

“I was nervous for the first frame yesterday and then I felt quite relaxed. But the whole match it wasn’t really nerves, I just couldn’t get my concentration.”

“You’re sat down in your chair and you can see the next game. There is someone sat right next to you, your opponent is there and then the people in the crowd are right there so it is completely different to anything else. When you are on your shot you can see people who are all over your line of shot because they are so close to the table so you have to just concentrate on the actual shot, but I couldn’t get it going.”

The need to maintain concentration was something picked up upon by Leicester’s Ben Woollaston, who lost out to twice former finalist Ali Carter earlier in the week:

“Every time you miss, somebody makes a noise and I was thinking that on the shot, I was thinking when I miss they are about to make that noise!”

“It’s great out there, it’s just difficult to keep your concentration. It’s a different experience.”

It is hard to explain but the whispers, the tutting and the murmurs as a player misses a shot are all far more pronounced here than at any other venue and anyone who has played at the Crucible will know exactly what Ben is referring to and just how difficult it is to come through once that is inside their head.

As well as the setting though, there is of course the history factor of the Crucible Arena. This is where all of the greats have lifted that famous trophy and there is barely a player on the tour who did not grow up watching the worlds best playing under those famous twinkle lights and this is something that was picked up on by Matt Selt, who this week admitted that he it took him four frames to settle down on snooker’s biggest stage:

“I felt pretty comfortable out there by the end. I know obviously I got beat 10-4 and the scoreline doesn’t show that. I was 4-0 down and I didn’t really know what I was doing out there to begin with.”

“This is the place where everyone has played, this is the home of snooker. I went out there a couple of times before to try and get used to it and I thought that I would settle alright, but when you are out there in the arena, everyone is there, it is a lot different. You are basically sitting next to somebody in the crowd and it’s something that I have never experienced before, I’m glad that I have experienced it and I am going to look forward to doing it again.”

“Obviously I got bashed up there 10-4 but for me that was the most enjoyable game of snooker I have ever played in my entire life. I really enjoyed being out there.”

While other venues might be bigger, might be more spacious and might be more lucrative for World Snooker then, the Crucible remains a unique setting for snooker and the place where all players aspire to play at some stage in their careers.

It is fair to say that with the increased playing opportunities afforded by the PTC tournaments, the strength in depth further down the rankings is bigger than it has ever been. Despite that however, the Crucible Theatre remains a special challenge and one that remains as intimidating as ever for those coming to the event for the very first time.