Richard Hercock: Crucible's leading men fail to deliver on big stage

Anthony McGill during his defeat to Marco Fu.Anthony McGill during his defeat to Marco Fu.
Anthony McGill during his defeat to Marco Fu.
The Crucible in Sheffield is no stranger to drama but killing off your leading men in the opening scene is something odd even for this famous old theatre.

World champion Stuart Bingham exited stage left on the opening day of the Betfred World Championship, and was quickly followed by supporting cast members Shaun Murphy and Neil Robertson.

Three of the top four seeds gone and they would be joined by fellow top 16 players Joe Perry, Martin Gould, Michael White and Stephen Maguire who fell at the first hurdle in the opening week.

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Arguments rattle around the Crucible regulars as to why seven out of the top 16 players have been written out so early.

Many believe it’s down to a qualifying system which means anyone not in the top 16 has to go through three rounds of matches just to reach the Crucible.

World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn calls it a “brutally open system”, as players like Ding Junhui and Ali Carter battled it out with part-timers at the nearby Ponds Forge sports centre.

The qualifiers – match-hardened after a week of hard graft – had definitely not read the script.

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That’s music to the ears of Hearn, who wanted to shatter the image of a closed-shop for the game’s top stars.

He wants to create a culture where young, ambitious players, hungry for success, have a path to success.

“We are aware of our responsibilities to all professional snooker players to give them the opportunity to show their talent,” said Hearn.

“It is not and never will be a sponsored boy’s club.

“It’s tough and we have seen in this tournament already how tough the competition is so far.

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“Players coming from the qualifying rounds have emerged through a brutal test and I find it fascinating to listen to the arguments of both sides as to the fairness of that.

“It is a brutally open system where the best shall survive.”

Hearn’s determination to grow the sport continues, and he has plans for 18 ranking tournaments for next year, and 20 the season after.

And with prize money levels reaching £10m for next season, the financial incentives are there too.

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“We will have 18 ranking events and that is scheduled to grow to a minimum of 20,” he said.

“And for the first time in the history of snooker we will hit our prize money target of £10m, which again over the next few years is set to grow dramatically.

“The opportunities for sports people at the top end are growing.

“We are obviously a sport that has led from the front. The winners’ rewards are growing dramatically because that is how sport is working.”

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Kyren Wilson became the last qualifier to scrape through on Thursday evening, when he edged out Perry 10-9 in a thrilling contest.

The 24-year-old from Kettering – who won the Shanghai Masters for his first ranking tournament trophy this year – has an exciting style of play, and already has a big fan in five-time world champion Ronnie O’Sullivan.

He tweeted: “Keiren Wilson is going to be the best player in the world one day.”

Wilson now faces Mark Allen on Sunday with a quarter-final spot up for grabs.

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Wilson said: “I want to make memories at the Crucible and you’re only going to do that by winning matches. To tick the first one off the list is absolutely fantastic and it’s certainly just behind Shanghai.

“I come to tournaments now believing I can win, but you can’t get too far ahead of yourself.

“I’m trying not to get too far ahead of myself but it’d be the icing on the cake to lift the world title.”

Last year’s champion, Bingham, is one of the victims of the new system.

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The 39-year-old came out of the chasing pack to stun the sporting world 12 months ago when he beat Shaun Murphy in the final.

But he was pipped at the first hurdle by qualifier Carter last weekend.

Former finalist Carter was back in action on Friday against another qualifier, Alan McManus, in their second-round meeting. The Essex cueman leads 9-7, returns Saturday morning for the completion of their best-of-25 frames contest.

Also back Saturday is qualifier Sam Baird, who finished with a break of 85 to peg back World No 1 Mark Selby at 4-4.

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But it was a match too far for qualifier Anthony McGill who could not prevent Marco Fu – the 14th seed – becoming the first player to secure a quarter-final berth with a 13-9 win.

McGill, who had knocked out 2005 world champion Murphy in the first round and reached the quarter-finals last year, began Friday evening trailing 9-7. But an impressive 97 break cut the deficit to one and he looked set to level the match, only to snooker himself behind the pink with just a solitary red left on the table.

It was an error which proved costly, as Fu reeled off the four frames for victory. It is only the third time in 16 Crucible visits that the Hong Kong cueman has reached the quarter-final stage.

Former champion Mark Williams leads Michael Holt 10-6.