What can we expect on snooker's big return? 'No fans, no fanfare, but large dollops of drama'

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Snooker returns with the Championship League.

Image credit: Eurosport

ByDesmond Kane
01/06/2020 at 06:47 | Updated 01/06/2020 at 09:00

Snooker is one of the first sports to return after the UK's coronavirus lockdown as the Championship League event breaks off today at Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes. Here are five things to look out for.

1. Surreal atmosphere

No fans, no fanfare, but large dollops of drama. In the new normal of world sport, you will have to make up your own mind on what constitutes a thrilling shot rather than wait for the applause of the crowd to confirm it or a prompt from pundits in the commentary box. That should not detract from the viewing spectacle as snooker in its most modern guise since the 1970s is a sport made for television largely because it is cost effective to cover.

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Arguably, in such times, it is one of the few sports that can be undertaken with as much certainty as possible given its requirement for little human presence and suitability to social distancing. In theory, all you need is a table, two players, a referee and a couple of cameramen. And that is exactly what you will witness in Milton Keynes.

“It’s better to be played behind closed doors than nothing because people will be craving and missing live sport and they deserve it," says world number two Neil Robertson.

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2. Big breaks

Viewers might be shocked to see matches with no fans, but the players have been used to it for years. The Championship League has been on the go since February 2008. It has traditionally been played out of Crondon Park in Essex with just a table, scoreboard and a couple of massive leather chairs for players to luxuriate in between visits.

This brave new world is snooker in its rawest form devised for players going back to basics. It is matchplay without any outside interference or disruption from noise. Ronnie O'Sullivan describes it as "pure snooker" because it sharpens the mind and strategy. All in all, a lack of fans should not detract from the standard of fare on offer. Expect to witness some heavy contributions.

When world champion Judd Trump, a Championship League winner three times, edged out Kyren Wilson 4-3 behind closed doors in the Gibraltar Open final in March, the sport's last event before lockdown, an astonishing four centuries and two 50 plus breaks were made in only seven frames.

Trump, Robertson, O'Sullivan and Mark Selby, with 10 world titles between them, are arguably the main protagonists in the narrative, but there are plenty of other willing combatants on offer. David Gilbert made the 147th 147 in history at the Championship League last year in an event that has produced nine in total. Ali Carter pinpointed the tournament as one of the key reasons behind his run to the World Championship final in 2008 in making 11 centuries. “It was massive. I can’t tell you just how important. I came here feeling better prepared and more confident than ever before,” he said.

There might not have been competitive action for several months, but do not expect too much ring rustiness. It will not take long for the boys to know their way around the baize again.

3. Shock results

The Championship League was staged in March this year, and wound up with unheralded Scotsman Scott Donaldson carrying off the top prize courtesy of a 3-0 final win over Graeme Dott at the Morningside Arena in Leicester after a 3-1 victory over Trump in the semi-finals. With all group matches being contested over only four frames, there is room for plenty of surprise outcomes. It could be argued that such a short format is not so much about pedigree as pot luck, but it should make for quickfire, compelling viewing.

Plus the league format allows for drawn matches which is another interesting experience for those more familiar with the traditional set-up of snooker tournaments. Aware of a larger viewing audience, expect a more serious take on what is usually a less intense competition due to the format. Especially on the cusp of the delayed World Championship.

From a prize fund of £218,000, the winner trousers £30,000 and a place in the elite Champion of Champions which is due to staged at the same venue in Milton Keynes in November. More importantly, it gets the sport moving slowly out of enforced hibernation.

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4. A glimpse at the immediate future

Assuming all goes well at this event, this is the sort of atmosphere you can expect to see if the World Championship goes ahead at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield with the 44th staging of the game's blue-chip event due to start on Friday 31 July and run until Sunday 16 August. There is little or no chance of fans being allowed inside a venue due to the public health crisis, but professional sport will have to be innovative in the short to medium term. Snooker is no different.

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This is a dry run to see whether or not the procedures put in place will stand up to inspection. Testing, social distancing measures, players seated at least two metres apart, players using anti-bacterial hand sanitiser before matches, referees keeping two metres away from players and no outside guests allowed. First aid will be on hand. It is a new normal as snooker attempts to see the light from its darkened environs.

As we have seen in professional football, the problem may come with any positive outcomes for coronavirus among officials and broadcast crew as much as players, but that is an issue that will have to be monitored closely with testing and access to Marshall Arena apparently tighter than the Pentagon rather than the Crucible.

5. Fresh interest

Snooker has always attracted a vast audience of viewers even when the sport was in the doldrums a decade ago, but should receive a timely boost with little or no professional sport taking place elsewhere. When England won the Ashes in 2005 and cricket was broadcast by terrestrial television on Channel 4, eight sessions of snooker over the year attracted a larger audience than the peak viewing figures at any point during that Ashes series. It remains one of Britain’s most watched sports.

The thought of some live action and a captive audience forced to buckle down indoors should provide the game with fresh interest from the public and potential sponsors and perhaps a new following. Snooker in the UK summer is a new concept, but rather than days when you expect to see Euro 2020, Test cricket, Wimbledon and the Olympics, instead you get figures like Stuart 'Ballrun' Bingham and Robert 'The Milkman' Milkins with your strawberries and cream. It is a novel concept, but could alter the perception of the sport as one that can be digested all year round. The public should be startled and amazed by what these men can do with a load of balls and a snooker cue.

Desmond Kane

Championship League full draw and details

Monday June 1

(all matches start at 3pm BST unless stated)

Table One Group 2

  • Match 1 Judd Trump v David Grace
  • Match 2 Daniel Wells v Elliot Slessor
  • Match 3 Daniel Wells v David Grace
  • Match 4 Judd Trump v Elliot Slessor
  • Match 5 Elliot Slessor v David Grace
  • Match 6 Judd Trump v Daniel Wells

Table Two Group 13

  • Match 1 Stuart Carrington v Jak Jones
  • Match 2 David Gilbert v Jackson Page
  • Match 3 David Gilbert v Jak Jones
  • Match 4 Stuart Carrington v Jackson Page
  • Match 5 David Gilbert v Stuart Carrington
  • Match 6 Jak Jones v Jackson Page

Tuesday June 2

Table One Group 9

  • Match 1 Jack Lisowski v Oliver Lines
  • Match 2 Luca Brecel v Robbie Williams
  • Match 3 Luca Brecel v Oliver Lines
  • Match 4 Jack Lisowski v Robbie Williams
  • Match 5 Robbie Williams v Oliver Lines
  • Match 6 Jack Lisowski v Luca Brecel

Table Two Group 3

  • Match 1 Mark Davis v Mark Joyce
  • Match 2 Michael Holt v Louis Heathcote
  • Match 3 Michael Holt v Mark Joyce
  • Match 4 Mark Davis v Louis Heathcote
  • Match 5 Michael Holt v Mark Davis
  • Match 6 Mark Joyce v Louis Heathcote

Wednesday June 3

Table One Group 12

  • Match 1 Kyren Wilson v Chen Feilong
  • Match 2 Ryan Day v Alfie Burden
  • Match 3 Ryan Day v Chen Feilong
  • Match 4 Kyren Wilson v Alfie Burden
  • Match 5 Alfie Burden v Chen Feilong
  • Match 6 Kyren Wilson v Ryan Day

Table Two Group 4

  • Match 1 Mark King v Sam Baird
  • Match 2 Joe Perry v Harvey Chandler
  • Match 3 Joe Perry v Sam Baird
  • Match 4 Mark King v Harvey Chandler
  • Match 5 Joe Perry v Mark King
  • Match 6 Sam Baird v Harvey Chandler

Thursday June 4

Table One Group 5

  • Match 1 Mark Selby v Lee Walker
  • Match 2 Liang Wenbo v Joe O’Connor
  • Match 3 Liang Wenbo v Lee Walker
  • Match 4 Mark Selby v Joe O’Connor
  • Match 5 Joe O’Connor v Lee Walker
  • Match 6 Mark Selby v Liang Wenbo

Table Two Group 14

  • Match 1 Matthew Stevens v John Astley
  • Match 2 Gary Wilson v Mitchell Mann
  • Match 3 Gary Wilson v John Astley
  • Match 4 Matthew Stevens v Mitchell Mann
  • Match 5 Gary Wilson v Matthew Stevens
  • Match 6 John Astley v Mitchell Mann

Friday June 5th

(4pm start)

Table One Group 10

  • Match 1 Ronnie O’Sullivan v Kishan Hirani
  • Match 2 Chris Wakelin v Michael Georgiou
  • Match 3 Chris Wakelin v Kishan Hirani
  • Match 4 Ronnie O’Sullivan v Michael Georgiou
  • Match 5 Michael Georgiou v Kishan Hirani
  • Match 6 Ronnie O’Sullivan v Chris Wakelin

Table Two Group 15

  • Match 1 Robert Milkins v Mike Dunn
  • Match 2 Tom Ford v Ian Burns
  • Match 3 Tom Ford v Mike Dunn
  • Match 4 Robert Milkins v Ian Burns
  • Match 5 Tom Ford v Robert Milkins
  • Match 6 Mike Dunn v Ian Burns

Saturday June 6

Table One Group 1

  • Match 1 Stuart Bingham v Jamie Clarke
  • Match 2 Ricky Walden v Jordon Brown
  • Match 3 Ricky Walden v Jamie Clarke
  • Match 4 Stuart Bingham v Jordon Brown
  • Match 5 Jordon Brown v Jamie Clarke
  • Match 6 Stuart Bingham v Ricky Walden

Table Two Group 8

  • Match 1 Ben Woollaston v Liam Highfield
  • Match 2 Jimmy Robertson v Thor Chuan Leong
  • Match 3 Jimmy Robertson v Liam Highfield
  • Match 4 Ben Woollaston v Thor Chuan Leong
  • Match 5 Jimmy Robertson v Ben Woollaston
  • Match 6 Liam Highfield v Thor Chuan Leong

Sunday June 7

Table One Group 16

  • Match 1 Neil Robertson v Ashley Carty
  • Match 2 Kurt Maflin v Ken Doherty
  • Match 3 Kurt Maflin v Ashley Carty
  • Match 4 Neil Robertson v Ken Doherty
  • Match 5 Ken Doherty v Ashley Carty
  • Match 6 Neil Robertson v Kurt Maflin

Table Two Group 7

  • Match 1 Anthony McGill v Craig Steadman
  • Match 2 Barry Hawkins v Hammad Miah
  • Match 3 Barry Hawkins v Craig Steadman
  • Match 4 Anthony McGill v Hammad Miah
  • Match 5 Barry Hawkins v Anthony McGill
  • Match 6 Craig Steadman v Hammad Miah

Monday June 8

Table One Group 11

  • Match 1 Mark Allen v Nigel Bond
  • Match 2 Martin O’Donnell v Michael White
  • Match 3 Martin O’Donnell v Nigel Bond
  • Match 4 Mark Allen v Michael White
  • Match 5 Michael White v Nigel Bond
  • Match 6 Mark Allen v Martin O’Donnell

Table Two Group 6

  • Match 1 Matt Selt v Sam Craigie
  • Match 2 Ali Carter v Dominic Dale
  • Match 3 Ali Carter v Sam Craigie
  • Match 4 Matt Selt v Dominic Dale
  • Match 5 Ali Carter v Matt Selt
  • Match 6 Sam Craigie v Dominic Dale

Group Winners’ Stage

Tuesday June 9

Group C

  • Winner of Group 10
  • Winner of Group 6
  • Winner of Group 1
  • Winner of Group 4

Group D

  • Winner of Group 15
  • Winner of Group 11
  • Winner of Group 8
  • Winner of Group 5

Wednesday June 10

Group B

  • Winner of Group 12
  • Winner of Group 2
  • Winner of Group 7
  • Winner of Group 13

Group A

  • Winner of Group 14
  • Winner of Group 3
  • Winner of Group 9
  • Winner of Group 16

Tournament finals

Thursday June 11

  • Winner of Group C
  • Winner of Group D
  • Winner of Group B
  • Winner of Group A
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