WITH world champion and world No1 Mark Selby and defending champion and China darling Ding Junhui absent in Chengdu, the promoters offered up a not so silent prayer when Ronnie O’Sullivan emerged unscathed from his first-round match at the International Championship.

When the 128 format was introduced at the behest of supremo Barry Hearn, the very democratic rationale behind it was to remove protection, give lower-ranked players more of a crack at the big guns, and pave the way for shocks, stories and new heroes.

The top players, it was argued, should be able to beat a player seeded another seeded 65 or lower in a qualifier if they were worth their salt and earn their place on the biggest stages by right rather than be parachuted in.

Make no mistake, Chengdu is now one of the biggest stages, with a £125,000 first prize conferring on it a status almost equivalent to the UK Championship barring the history and tradition surrounding the York-based tournament. The ‘fourth Major’ has been an excellent addition to the calendar.

But it has fallen victim this year to a scenario which made Australia and Shanghai resist the 128 plan in their negotiations, namely seeing two huge draws fall at the first hurdle and not even make it to the party. Commercial considerations and democracy do not always make comfortable bedfellows.

It goes without saying how Ding dominates the landscape in China. Even on Sunday there were questions about him to other players in press conferences, and he isn’t even here. Ronnie O’Sullivan, after his much-needed 6-4 victory over Ben Woollaston, was perhaps unreasonably asked if he could take on the burden of selling all the tickets with Ding missing.

This actually produced one of the more interesting answers of the day, with O’Sullivan clearly feeling that the occasion was lacking something at the last-64 stage without his Crucible conqueror Selby and Chinese pack leader Ding.

He said: “The Chinese love their snooker, if Ding was here it would be much better – even though there is lots of other talent coming through here.

“But he lost his qualifier. It probably isn’t wise not to have the defending champion and world champion here, but that’s not for me.

“You should be asking World Snooker that question, why they are not here. It’s just unfortunate for the tournament.”

It is unfortunate for the event, of that there can be no doubt. Selby is also extremely popular in China, up there with O’Sullivan and Judd Trump behind Ding in fans’ affections. And the spectators in Chengdu have not had the chance to hail the champion of the world.

In terms of whether the 128 has delivered on more stories, shocks and heroes, the jury has to be out. The biggest events for which it is used are the International and the UK, and in those tournaments Mitchell Travis stands out as someone that captured the imagination with his shock win over Marco Fu in York last year as an amateur, that being helped by an engaging personality and back story. But there have perhaps not been as many of those as was hoped.

Sunday was also notable for another disappointment for John Higgins, who looked distinctly out of sorts against Li Hang and went down 6-1, losing the last five frames in an error-strewn display.

Four-time world champion Higgins’ slump in form, which really stretches back the best part of 18 months now, baffles those who regard him as one of the all-time greats. But as happened with Stephen Hendry in the later part of his career the errors are coming regularly for a class act, and opponents are punishing him.

Higgins is only 39, so there is plenty of snooker left in him yet, but factors such as enjoyment, concentration and maybe even hunger and desire look to be the key for the world No12.


Photograph by Monique Limbos