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.
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.
Trump raises the Gibraltar Open trophy to an imaginary crowd
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.
Best of The Rocket: Some recent O'Sullivan magic
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.