'Flagbearer' Ding bids to deliver Asia historic title

Pirate IRWIN
Chinese cueman Ding Junhui could become Asia's first world snooker champion at the Crucible in Sheffield, Britain

Chinese cueman Ding Junhui may not have had a great season but the whole of China and many neutral observers will be willing him to go one better than last year and become Asia's first world champion.

The 30-year-old, who lost to Mark Selby in the 2016 final, begins his campaign against compatriot 19-year-old Zhou Yuelong on Monday with the championship itself getting going on Saturday in what is the 40th year of the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield hosting the sport's showpiece.

"Ding has been one of the fundamental reasons why snooker has got so big," Barry Hearn, chairman of world snooker, told the BBC.

"He has been the flagbearer of Chinese snooker for the past 10 to 12 years.

"He's inspired hundreds of thousands of Chinese snooker players and brought the game into the living rooms of the entire population."

Ding, who has the one ranking tournament win to his credit this season, the Shanghai Masters, and reached the final of the International Championship, has proved an inspiration to many young Chinese.

Not least 17-year-old Yan Bingtao, who made his way through qualifying to set up a meeting with 2005 world champion Shaun Murphy.

"I picked up the cue all because of watching him," said Yan.

"He is like an elder brother to all of us. We worship him," added Yan, who will be the first player to contest the championships having been born this century.

Five-time champion Ronnie O'Sullivan, whose last world title came in 2013 when he successfully defended his crown, begins against Gary Wilson, who is one of five debutants.

The question as on so many occasions is which O'Sullivan will turn up.

The 41-year-old has of late been giving one word answers at press conferences and even started singing Oasis hit 'Wonderwall' in response to a BBC journalist's question.

O'Sullivan, who beat Joe Perry to take a record seventh Masters title this season after losing to Selby in the UK Championship final, is nevertheless a dream draw for 31-year-old journeyman Wilson.

"I like this kind of venue, I think of it like a working men's club that I am used to playing at up in the north-east," said Wilson.

"A two-table set-up and old guys sitting round in chairs! It is a dream to be playing at the Crucible for the first time."

Selby, who has proven to be something of a nemesis for O'Sullivan beating him in the 2010 Masters final and depriving him of a world title 'threepeat' in 2014, will meet Irish veteran Fergal O'Brien.

Selby, whose patient play once earned him the derogatory nickname 'The Torturer' from O'Sullivan, will be up against a man who has made the record books with the longest frame in professional snooker history which earned him his date with the two-time champion.

He needed two hours, three minutes and 41 seconds -- 44 seconds longer than Kenyan athlete Dennis Kipruto's marathon world record -- to win a decider against David Gilbert but the 45-year-old offered an olive branch to those fans awaiting their clash on Saturday.

"In future would I like to play like that again? Absolutely not."