Sport

Odds and Ends: Mark Selby can be the main actor again at the Crucible Theatre

Four-time World champion Mark Selby can make it five titles at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield over the next few weeks
Four-time World champion Mark Selby can make it five titles at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield over the next few weeks Four-time World champion Mark Selby can make it five titles at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield over the next few weeks

A turbulent snooker season will come to a climax on May 1 when the World champion is crowned at the famous Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.

And the game’s authorities will be glad to see the focus being put on the table after the match-fixing controversy that has dominated the news agenda in 2023, with 10 Chinese players currently under investigation and banned from tournament play.

That ongoing saga means the Blue Riband event of the campaign will have something of a cloud hanging over it when the action gets going on Saturday morning, but it is likely the action on the baize will soon take the limelight, with all of the leading names ready to battle it out over 17 gruelling days.

Ronnie O’Sullivan has been the most vocal of the players about issues away from the table, and at times this term has looked totally disinterested in his own form.

He returns to Sheffield as defending champion, having won his seventh title by seeing off Judd Trump in the decider last year to match Stephen Hendry’s modern-day record. 

The Rocket also goes in as favourite at no bigger than 9/2 despite his current travails, the bookies clearly not prepared to take him on to any great extent given his pedigree and ability to turn it on very quickly.

O’Sullivan will get the ball rolling as top seed on Saturday, but none of the top 16 know who they will play first up yet, with the qualifying series still going on.

And there will be some treacherous draws in the first round proper, with the likes of 2013 finalist Barry Hawkins, 2020 semi-finalist Anthony McGill and the in-form Ryan Day still standing going into the final round of qualifiers.

The 16 names to emerge to join the seeds will be known on Wednesday evening, with the first round draw conducted on Thursday morning, and while that leaves an element of doubt about how things will pan out, it is fairly safe to assume the winner will come from the top-16.

And the seeds are aware of what half of the draw they are in, with O’Sullivan in the top section alongside Trump, with the pair on a semi-final collision course.

Trump, the 2019 champion, is second-favourite with most firms at 11/2, and if he finds the battling qualities he showed on his way to Masters success in January, he has every chance.

However, the fact the top-two in the betting are in the top half means the main focus has to be on the bottom of the draw, and the name of Mark Selby stands out like a beacon at 6/1 generally.

The four-time Crucible winner seems to have timed his run into form perfectly for his bid for a fifth title, winning the inaugural WST Classic in front of his home fans in Leicester last month to go with the English Open he pocketed in December.

The Jester knows the Crucible course better than most, and seems in a good place mentally to grind it out over 17 days, while there are significant question marks over his main challengers in the bottom half.

Mark Allen has had a stunning 2022/23 season but will need to overcome a poor Crucible record if he is to be crowned World champion for the first time Picture by PA
Mark Allen has had a stunning 2022/23 season but will need to overcome a poor Crucible record if he is to be crowned World champion for the first time Picture by PA Mark Allen has had a stunning 2022/23 season but will need to overcome a poor Crucible record if he is to be crowned World champion for the first time Picture by PA

Mark Allen (14/1) has been the player of the season with three titles, but his Crucible record is poor for a man of his quality, with just one semi-final appearance, back in 2009.

Neil Robertson (15/2) is also in the bottom half, but the 2010 winner has had a poor campaign and has only been to one semi-final in Sheffield since that victory 13 years ago.

Kyren Wilson could be the fly in the ointment, having found form of late, reaching the final of the Tour Championship earlier this month, but Selby at his best is still a cut above, and he has to be fancied to reach the decider at least so should be backed at 6/1.

The dream scenario for many would be O’Sullivan taking him on in that decider, but current form suggests he will be hard-pushed to make it that far, with a potential last-16 tie with Ding Junhui a real banana skin.

Rather, I think Shaun Murphy looks the pick of the players in the top half, with his trademark confidence restored by a victory in the Tour Championship, seeing off Wilson in the decider.

Murphy has talked up his form of late, while his stamina has been improved by gastric surgery, and we know he can last the course at the Crucible having won the title as a qualifier in 2005.

He has lost three finals since then, the most recent to Selby in 2021, and he got an element of revenge by seeing off The Jester in the Tour Championship semi-final a couple of weeks ago, winning 10-9 after a quality encounter.

At 9/1, Murphy ranks as very decent each-way value, and when the draw is completed it might well be worth backing a Selby-Murphy final for the second time in three years.

Selby got the better of it in 2021, and he is once more the man to beat as the focus turns to matters on the baize.

CAZOO WORLD SNOOKER CHAMPIONSHIP SELECTIONS


Mark Selby, 6/1 (General);

Shaun Murphy, e/w, 9/1 (General)