There is nothing like individual success on a global scale to increase popularity and awareness of a sport.
When Thailand’s James Wattana was world number three and at the peak of his powers in the 1990s, an estimated 20 million out of a population of around 60m were watching snooker in his home country. That was before China went snooker loopy.
The television audience in China for Ding Junhui’s historic 17-11 win over Scot Alan McManus in the semi-finals of the World Championship on Saturday make audiences for the 1985 ‘blackball final’ at the Crucible resemble a hoary old repeat of Dad’s Army, a programme dusted down and passed fit for a Saturday night on the Beeb.
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While the 18.5m viewers that stayed up beyond midnight to witness Dennis Taylor sink the final black against Steve Davis remains a record audience for BBC2, around 30m were watching Ding overcome McManus during the middle of the night in China to become the country's first finalist at the Crucible Theatre.
Ding, 29, stirred the imagination of his country’s sports fans when he defeated Stephen Hendry as a teenage wildcard in the China Open final in 2005, but there is every chance he could better that achievement by becoming China and Asia’s first world champion if he can usurp Mark Selby, the game's number one ranked player, over the next few days.
Ding’s match against McManus was the top rated programme in China outstripping entertainment and news offerings. Goodness knows what the ratings will be for the final, but Ding has welcomed the spotlight being shone on him and the sport.
“They will be going crazy back home for this,” Ding told Eurosport. “Around 100m people will be watching me, and this is the smallest figure probably.
“I know that they want me to well, to win it and bring the trophy back home, but I will remain calm and stay in my space because there is another match.
“My attitude is going to be same as it was against Alan. I’ll keep my head still and concentrate on giving my best.”
Ding Junhui in action at the Crucible.
Image credit: Eurosport
Ding has negotiated three qualifiers to reach the Crucible before completing wins over Martin Gould, Judd Trump, Mark Williams and fellow qualifier McManus to reach the final. He has won 83 frames over the past three weeks to reach this point. He will need to hit 101 to make good on his eastern promise.
“I still felt the pressure when I was leading 15-10 and 16-11, but in the final frame of the match I didn’t feel the pressure. It came off my shoulders, “ said Ding.
“It is a long, long game. It is not even like the best-of-25 frames. It is hard to keep concentration for that length of time"
Ding had been to one semi-final prior to this run when he lost to Judd Trump in the last four back in 2011.
He set a tournament record at the Crucible of seven centuries in one match against a rejuvenated McManus, who arguably played the finest snooker of his career in recovering from trailing 9-3 to trail 9-8 at one point.
Ding has thanked the influence of 1979 world champion Terry Griffiths, who is coaching Ding for the first time this season.
“Terry has kept me calm. I don’t get too excited or nervous, and that is down to Terry’s influence,” said Ding.
“He tells me to keep calm, keep going and stay focused because the match is not finished yet.
“I’m lucky enough to live in Sheffield so I can go home, relax, sleep and watch a bit of TV.
“Alan played very good, and gave me a tough match. We both had to come through the qualifiers, but we gave people good entertainment. “
Snooker’s future prosperity will only be enhanced if Ding turns the green baize red on a bank holiday Monday.
Ding could pocket £330,000 for winning this tournament, but it will feel like money in the bank for snooker’s future growth in China.
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