World Snooker Championship: The Crucible without fans - surreal but still magical

By Shamoon HafezBBC Sport

When John Higgins made the first maximum 147 break at the Crucible Theatre since 2012, there was barely a flicker of emotion or celebration.

A gentle fist pump, an elbow tap with opponent Kurt Maflin - but there was no crowd present to give the Scot a rapturous ovation for his accomplishment.

But the four-time champion could not see the job through as he suffered a surprise defeat at the hands of the qualifier from Norway.

The World Snooker Championship in Sheffield has a very different feel this year, with spectators barred from attending because of coronavirus restrictions.

Higgins said after his first-round match that playing in an empty arena "felt like going to mass".

So does his brilliant 147, some shock results and a record-breaking win for Ronnie O'Sullivan suggest we are in for a classic tournament this year?

'Maybe I was lucky there was no-one there'

The pandemic delayed the World Championship from its customary April-May slot to July-August but still with restrictions in place.

Ordinarily, we would have seen a boisterous 980-capacity crowd wildly celebrating Higgins' brilliant break, the 11th maximum achieved in the championship.

But there was no applause, no hugs and Mark Selby and Noppon Saengkham did not peer round the partition from the other table either.

"I definitely think there will be another one, maybe two more," said Higgins. "I don't think I would have done it if there was a crowd. The pressure gets to a lot of people here when you are on a maximum.

"The crowd are willing you on and maybe I was lucky there was no-one here."

Outside, the landscape is much-changed too, with the city centre resembling a ghost town.

Tudor Square is usually heaving with folk enjoying a drink in the sun and watching the action on a big screen, but the area has been left deserted.

The Winter Garden, another hot spot during the event, is also abandoned as most of the BBC TV team have had to set up off site in London.

Crucible Theatre
There is no-one to be seen in the usually busy foyer area inside the Crucible

"The buzz around the venue is missing," says BBC Radio 5 Live snooker reporter Jamie Broughton, who is one of a handful of journalists to receive accreditation.

"There are no excited fans arriving in the foyer before big matches, or waiting outside the stage door to get autographs and selfies.

"With or without a crowd, there is still a magic feeling for the players competing under the spotlight on snooker's greatest stage, and a trophy to be won."

This seems to have worked for fans' favourite O'Sullivan, who said after his first-round demolition of Thepchaiya Un-Nooh that the absence of fans means he can stay at a hotel close to the Crucible and puts "less pressure" on his shoulders.

Ronnie O'Sullivan
Will the lack of crowds help O'Sullivan claim a sixth world title?

Fake crowd noise, but no coughing

The tight and claustrophobic nature makes the Crucible, which first hosted the championship in 1977, a unique arena. Cosy for the players doing well but a cruel cauldron for those who are not.

Normally during the two-table stage, the spectators are so close they can almost touch the players' cues.

Animated MC Rob Walker continues to belt out his trademark introductions for the players, accompanied by their walk-on music, but, with fans banned last week after just one day, the atmosphere inside is somewhat flat.

Players are separated by a clear plastic sheet between their seats and have to use their own equipment, but no longer have the distractions of an ill-timed cough or mobile phone going off while at the table.

Organisers have attempted to add to the spectacle by implementing fake crowd noise, with applause ringing out from the speakers when a century is made and at the end of frames.

Mark Selby
Mark Selby had a Covid-19 test before his first-round match

Does it suit the unseeded players?

Despite the arena being empty, the action has produced some shock results, with Thailand's Saengkham beating 2005 champion Shaun Murphy and, most notably, world number 89 and Crucible debutant Jamie Clarke knocking out world number four Mark Allen.

Welshman Clarke said: "[Not having a crowd] helped me more than Mark. He relishes that and enjoys the atmosphere.

"I said to my dad and mum that it is better without a crowd as it takes away the atmosphere, which I am not used to."

But former runner-up Matthew Stevens, who lost to Higgins, called the conditions "horrible" and said he "would not like to do that again", while Scot Alan McManus likened it to "practising in a club alone".

Three-time champion Selby, who beat debutant Jordan Brown, lamented the lack of applause after a good pot.

He said: "I potted a red into the corner and screwed back for the blue, something Judd Trump would be proud of, but there was not even a murmur."

With government advice continuing to change, could we still see a crowd for the final on 15 and 16 August?

As World Snooker Tour chairman Barry Hearn said, "watch this space".

Barry Hearn says 'the show must go on' after government restriction wreck snooker plans
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