Positive signs for beaten Ding

Positive signs for beaten Ding

Morning everyone. There is a strange phenomenon afoot in my garden. For the past few weeks, I have woken up to the unpleasant and slightly puzzling sight of dead cockroaches sprawled across my patio floor. Face up, they lie with their legs and antennae reaching for the sky, as if electrocuted. Scavenging ants gather around the carcasses considering transportation options. I gather the bodies along with the dog shit, but by morning another two or three have appeared in their place.

What really bothers me is that I rarely, if ever, see one alive. Where are they coming from? Has my garden become some kind of cockroach hospice where the terminally ill come to see out their final moments and prepare for the afterlife?

Aside from my undertaking duties, as predicted this was a weekend more or less dominated by sport. At one point on Saturday, I was expertly multitasking with snooker on the TV, cricket on the laptop and Formula One qualifying updates via the BBC Sport mobile app.

As a result, it was difficult to decide what to write about today. I loved the partnership between Chris Woakes and Jos Buttler that took England to an improbable victory over Pakistan in the first test. I was also refreshingly surprised to see someone other than a Mercedes driver on the top step of the podium after Red Bull’s Max Verstappen won the curiously named “70th Anniversary Grand Prix” on Sunday.

But today I wanted to take a closer look at the second-round match between Ronnie O’Sullivan and Ding Junhui at the Crucible. While I have been dipping in and out of the other matches so far this year, I made sure to watch every frame of this encounter. It didn’t disappoint. In an incredibly fast-paced and high-quality contest, the two went toe-to-toe with each other for the first two sessions. In the decider, it was Ronnie who edged in front to lead 11-9 and eventually take a brilliant 13-10 win.

I had mixed emotions after the match. Regular readers will be aware of my love for O’Sullivan; I think he’s up there with Roger Federer, Usain Bolt and Lionel Messi as the most talented and fascinating athletes of his generation. After a few lean years at the Crucible – he hasn’t advanced beyond the quarter finals since reaching the final in 2014 – it was great to see him put in another fantastic performance on the biggest stage. Considering some of the drab, attritional battles that have been played out so far in Sheffield this year, the tournament will benefit from having Ronnie involved as long as possible.

But I am also a huge fan of Ding. At his best, the 33 year-old is a brilliant player to watch with fast-paced breaks and bold attacks. Even though he lost this match, he played excellently throughout and can take a lot of positives. As we move quickly into the new season – the first tournaments will start next month – there are signs that the Chinese star is getting back to his best.

The most encouraging part of his game was the scoring. Ever since Ding burst onto the scene by winning the UK Championship as a teenager in 2005, he has been lauded as one of the best break-builders in the game. His exemplary cue-ball control in and around the black spot has helped him rack up 537 centuries to date – only six players have more.

But when I have watched him in the past couple of years, this supposed strength of his has become something of a weakness. He was missing simple shots and regularly running out of position. Indeed, he only remained competitive by playing defensive, tactical snooker and winning the fragmented frames. It was in part encouraging to see him develop this side of his game – nobody becomes world champion without strong and astute safety play – but his struggles among the balls was concerning to say the least. It would be like Federer suddenly attempting to win matches by tearing around court in desperate defence instead of sticking to his trademark aggression.

Prior to this tournament, there were signs that Ding was recovering his scoring touch. In winning his third UK Championship title in December, the Chinese scored four centuries in the final and a further four breaks of 50 or more as he comfortably overcame Stephen Maguire 10-6 in the final. But that fantastic victory remains the only time he has advanced beyond the quarterfinals of a ranking tournament since early 2018.

Last night, Ding played well and was unlucky to come up against Ronnie in that kind of form. No-one can live with the Englishman when he plays like that. The best player of all time was in sensational touch and also had the run of the balls at crucial times in the final couple of frames. On the few occasions he did put a foot wrong, Ding stepped up and cleared the table. If his long game had been in tune, he could well have won.

There are a number of similarities with not only the way Ding and Ronnie play, but also in the way they have grown up in the game. Both were thrust into the limelight at an early age thanks to their precocious talent. Both are huge celebrities in their respective homelands, and both have at times struggled to cope with that fame and the weight of expectation it brings. Both have great respect for each other, reflected in the warm embrace they shared at the end of last night’s match. But while Ronnie has won countless titles and accolades, Ding has perhaps underachieved.

I would love Ding to become world champion one day. It would be great for the game to have a more international honours board at the Crucible. More than a decade after his emergence, Ding is still the likliest bet for a Chinese winner. He has the talent and, I believe, the application. If he continues to play like he did against his old rival last night, he will give himself plenty more chances to realize his dream.

Right, that’s that for today. Have yourselves a swell start to the week, back here on Wednesday.

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