By Fin Ruane
At this week’s International Championship in Chengdu, China, the issue of wildcard rounds has once again been the subject of much heated conversation and debate.
Originally introduced in invitation events such as the Benson & Hedges Masters and Irish Masters the wildcards were a way of the sponsors rewarding players who, although not ranked high enough to gain an automatic invite, were invited mainly due to recent high quality performances in other snooker events, whilst in other cases they were invited solely due to their popularity amongst the eager watching public.
After several seasons Benson & Hedges decided to make it a more level playing field and launched the B&H Championship in Scotland where the eventual winner was handed a wildcard spot at Wembley.
Nowadays the wildcard invite for the Masters is no more as the world’s top 16 only make the line-up, but where the wildcard round has closed in one event it has most certainly opened up in many others.
With the dawn of the Barry Hearn era in snooker more and more overseas events are now included on the season’s calendar and with ten main ranking events this season, of which seven are overseas, the wildcard round is now a prominent fixture at each overseas event.
Where once it was a routine match and the outcome a formality, nowadays the wildcard rounds are a graveyard for the qualifiers and a stepping stone for the budding amateurs.
The original statement from World Snooker regarding the wildcard round read as follows: “World Snooker allows for wild cards in certain events outside of the UK in order to give local players opportunity and experience in world class events and to develop talent in important markets. Wild cards are only available to amateur players from the host country or region, and they are selected in conjunction with World Snooker, the WPBSA, the National Governing Body and the Promoter of the event.”
Agreed, it’s a great idea but when you look at the trials and expense qualifiers have to endure to reach the venue proper the cracks do begin to show in the idea. This week in Chengdu, Ken Doherty, Michael White and Barry Pinches all fell at the wildcard round – disappointing results for the three players concerned but more so when you realise that the above mentioned players had to pre-qualify for the event.
Even though the wildcards do not receive a penny no matter how far they progress in the tournament it’s still a long flight home at huge expense for the professional qualifier on the tail-end of a wildcard round loss.
This season there are five tournaments in China, one in Australia and one in Germany, meaning that the wildcard rounds will effectively be in all seven and predominantly at least one qualifier will fall at the hands of the rookies.
In the 2005 China Open such was the appalling financial state of World Snooker that 16 Chinese wild cards were invited into the event solely to guarantee the Chinese sponsorship money. The eventual winner was one of those wildcards, a baby-faced Ding Junhui as he celebrated his 18th birthday, and although he received no money or ranking points it was in no doubt a huge stepping stone in his so far illustrious career.
Nowadays, all eight wildcards are more than capable of winning their match, some of these players were probably once on the tour before and battling to get back in whilst the others are raw teenage talent with no fear or mental scars.
On one hand yes it’s a great opportunity for an amateur player to play in a tournament venue and on a top class match table whilst on the other hand it’s an easier introduction to a ranking tournament without having to face the qualifying cubicles at the Academy in Sheffield and the daunting task of winning several matches to reach the venue such as Michael White did to reach Chengdu.
In my opinion the wildcard should be kept but perhaps one place instead of eight should be on offer. Maybe a tournament for all the amateurs of the host country with the winner gaining the wildcard spot and in return the lowest ranked qualifier would then play him in the wildcard round.
There is no denying the fact that there is an explosion of snooker talent in China which makes my proposal all the more plausible. If the Chinese players are to succeed than why should it be at the expense of players who could be fighting to hold on to their own pro status and not trying to gain one?
In Germany there is the same situation. The sport is very popular and the German Masters is one of the best supported overseas events on the calendar. Again eight wildcards are in operation and although the standard may not be as high as their Chinese counterparts the opportunity is still there for an amateur player from continental Europe to gain a notable scalp.
The same can be said of the Australian Open but again the qualifiers will fancy their chances against their more inexperienced opponents.
I feel if World Snooker want to make the wildcard case stand and make it fairer to all players then why not introduce a wildcard round in the UK-based ranking tournaments?
The amateur talent around the UK at the moment is slowly reaching the levels it did during the heady days of the late 1980s and early ’90s before the pro game was opened up. There are many players itching to turn pro who must wait for the annual Q School to try their luck, so why not offer eight places at the UK to English amateur players and eight places to Welsh amateurs at the Welsh Open? Surely it can work and who knows maybe it can offer a chance for a top amateur to follow in the footsteps of what wildcard Ding did in 2005 in Beijing.
Whatever way we look at it the wildcard round looks here to stay. It will remain a highly contentious issue among the players and fans for the seasons to come as more overseas ranking events are added to the ever-growing snooker calendar.
Some will always argue it’s giving the grassroots of the game a chance, but try telling that to Messrs Doherty, White and Pinches as they embark on the long flight home having qualified but not even reached the first round proper.