Can China Conquer?

Ten years ago it was a common occurrence to hear pundits naively predict that Chinese players would soon dominate the sport.

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Teenagers Yan Bingtao and Zhou Yuelong won the World Cup in 2015

Indeed, the repeated adage “half of the top 16 will be made up of Chinese in the next five years” has been muttered so often that it’s become a snooker cliche to rival the favourite among Twitter users – #careless.

Careless is in fact a good way of describing the amount of times we have been promised this apparent eventuality, without it ever having actually materialised.

Not only has it not transpired, there have never been more than two Chinese players ranked inside the elite bracket and at one point towards the end of last season there was none.

For one reason or another the wave of young Chinese talent that is evidently there has not been able to make the leap into the higher echelons – yet at least.

But could that be about to change?

This season there are 17 Chinese competitors on the Main Tour, with a fresh influx of young cueists from the nation attempting to surpass the overall mediocrity of their elder peers.

Ding Junhui is the obvious exception to this rule, a player who almost single-handedly brought the sport into his country’s spotlight in 2005 and who has since gone on to amass 11 ranking event titles.

Ding’s run to the final of the World Championship where he was narrowly beaten by Mark Selby concluded what was perhaps a season of indication for Chinese snooker.

Of course, capturing the world title would have had a greater affect in galvanising the troops, as it were, but the 29 year-old still made history by becoming the first Asian player to seal a world final berth.

It also came after Liang Wenbo’s maiden run to the final of a major event at the UK Championship and, arguably more importantly, China’s World Cup winning performance this time last summer in Wuxi.

For it wasn’t Ding or Liang who led the country to glory, but two teenagers who stunned the established and potentially made a statement as to what is finally to come.

At the time Zhou Yuelong and Yan Bingtao were just 17 and 15 years of age respectively but each already world amateur champions, and now a year older the former is already on the cusp of a place inside the world’s top 50 while young Yan embarks on his rookie campaign on the circuit.

At present, there are a mere three Chinese cueists inside the top 50 but with 17 players competing the law of averages suggests that has to change sooner rather than later.

One of the difficulties for these breakthrough stars is the fact that so many of the tournaments, including qualifying rounds, are staged thousands of miles away from their homeland.

However, there is a sounder network in place for new Chinese players in England – for those who choose to base themselves in the UK – than there was a decade ago, with several academies creating their own Chinese communities to help in support.

There are many who have doubts about the future of Chinese snooker and there may be some merit to the claim that popularity is waning.

Yet, the unexpected boom after Ding’s 2005 China Open success was never going to be sustainable and the plateau now is still going to produce a deluge of possible stars in the coming years.

If a country of more than one billion people can produce tens of millions of fans, and subsequently hundreds of thousands of players, eventually more than a few of supreme quality will emerge from that rather large pack.

Only five players from China qualified for the Indian Open in the first preliminary of last week at the Preston Guild Hall but seven, not including Ding and Liang who had their matches held over to the venue, ensured they would be in action at the World Open.

In the Riga Masters qualifying, ten out of the 12 Chinese players competing reached Latvia.

Confidence is a necessity in any sport, not just within oneself but additionally collective confidence.

How much damage the Chinese can do on the circuit this campaign may derive from how well they feed off of each other.

Of the 17 members on the tour, only two are older than 30, suggesting that time is indeed on all of their sides.

Will half of the top 16 comprise Chinese players in five years time? I’m not foolish enough to make that sort of statement.

But I can confidently predict that there’ll be more than the one there currently is now, and that seeing Chinese names other than Ding Junhui in the latter stages of events will surely become a more regular event.

Creator of SnookerHQ and a journalism graduate, David has been actively reporting on snooker since 2011. He has been published in national publications and has appeared on BBC World News and on talkSPORT radio as an analyst.