Snooker: Murphy splutters but holds nerve

Last year's 150-1 hero defies illness to seize upon Wattana's mistakes
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Shaun Murphy, suffering from a chest infection, began the defence of his world title with a 10-4 victory over Thailand's James Wattana here in Sheffield last night.

Murphy, who became only the second Crucible qualifier to win the title 12 months ago, was feeling lethargic but was not put under much pressure by the below par Wattana, who missed far too many easy balls to come close to pulling off a shock.

"I always thought it would be tough and it was made more difficult because I only had half an hour's sleep," Murphy said. "My head is hurting, I can't get my breath and my throat is so sore it sounds like I'm turning into Barry White."

Making the most of Wattana's errors, he took a 6-1 lead. Though it was reduced to 6-4, he was solid enough in closing out victory. "I played some hard match snooker and that's an extra dimension I've added to my game in the last year," said Murphy, whose highest break was 55.

In his year as champion, Murphy has reached only one final, the Welsh Open, losing to Stephen Lee, but at least avoided the first- fence fall suffered by five defending champions here: John Spencer, Terry Griffiths, Steve Davis, Dennis Taylor and Stephen Hendry.

John Parrott, champion in 1991 but now 29th in the rankings and conscious that this might be his last appearance on snooker's most famous stage, fell 6-0 adrift of Graeme Dott, the runner-up two years ago.

Breaks of 98 and 80 and a clearance of 56 that enabled him to steal the fourth frame on the black came from Dott before Parrott, the only player to inflict a whitewash in the 29 years the championship has been here, averted the threat of suffering this fate himself by securing the seventh frame with a run of 63.

The 41-year-old Liverpudlian also won the eighth but failed on the last black of the ninth as Dott secured the 7-2 lead with which he resumes this morning.

Steve Davis has already done enough to assure himself of his place in the top 16 in the end-of-season rankings and thus a guaranteed return here next year, by which time he will be 49.

After looking for four or five seasons a shadow of a six-times champion, he was an old master restored in reaching the UK final at York in December.

He has been pretty anonymous in his three subsequent tournaments, but the prospect of a last hurrah at the Crucible has focused his mind ­ even if it took him two hours, eight minutes to split his opening four frames with Andy Hicks 2-2. He pulled away to a 6-2 overnight lead which he hopes to convert into the victory he was anticipating would enable him to face Murphy.

John Higgins, who beat Ronnie O'Sullivan in the finals of the Grand Prix and Saga Masters and came desperately close to two other titles in the Malta Cup and China Open finals respectively, came to Sheffield as the player of the season but trailed Mark Selby, the world No 39 from Leicester, 6-3 at close of play.

Higgins seemed certain to level at 2-2 until Selby obtained the snooker he required on the pink and, with fine pots of pink and black, led 3-1. Selby pressed on to 5-2 and secured their last frame after Higgins took the eighth with a 118 break.

Even if Higgins can eke out a win this evening, he faces the rockiest of paths, with Williams, O'Sullivan and Hendry, according to the seedings, in his way.

There is another twist in the game's political strife. Most leading players are unhappy that the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association intend to commandeer one of the two waistcoat logos each is permitted and offer it to the tournament sponsor.