Hicks' struggle of nerve

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The Independent Online
You could have got a good price two weeks ago on the words "the toast of Tavistock" becoming a clich. Come to think of it, there was little reason to suppose the small market town on the edge of Dartmoor would be mentioned at all.

Then Andy Hicks began to plough a furrow through the draw of the Embassy World Snooker Championships that would draw admiring glances from his farming neighbours. As Alan Hughes, master of ceremonies at The Crucible, put it as he introduced him to the crowd, here is a "young Devonian who is having a tournament players dream of".

Or it was until yesterday. Maybe the 21-year-old Hicks woke up and realised he was not playing in the Devon and District Snooker League after all but was on the verge of something beyond his comprehension. His session, the first in his 31-frame semi-final with Nigel Bond, could hardly have gone much worse and he trails 6-1.

The air of calm which he has worn with the comfort of an old, favourite cardigan was removed and for the first time he looked what he is: an inexperienced player confronting the biggest test of his young life. Bond, unsung and relatively unknown despite his 11th-seeded status, could mop up free from the fear his opponent would punish him if he made an error.

Hicks' nerves, hidden when he defeated the seeded Steve Davis, Willie Thorne and Peter Ebdon, were suddenly dancing on his cueing arm. His first chance left a red hanging in the jaws of the pocket, his second failed to make contact with any ball at all. Even the frame he won, the first, was via a re-spotted black.

Bond, like Hicks, has the carrot of a first world final before him and he reached for it in his quiet, unspectacular way. He did not score massively either but the sheer weight of the 20s and 30s bore down on his opponent.

Hicks began playing at eight, made his first century break at 13 and was the British Under-19 champion but, even though he gilded that impressive cv by reaching the semi-finals of the Skoda Grand Prix last autumn, he arrived in Sheffield virtually un-noticed.

"What he proved against me and against Peter Ebdon when he was 3-0 down," Willie Thorne, who was beaten 13-7 by Hicks, said, "is that he's got fighting qualities. Everybody is a good player but you can't always pot balls and you have to learn how to win knuckle in there and grind frames out. I haven't got it, Ronnie O'Sullivan hasn't got it yet, but it looks as though Andy Hicks has.

"Against Peter Ebdon he didn't play fantastic snooker but he still sneaked frames here and there." Ebdon was equally complimentary: "You'd say he was one to look out for in the future," he said, "but he's here already. He has the qualities to be a top player." It was Hicks' safety play that has reined in opponents to date and Thorne believes it might lead him to fully emulate Terry Griffiths and win the title on his Crucible debut. With the proviso that runs through every snooker prospect: if he does not meet Stephen Hendry.

"Jimmy White could beat Hendry and, in turn, yes, Andy could beat Jimmy. But against Hendry I don't think so. The occasion, the fact that Stephen has won the title four times, it would be too much for him."

He has to overcome Bond first, though, and yesterday made the task harder.

EMBASSY WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP (Sheffield): Quarter-final: J White (Eng) bt J Parrott (Eng) 13-11. Semi-final: N Bond (Eng) leads A Hicks (Eng) 6-1.

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