Snooker: Higgins closes in on victory

MARK KING gave John Higgins an early scare at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield last night but could not prevent the defending champion moving inexorably towards the quarter-finals of the Embassy World Championship.

At least the world No 16 from Romford ensured he will be back today for the third and final session of their second-round match. Higgins resumes this morning, denied his day off, with an impregnable 12-4 advantage. He requires only one frame to reach the last eight and stretch his unbeaten world championship record to nine matches.

However, King turned the tables on his 23-year-old rival, who at the 1997 Grand Prix allowed him only 11 points in a best-of-nine frames contest. With a touch more steadiness the 25-year-old left-hander could easily have been only 9-7 behind. But in the closing three frames of the session he lost two frames on the black and another on the pink.

King had the satisfaction of making Higgins work hard for his probable victory. King, 8-0 down overnight, made Higgins sit up and take note with an effort of 99 in the first frame of the afternoon. The next two frames were shared before he treated his supporters, among them his father Bill watching in the wings, to back-to-back highlights. He whitewashed Higgins in frame 12 helped by a run of 103 and then added another 103 in frame 13. Then Higgins got his act together to push home his advantage.

The Welshman Matthew Stevens is on course for the quarter-finals after building a 6-2 advantage over Malta's Tony Drago. The 21-year-old from Carmarthen, who will not need to qualify next season, made a half century break in all but two of the frames. He started with 72, added runs of 79, 73, 53, 62 and finished with 60. Stevens is playing for a quarter- final against Stephen Hendry or Thailand's James Wattana who start their last 16 game tomorrow.

Nigel Bond provided a shock for the former title holder Ken Doherty by taking a 3-1 interval lead in their match. Bond, a runner-up to Stephen Hendry in 1995, has struggled for form all season but has recently been receiving guidance from Derek Hill, who until earlier this year had been Ronnie O'Sullivan's unofficial coach.

Doherty, the No 4 seed, has been among the most consistent players this year, reaching the final of the Benson and Hedges Masters at Wembley. But he has yet to win a ranking title since defeating Stephen Hendry in the 1997 world final.

John Parrott and Chris Small resumed at 4-4 and when they reached the midway interval of their second session the duo still could not be separated. Once again Parrott set the pace by making breaks of 55 and 66 to lead 5-4 and 6-5. But Small, the world No 25, refused to be shaken off and hit back to level at 6-6.

Small holds the key to the top-16 futures of Steve Davis and Jimmy White, as the longer he remains in the championship the more precarious are the elite positions of the two Crucible legends.