World Championship: Crucible rookies looking to deliver on biggest stage

John Higgins during day fourteen of the 2019 Betfred World Championship at The Crucible, Sheffield.John Higgins during day fourteen of the 2019 Betfred World Championship at The Crucible, Sheffield.
John Higgins during day fourteen of the 2019 Betfred World Championship at The Crucible, Sheffield.
Underdogs David Gilbert and Gary Wilson will look to secure the unlikeliest of finals at the Betfred World Championship on Saturday.

Between them the pair had only ever won one match at the Crucible before this year, but they are both on track to cause a huge upset.

Former taxi driver Wilson – whose only previous visit to Sheffield came in 2017 when the 33-year-old fell at the first hurdle to Ronnie O’Sullivan – had to win three qualifying rounds simply to qualify for the Crucible but showed few nerves as he trailed world No 4 Judd Trump 9-7 overnight in their best-of-33 semi-final.

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And in the second semi-final Gilbert, the 37-year-old who first appeared at the Crucible in 2007 and won his only game five years later – in 2012 against Martin Gould – leads four-time world champion John Higgins 13-11.

World No 32 Wilson has already banked more money from his Crucible exploits over the last fortnight – a guaranteed £100,000 pay day – than the £67,000 prize money he has won this season.

Tamworth’s Gilbert, who has climbed the rankings to world No 16, has enjoyed a better season, pocketing £207,000 prize money before arriving in Sheffield.

But if Gilbert can beat Higgins when their match concludes on Saturday afternoon, he will be guaranteed £200,000 just for reaching Sunday’s final, and the chance of clinching a £500,000 winner’s cheque.

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Certainly, midway through Friday afternoon the prospect of a Wilson-Gilbert final looked a distinct possibility.

An out-of-sorts Higgins trailed 10-6, after a punishing morning session, and Wilson returned overnight at 4-4 to lead 6-5.

But Trump, who had knocked in early breaks of 50 and 56, suddenly sparked into life with knocks of 73, 123 and 75 – Wilson potting just a single ball in three frames – to show glimpses of the form which saw him crowned Masters champion in January.

The 29-year-old from Bristol – – looking to make his first Crucible final since 2011 – was starting to enjoy himself and even broke out into a smile as he won the penultimate frame to go 9-6 in front.

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This was a severe test of Wilson’s character, but after six wins to reach the one table set-up in Sheffield, the Wallsend potter kept his composure to reply with a spirited 77 break.

The duo will now return Saturday morning, Wilson trailing 9-7, before their match concludes in the evening.

Unlike qualifier Wilson, Gilbert is a Crucible seed, but few can have predicted his amazing run to the semi-finals, beating Kyren Wilson and defending champion Mark Williams along the way.

But if the packed Crucible crowd expected order to be restored on Friday – against Higgins, looking to secure his third consecutive final in Sheffield – Gilbert had not read the script.

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In his 25th consecutive visit to the Crucible, Higgins had built up a deserved reputation as one of the toughest opponents on the circuit, due to his safety play and granite-like nerves.

But resuming 5-3 down overnight, the 43-year-old produced a series of uncharacteristic errors to allow Gilbert – peaking with a 125 break – to move 8-3 in front.

A missed green from the Tamworth potter allowed Higgins to finally halt the losing run.

Returning from the mid-session interval, Higgins started to find his range and knocked in breaks of 67, 52, 58 and 50.

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He cut the deficit to 8-6, Gilbert responded with a 72 break, before the Englishman snatched the last frame on the final black to lead 10-6.

The pair shared the opening four frames, to move to 12-8, but Higgins was still struggling to stay in touch.

Gilbert knocked in breaks of 56 and 75, but the Scot was clinging on, a double on the final black then pouncing after a missed green to head into the mid-session interval.

This had been far from vintage Higgins. But after 20 frames of toil, the 43-year-old – with 30 ranking titles to his name over an amazing career – produced his highest-scoring break of the match.

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A superb long blue got him into position, as he fired in the 86th century of the tournament – matching the Crucible record. His 143 is also the highest break of this year’s tournament.

But Gilbert replied with a 91 break of his own, to restore his four-frame advantage, and looked set to pinch the penultimate frame but missed a pink. Even then, he left Higgins snookered on the yellow but the Scot produced an outrageous fluke to get over the line.

After trailing 12-7, Gilbert had threatened to run away with the contest, but Higgins was never going to lie down, scrambling to clinch the final frame of the evening to trail by two frames, at 13-11, and set-up an enticing day of expected high drama at the Crucible.