Scots’ cue kings in Sheffield showdown

Stephen Hendry and John Higgins will turn the Crucible into a Scottish enclave as they make history today — and each man claims the other can win the 2012 World Championship.

It will, remarkably, be the first time Higgins and Hendry have ever clashed on the most famous stage in snooker. Between them, 43-year-old Hendry and 36-year-old Higgins have claimed 11 world titles.

And while it will be a special personal occasion for both men, a place in the quarter-finals is at stake.

Higgins stumbled past Liang Wenbo in the opening round by winning a deciding frame, while Hendry rolled back the years as he crushed Stuart Bingham and fired in a maximum break for good measure.

The prospect of an in-form Hendry taking on a struggling Higgins gives the match even more appeal. Not that Hendry attaches great significance to how reigning champion Higgins began his campaign.

“Many times when I was winning the World Championship my first-round matches were 10-8 or 10-9, and you come through,” Hendry said.

“Even last year he won the World Championship not at his best at any stage, but he just refuses to go down and his B game is better than 80% of people’s A game. He always refuses to get beaten, he’s a phenomenal competitor.”

Four-time world champion Higgins recently played down his chances of matching Hendry’s record haul of seven titles, but he has also not dismissed the prospect of playing himself into prime form, inching closer to it with every round.

Even before the draw was made, Higgins was hoping this would be the year he and Hendry met.

“I know Stephen was talking about retirement and I’ve not got a lot left, but I thought it would be unbelievable if we never play each other in Sheffield,” said the Wishaw man.

The sight of Hendry in vintage form has put Higgins on alert though, and he said of the veteran Auchterarder cue king: “He can win this event, definitely.”

This year, Hendry is a qualifier, having had to beat China’s Yu Delu in a preliminary match to reach the Crucible stage of the tournament. He played his part, by beating Bingham, in the first-round march of the underdogs, as eight qualifiers eliminated seeds. Such a cull of the game’s leading players had not happened since 1992, the year Hendry won his second world title.

Hendry has had an insight into the depth of talent on tour during a season in which he has had to play preliminaries for most events.

Several theories have been offered to explain the scattering of the seeds, foremost among them being the fact the final qualifiers were staged just a week before the World Championship began, meaning players came to the tournament itself on a high from what for some were season-defining victories.

And arriving in Sheffield, the pressure is all on the seed, allowing the qualifier almost a free ride. In the past week, the strain has told for many, including Ding Junhui, Mark Allen and Shaun Murphy.

“You’ve not got much to lose I suppose,” Hendry said. “Most of the pressure is on the other guy.”

Hendry and Higgins have morning and evening sessions today. Their long wait for this occasion, and Scotland’s, is almost over.

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