McCulloch pulls clear of stunned Stevens

Ian McCulloch stunned new tournament favourite Matthew Stevens by opening up a four-frame lead in the opening session of their Embassy World Championship semi-final tonight.

Ian McCulloch stunned new tournament favourite Matthew Stevens by opening up a four-frame lead in the opening session of their Embassy World Championship semi-final tonight.

McCulloch, a 100-1 outsider at the start of the tournament, compiled four half centuries and two hundred-plus breaks in the best-of-33-frame showdown against a below-par Stevens.

The Preston potter had already shown his mettle in triumphing in last-frame deciders with 2004 runner-up Graeme Dott and two-times world champion Mark Williams.

He had secured his place in snooker’s elite top 16 for the first time as a result of his quarter-final success over Alan McManus.

McCulloch was into his stride from the start and capitalised after Stevens had missed a yellow – when playing left-handed – with a decisive run of 61 to take the opening frame.

In the next McCulloch punished Stevens for a poor break-off shot with a 53, and missing a regulation black off its spot did not prove costly as he doubled his lead to 2-0.

Stevens, struggling to find any rhythm, quickly found himself trailing further after under-hitting a blue to allow McCulloch in for another half century.

McCulloch then completed a pre-interval whitewash, snicking a thin red into the middle pocket on his way to a 127 clearance.

Stevens broke his duck after a tense 37-minute fifth frame encounter by clearing from green to pink, but McCulloch ensured that he would have an overnight lead with a 122 clearance in frame six after Stevens missed a red into the middle.

A run of 56 from Stevens cut his deficit to 5-2 but McCulloch re-asserted his authority with an 83 break in the final frame after sinking a superb long red.

In the other semi-final, Peter Ebdon quickened the pace after his controversial go-slow against Ronnie O’Sullivan to seize control against outsider Shaun Murphy and open up a 6-2 lead.

It was a far more fluent Ebdon and he averaged only 26 seconds per shot compared to 37 when facing the ‘Rocket’.

The eight frames only spanned two hours and 14 minutes, with an impressive Ebdon clocking up five 50-plus breaks.

Ebdon, 15-8 on with bookmakers Ladbrokes to reach the final, showed no effects of his gruelling late-night battle with O’Sullivan who has threatened to quit the game for 12 months.

The 2002 world champion saved his highest break of the session – 93 – for the final frame, but also had runs of 78, 70, 69 and 52.

Murphy should have been the fresher of the two players after beating six-times world champion Steve Davis with almost a session to spare in their quarter-final.

But it was the first time that the 22-year-old had tasted the one-table environment at the Crucible and he put together just one half century – a 77 in frame five.

Meanwhile O’Sullivan’s coach-mentor Ray Reardon is confident that O’Sullivan will return to action at some stage next season.

O’Sullivan had said he was “90% certain” of taking a 12-month break from the game after his defeat by Ebdon, but six-times world champion Reardon is predicting he will return in a maximum of six months.

He said: “This morning I had breakfast with Ronnie and he was as right as ninepence.

“It was like a load had been taken off his mind. He is really at peace with himself and he has gone back to London happy.

“He is going to have a break for a while. If it is any consolation to all the fans, I would say he will have a break of three to six months – but he will be back. That is my own personal opinion and he is fine.”

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