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Darts: Bristow leads the dance to a new beat: Greg Wood sees the breakaway World Darts Council embark on its first world championship in riverside Essex in an atmosphere more familiar at ringside

AS IF the grey pall already hanging in the air was not enough, an artificial smoke machine sends fresh clouds billowing across the stage and the competitors march forward to a deafening disco beat. They are holding darts, but could easily be wearing boxing gloves.

The effects are for the benefit of Sky's television cameras, but at present the similarities between the sports of fighters and drinkers do not stop there. Like boxing, the face of British darts has a bad case of acronyms.

The British Darts Organisation (BDO) and the World Darts Council (WDC) will each crown a world champion within the next fortnight. The BDO version - the official event at the Lakeside Country Club - starts tomorrow, a day before the WDC title is decided after a week of competition at the Circus Tavern in Purfleet. Though the former event has much the greater pool of competitors, it is the latter which involves just about every darts player you have ever heard of.

Each side, naturally, takes a different view of the split. Olly Croft, of the BDO, describes the WDC as 'players who couldn't stand the pace in the world arena and wanted to make it stagnant at the top. They broke away so they could stay at the top that little bit longer.' But to John Lowe, the reigning (and official world champion) the breakaway event marks 'the rebirth of the professional sport. The old organisation never changed anything, and never thought that one day the sponsors might drop away for some reason.'

Drop away they did after the sport's mid-Eighties heyday, when viewing figures soared and Eric Bristow, the Crafty Cockney, got an OBE. The WDC believes that viewers, and therefore sponsors, can be tempted back, and is taking its publicity campaign to the world. While the domestic audience for Sky's coverage will be necessarily small, Rupert Murdoch's recent acquisition of Asia's Star channel guarantees some international exposure.

What the more isolated areas of Tibet will make of portly men throwing small arrows is anyone's guess, but the WDC can at least be certain that, unofficial or not, its tournament winner will be the best player in the world. An experienced - and impartial - observer of yesterday's play listed the best seven players in the world as Dennis Priestly, Alan Warriner, Phil Taylor, Rod Harrington, Peter Evison, Bob Anderson and Mike Gregory. Of those, only Gregory is missing from the WDC tournament, though lapsed followers may be more surprised by the absentees from that list of the world's best. No John Lowe, no Jocky Wilson, no mention even of Bristow.

Not that anyone cared as Bristow and Rod Harrington walked through the smoke and noise to open yesterday's evening session. The 250 keen but uncommitted observers of the afternoon's play had been replaced by almost 1,000 yelling fanatics. Even the toddlers were shouting 'Come on Eric', and as the sound system broadcast Bristow's assertion that 'there's darts players, and then there's me', the crowd roared back its agreement. Before a single dart had hit a bed, Bristow's in-your- face exhibitionism was rolling back the years, attempting to rediscover the old invincibility.

Then they started throwing, and Bristow was awful. He lost the first leg with 252 still on the board, but took two of the next three to take the set to a decider. Again he started poorly, scoring 15 at one visit, and Harrington went clear. Then, just as suddenly, Harrington faltered, and missed five set darts. Bristow, at one point almost 250 behind, walked to the oche needing 103. Treble 20, 11, double 16. The cheer shook the walls.

But there were few more. Harrington took three easy sets, and Bristow's tournament was over. Yet in the penultimate leg, he still found time, with 64 required, to grin broadly at the cameras and say 'I'm under a lot of pressure here.' And shot 16, 16, double 16. He may no longer be a champion, but without him no world championship would be complete. Bad luck, Frimley Green.

(Photograph omitted)