Sport on TV: Grace and generosity on Planet Darts

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The Independent Online
THROW a dart, blindfold, at last week's Radio Times, and you hit darts. BBC 2 had the Embassy World Professional Championship - the traditional, classic, revered competition. Sky Sports had the WDA Championship - the new, brash and tarty one. There's a message in there somewhere.

At Sunday's final, satellites beamed Sky's pictures from Essex to America and Asia - Planet Darts. 'From Newcastle to Nuremberg, to New York, to the foothills of Nepal, to the far bar rooms of Nagasaki - this is the Skol Championship,' said Dave Lanning, whose atlas had obviously fallen open at the index under 'n'. That was his first use of the rhetorical mode we're fast learning to refer to as Sky high. There was more. 'What could easily be the greatest darts show on earth . . . a quite exceptional night of darts . . . incredible scenes.' Close your eyes and you were on the set of a Cecil B de Mille movie. Open them, and you were in a pub in Purfleet.

The coverage responded to the usual Sky initiative: why fit a sporting event into an hour when you can drag it out to two? Celebrities from the worlds of darts, entertainment and nude modelling offered their predictions.

John Lowe, the darting oldster, was taking the 'for the good of the sport' line: 'I seriously think darts is going to win.' But this wasn't a tip we could use at the bookies. More boldly, Mike Read from Eastenders went for Phil Taylor. And Michelle Collins, a Page Three girl, wearing a pink dress which was almost her size, said she was picking Dennis 'the Menace' Priestly. 'He's OK and he's a northerner and, ooh, he's lovely.' There's probably a job for Michelle in daytime television, if she can just play down the intellectual side.

Eventually, it was time to meet Priestly and Taylor or, as Lanning preferred to think of them, 'the top two players on the entire planet earth'. Over some pumping rock music they descended a staircase from the players' lounge, pinching and pushing each other like schoolboys. The walk to the stage, shot with that woozy, real-time slow-motion effect, seemed to go on for ever, until you suspected they were being led round the auditorium twice, and perhaps once round the car park for good measure. But eventually they made it, and we were game on. 'Listen to that reverent calm,' said Lanning, as the Menace paused at the board at the start of the first leg. 'You might say a Priestly calm,' John Gwynne added. It was the last joke for quite a while, except for the inadvertent ones. ('He'll be going for that double in order to get another leg under the belt' etc.)

Sky were demonstrating an over-the-oche camera - 'another Sky Sports innovation' - but it didn't yield much, unless your interest was darts players' partings. Needless to say, they put the camera on during the interval when Michelle threw darts for charity. How cheap can Sky get, while still charging a subscription fee?

A quarter of the way in, Taylor was legless - though strictly in the sense that he had won no legs. (They frown on drinking and smoking on the oche these days.) He never really recovered, but for a 12-darter, deep in the fourth set, after which he turned, wriggled and planted a kiss on Priestly's forehead. (Darts players go in for quite a bit of kissing: it's one of the things which attests to their often neglected humanity, a topic we'll return to.) Taylor lost 6-1. 'Dennis Priestly stands astride the world of darts,' announced Lanning.

BBC 2 played the Embassy tournament in a lower key - if you can call low-key an event with Bobby George on the oche and Tony Green in the commentary position: 'Well, even when St George was damaging the reptile, I'm not sure he had as many fans as Bob.' Afterwards, George lamented a 'scruffy performance. It's nice to win, sure. But I want to entertain.' I can't remember the last sportsman to express this sentiment, but it was probably WG Grace. This was one of many occasions in the week in which you warmed to the players for old-fashioned reasons.

For another example, consider the end of that WDA match. Taylor had barely re- pouched his darts before Jeff Stelling was pushing a microphone under his nose and asking him, in so many words, how it felt to be trounced in front of the world. 'Not my night,' conceded Taylor, visibly upset and hoping to get away with few words. But still Stelling pressed him, asking two more questions, with the crowd braying and with Taylor in some kind of agony of embarrassment or disappointment or confusion. Finally, Priestly stepped in.

'It's hard to talk, Jeff, when you've just played, especially if you've been defeated - it's not easy to talk and think about saying the proper things, even when you've won.' The tenor and grace of Priestly's words, the respect and protective concern for a rival, were impressive and moving.

According to legend, darts players are a bunch of fat drunks in nylon shirts. But they don't go public about their desire for more money, like footballers. They don't bitch and cavil, like golfers. They're nowhere near as boring as tennis players. In fact, what last week demonstrated above all was that, if you're looking for a display of the pure sporting virtues - refined skill allied with deportment in action and graciousness in defeat - then it might just be that darts is the only place you'll find it. John Lowe was right - darts won.