Waddell rides into town with a new posse

Greg Wood finds that darts has a new, brighter style
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The Independent Online
Boz from Essex was a late arrival for the first evening session of the World Darts Championship. He stood quietly in the foyer of Purfleet's Circus Tavern, waiting his turn to enter the auditorium with just the occasional, impatient shuffle of his feet. All four of them.

Boz was a fully grown, saddled-up showjumper, hired to accompany Bob "The Limestone Cowboy" Anderson to the stage before his match against Jerry Umberger on Tuesday night. The trouble was, no-one thought to tell Anderson until half an hour beforehand, atwhich point it became clear that his famous cowboy image has more to do with a fondness for country and western music than an affinity for horses. "They don't like me for some reason," he said afterwards. "I've never ridden one in my life, and I once had a pony rear up on me, kicking and biting."

The cowboy who is terrified of horses was just one of the unexpected attractions at the premier tournament organised by the World Darts Council, the breakaway body which has run a professional circuit for almost two years. The British Darts Organisation,the game's official ruling body, will stage the Embassy World Championship at Frimley Green between 1 and 8 January, but the eventual winner's fame will barely stretch beyond the door of his local's saloon bar. Rather than list the famous names at the WDC event, it is simpler to say that it includes every darts player you have ever heard of, except Bobby George (and Bobby is not what he was).

Using lights, music, smoke-machines and clever camera- angles - and Boz - the WDC and Sky TV are mainlining razzmatazz into a game which had seemed ready to return to obscurity, with only Eric Bristow's MBE to show for its few years in the public eye. Sofamous were the leading players in the mid-1980s that a confused set decorator on Top of the Pops once famously adorned the stage on which Dexy's Midnight Runners were performing "Jackie Wilson Said" with a large picture of Jocky Wilson. But the airtimedisappeared, and with it the sponsors, and when the le ading players - and others whose fame had outlasted their best form - set up the WDC, it was a final, desperate throw of the arrows.

All three now appear to have landed in treble 20. The top players are there, and as Anderson pointed out, Rupert Murdoch's network allows Sky's coverage to extend far beyond the nation's pubs and clubs. "It goes to North America, the Far East via the Star channel, and all through Spain and northern Europe. Apparently the last tournament they showed, from Blackpool, went to 120 million homes."

And the WDC's "ton-80" has been completed by the arrival of a name more important even than Bristow or Wilson. Sid Waddell, the voice of darts on the BBC since 1977, has signed up with Sky, and suddenly a dish seems worth the money. No one communicates

their excitement and obsession with a game quite like Waddell. Without his feverish, compulsive commentary, which at moments of particular tension slips into almost impenetrable Geordie, last year's WDC championship simply was not complete.

"I moved because I'd rather commentate on Newcastle United than Blythe Spartans," Waddell says." The WDC has got star quality, and Sky and darts just mix. Darts is slightly over the top, slightly garish, and they're producing very flash coverage of a very flash game.

"People used to say that comedy was the new rock and roll, but in a way aspects of sport are, and Sky covers them. The wrestling become a form of ballet, and even men driving big trucks at each other can have an operatic quality."

It is the sort of grand statement which so endears Waddell to his followers, and down in the Tavern, the atmosphere as the 1,000-strong crowd waited to greet Dennis Priestley, last year's champion, and John Lowe, victorious in 1983, was certainly that ofa raucous rock concert. All but a handful were rooting for Lowe, an old favourite apparently in decline after two decades at the ochie, but the bookies odds of 1-6 Priestley, with Lowe a 20-1 chance to win in three sets, implied that they would leave disappointed.

The excitement as Lowe calmly took leg after leg for a two-set lead was suffocating. It roared still higher as he started the third with two consecutive 180s, three throws away from a nine-dart finish, the game's equivalent of a 147 break in snooker. In the commentary box too, the emotion was rising towards delirium. "It's got to be the cruellest game in the world, forget bullfighting," Waddell yelled. "John Lowe's walking this ochie like a zombie, like one of the undead. Dennis is like Custer at the last stand. The Iroquois one way, the Shoshoni the other... and the Apaches behind him."

The seventh dart missed treble 17 by a centimetre, but Lowe took the leg, and the next two as well to send his fans on to the tables and Priestley back to the dressing-room after an astonishing whitewash. "If the old champion can't beat the new champion,the game is dead," Lowe had said before the match. On Tuesday night's evidence, it is in excellent health.

Priestley, the world No.1, was utterly humiliated. "The cruel, vicious poetry of darts continues," Waddell said. And long may it do so.

Scores, Sporting Digest, page 31