On Tuesday I took my two sons to the world darts championship at Alexandra Palace, hardly expecting one of them to make history. We had tickets entitling us to go into the players' lounge, which in truth is just a big shabby room deep in the building's bowels, but as we made our way there an enormous bouncer blocked our way.
"Can't go in there with trainers on," he said, gesturing to the footwear of Joe, 14, and Jacob, 11. They were perfectly respectable trainers, and both boys were otherwise smartly dressed. Elsewhere in the great arena, there was one man dressed as an oompa-loompa, and another in a nun's habit, and it occurred to me that my boys had pulled off the rare trick of failing the dress code at a darts tournament. And then, when I bought Joe a pint of weak lager shandy, about an eighth lager to seven-eighths lemonade, he bagged a surely unprecedented double: not only failing the dress code at a darts tournament, but also falling foul of the drinking regulations. As all around us well-oiled men, and not a few women, roared their support for the players at the oche, another bouncer swooped. "You can't be drinking that, mate," he growled at Joe. "No chance."
Despite these brushes with authority, both boys loved their afternoon at the darts, and indeed it would have been hard not to: the joint was jumping. And nowhere was it jumping more than in the tiny Sky Sports commentary box, where Sid Waddell and Dave Lanning – "the Statler and Waldorf of sports broadcasting," according to Lanning – imbued the match between Simon "the Wizard" Whitlock and Wayne "The Wanderer" Jones with a degree of excitement and enthusiasm that wouldn't have been out of place had it been a World Cup final penalty shoot-out unfolding in the Maracana, rather than a second-round match in the arrers at Ally Pally.
I suppose that's the secret of darts coverage; building up a frenzy around an essentially static encounter between two men who wouldn't be mistaken for highly-tuned athletes even by Mr Magoo in a dark alley with a bag over his head, if I might borrow the kind of imagery routinely invoked by the irrepressible Waddell. My friends at Sky Sports had done a Jimmy Savile and fixed it for me to squeeze into the commentary box between Waddell and Lanning, assuring me that it would be an experience I would not quickly forget.
They were right. For starters, I was there for Waddell's extraordinary vocal warm-up exercises, and if you can imagine Tibetan monks chanting at the same time as Swiss goatherds yodelling, then you've more or less got the picture, or at any rate the sound. On which subject, Lanning told me that he first commentated on televised darts at the 1972 News of the World Championship, also at Ally Pally, for ITV's late, lamented Saturday afternoon show World of Sport. The anchorman was Eamonn Andrews, who calmed his nerves by telling him that he had to imagine he was talking to only two people, and that he was a guest in their home. It is advice that some present-day commentators would do well to absorb, and it continues to serve Lanning well; he is a calm presence at Waddell's twitching shoulder, dropping in the stats (I can tell you that from 170 downwards on a dart board, there are no fewer than 83,000 finishing permutations) while the skittish Geordie bard supplies the marvellous turns of phrase and flights of fancy.
On Tuesday they included a classic, one that ranks alongside some of the treasured Waddell quotes such as the one about his "eyes bulging like the belly of a hungry chaffinch" and "even Hypotenuse would have trouble working out these angles" and "when Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer ... Bristow's only 27." In the first leg, as the camera zoomed in on Whitlock, the Aussie nicknamed "the Wizard" because of his flamboyant goatee beard and extravagant pony tail, Waddell half-rose out of his seat. "The Wizard," he cried. "Looks like the fourth member of ZZ Top." Whitlock let loose his darts. Clearly, he was in form. Waddell's voice rose and quickened. "And now," he added, "we might see some ZZ double tops." There was only one word for it: magic commentary.
Sid Waddell is commentating for Sky Sports during its live and HD coverage of the Ladbrokes.com World Darts Championship
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