Everything was different. The dartboards were electronic. The players were standing in their living rooms. There was no crowd, no raucous singing and the closest thing to fancy dress was the master of ceremonies, John McDonald, who had decided to wear a suit and tie but no shoes. Yes, everything was different, in all ways but one: when it came to the crunch, Phil Taylor prevailed, beating the rising star Fallon Sherrock 7-6 on Thursday night in the latest Darts From Home exhibition.
It was a wonderful match, as these things go. Taylor clinched it with a 167 checkout in the final leg, having trailed for most of the contest. Sherrock left empty-handed despite registering a paranormal three-dart average of 120, and twice coming close to a nine-dart finish. Even making allowances for the soft-tip board, with its appreciably larger treble and double segments, Sherrock offered plenty to suggest that she has been making extremely profitable use of her lockdown time.
The pandemic arrived at a particularly inauspicious moment for the 25-year-old from Bletchley. Fresh from her seismic achievements at Alexandra Palace in December, where she became the first woman to win a match at the world championship, Sherrock appeared on course to cement her position as the sport’s coming force. In February, as a guest challenger, she claimed a stunning draw against Glen Durrant in the Premier League.
And yet without a tour card, her only real source of improvement – and income – has been the exhibition circuit, which like everything else is at a standstill. The US Darts Masters at Madison Square Garden, at which she was scheduled to compete in June, has been postponed until 2021. An underlying kidney problem means she remains confined to her house with her six-year-old son, Rory, even as lockdown eases. The punctures and pockmarks in her living-room wall indicate she has been spending a good deal of that time pounding the practice board.
Sherrock will be some player one day, as she demonstrated here in taking out a brilliant 155 checkout in the second leg and immediately following it up with a break of throw. Even throwing against the darts in the deciding leg, she produced back‑to-back 180s, briefly threatening to steal the match with a nine-dart finish. A little killer instinct and a little poise on the big doubles are all she lacks for now.
Taylor was certainly rattled. A good measure of this was the extent to which the 16-times world champion was chatting at the oche. “Good darts, duck,” he kept encouraging his opponent: a reminder that even three years into his competitive retirement and at a distance of 120 miles, he remains the king of mind games. He was playing in front of a glass cabinet filled with chintzy vases and carrying a little extra timber; for all the privations Taylor may have faced during lockdown, getting groceries delivered does not appear to have been one of them.
Above all, you sense that more than most, Taylor has always craved an audience. A crowd at his back was the wind in his sails, and whether they were cheering him or jeering him seemed not to matter very much. This is his third home exhibition in quick succession, having played Raymond van Barneveld and Mikuru Suzuki in recent days, but perhaps his most noteworthy public appearance of the pandemic has been to star in a faintly tragicomic viral video in which he ventured on to his front doorstep to clap for the prime minister, who at the time was sick with the virus. “Come on Boris,” he says in the video, applauding meatily and entirely on his own. “I haven’t got the Power – you have. Come on, pal.”
All good, clean, physically distanced fun. And yet even in these semi-serious encounters it is possible to get a glimpse of the near future: the sterile, contactless sport that awaits us in the coming months. Darts has been well ahead of the curve in adapting its product to the new landscape, the Professional Darts Corporation swiftly organising a Darts At Home tournament featuring most of the top players, as well as celebrity versions featuring Premier League footballers such as Declan Rice and James Maddison. Even so, something doesn’t feel quite right. Darts should be the easiest sport to play remotely and yet it still feels somehow bloodless and antiseptic.
Even with all the usual accoutrements – Dave Clark and Mark Webster providing analysis on Sky Sports, the regular commentators Stuart Pyke and Wayne Mardle calling the shots – you are reminded of how reliant the sport is on the swelling tide of the live audience, the carefully assembled tableau, the gladiatorial combat.
Herein, perhaps, lies a lesson for all sports trying to recreate their old magic for a new age. Since its very earliest days, sport has never simply been a pursuit of numbers and outcomes. It is a congregation, an ensemble production, the act of being in a place, all together.
That haptic sensation will be perhaps the biggest loss of all. Even darts, as it turned out, was a contact sport all along.