January 9, 2016

T20's spiritual brother

Darts and cricket have plenty in common, and darts owes cricketers a tiny bit for its unexpected popularity as a televised spectator sport

Andrew Flintoff: T20 and darts excite him (a lot) © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

And so to news that the Benaud-sized void in Australian cricket commentary has been filled, with Andrew Flintoff pounding away at the late doyen's maxim about not speaking unless you can add to the pictures with all the relentlessness he once applied to dismissing Adam Gilchrist.

Flintoff's custard-pie commentary turn at the Big Bash has run the full tonal gamut, from bewildered astonishment at his earnest sidekick Ricky Ponting's prescient ability to second-guess what type of delivery might be bowled given the field (rather confirming the impression that appointing Fred skipper for the 2006-07 Ashes was not such a judicious call), to goofy amazement at portly men taking catches in the bleachers, each greeted with the sort of breathless verbal outpouring you'd expect from a man learning his death sentence had just been repealed. Those not sated should hunt down the latest addition to Flintoff's burgeoning celebrity portfolio: darts commentator on the Sky TV game show One Hundred and Eighty.

The show was filmed at Blackpool's iconic darting amphitheatre, the Winter Gardens, where Fred's guest commentary stint at the World Matchplay in July 2012 coincided with current darting kingpin Michael van Gerwen hitting a hallowed nine-darter, the 31st in televised history and doubtless the first to be called by a man with 3000 Test runs. Although he didn't know it then, this was Flintoff's informal audition for One Hundred and Eighty, which in turn, it now appears, was finishing school for the BBL banterthon.

Flintoff the cricketer was defined by his Everyman appeal: he bashed a length, smashed the ball, and this no-nonsense approach (to life as to commentary) is ideally suited to darts, a tactics-free game of sustained high-pitch drama. They're a good fit. Indeed, notwithstanding Svelte Fred's post-cricketing makeover, this erstwhile carouser of renown carries a residual pub glamour and in a less accommodating era you could well imagine his retired fast-bowling bones running an alehouse - The Cricketer's Arms, say, or The Line and Length, The Play and Miss, or Stick of Rhubarb - where he would fine-tune his darts technique, slowly expand to his non-fighting weight, and dream dreams of a sporting encore.

The action in darts is as distant as it is in cricket © Getty Images

Flintoff's darting dalliance sees him follow in another fast-bowling Fred's footsteps: FS Trueman, whose own post-playing career led him to present The Indoor League, the programme that in 1972 introduced darts to British TV screens. It was broadcast by Yorkshire Television from a hotel in Leeds and featured various pub-game competitions, including bar billiards, skittles, arm-wrestling and shove ha'penny.

This being contrarian Yorkshire, the standard dartboard was eschewed, an idiosyncrasy about which Trueman, in wool cardigan with suede panels, puffing on a pipe and cradling a pint of the brown stuff, informed his audience thusly: "Now remember all you lot south of t'Trent, this is real darts on a Yorkshire board: no trebles, no fluky shots, just a helluva lot of skill."

The show's producer was Sid Waddell, darts' great proselytiser and the man after whom the PDC World Championship trophy is named. No real cricketer himself, Waddell did pen a few series of a BBC Kids TV Series Sloggers about a junior cricket team from the fictional town of Slogthwaite in Lancashire (surely Flintoff's spiritual home), based on watching his son, Dan.

You'd perhaps be hard-pressed to predict darts blooming into such a compelling TV spectacle on the basis of Indoor League, yet after a first golden age was followed by sharp decline, sports impresario Barry Hearn imagineered a makeover every bit as dramatic as Flintoff's, to such an extent that every ticket for this year's PDC World Championships was sold (3000-capacity arena, 15 days). This despite the sport being played with the competitors' backs to the audience and on a board the size of Monty Panesar's pitch map, making the experience akin to watching live chess at Eden Gardens.

Alastair Cook and James Anderson played darts against each other last year © Getty Images

It was on that same Ally Pally stage that English cricket's relationship with darts was consummated, when Jimmy "The Swinger" Anderson took on Alastair Cook, darts-nicknamed "Bed and Breakfast", punning reference to both playing a long innings (as in: book in for…) and the quintessential mediocre darts score of 26: a three-dart visit of 5, 1 and 20. Neither came close to a nine-darter, although Anderson thunked in a 134, Cook responding with 140 en route to victory (in 34 darts). The result may surprise, given the assumption that darts would be the preserve of (a) the bowlers, and (b) the northerners, yet Cook had been indoctrinated by Flintoff and his old mucker Steve "Grievous Bodily" Harmison. The latter lugged a dartboard on England tours to help ward off loneliness and homesickness. Graeme Swann also partook. His nickname? "The Shoplifter: because I never made it to the checkout".

Cricket's affinity with darts should come as no surprise: after all, there's also a mutual obsession with averages (be it three-dart or batting), big tons and cover shots. (More tenuously, the highest ever innings score is 501, while darts crowds love getting stuck into full pitchers.) Indeed, given the apparent transferability of skills - chiefly, delivering a projectile into a small target, and cursory arithmetic - there should be a fair amount of cross-pollination.

More than anything, though, English cricket's kinship with darts is the result of inclement weather, of being trapped indoors and trying to ward off the tedium, the frustration. If your clubhouse couldn't offer bar billiards, skittles or shove ha'penny, that usually meant killer pool, or cards, or repelling the hyper-extending doosra-flickers of dressing-room cricket with a stump, or darts, the most versatile of the lot, offering straight 501 games, Around the Clock, Half-It, Killer, or even an American darts-based game called Cricket - which, ironically, is unfathomably complex. There's also a Twenty20 darts game, which looks quite interesting.

With their garish shirts and half-soaked crowds in fancy dress, their cavorting dancers, walk-on music and obsession with maximums, T20 and darts are clearly spiritual brethren. Yet with England's domestic T20 unable to decide whether it wants a single summer bloc or Friday nights, franchises or counties, perhaps Hearn could bring his trusty template - the glamour, the gladiators, the knockabout populist razzmatazz - to the NatWest Blast. They'd probably want to jettison the walk-on girls, mind. And please, only small doses of Freddie.

Scott Oliver tweets here