Monday 19 February 2018

In Brief: Free wise men are following stars to the pint of no return

Dion Fanning

F reddie Flintoff made it to the Ally Pally last week. Freddie, who recently announced he was getting too old to be "pulling all-nighters", found himself with people of unquestionable stamina in the great hall.

Freddie was alongside Sid Waddell commentating on the first-round match between Terry Jenkins and Joe Cullen before spending the rest of the night enjoying the darts among the fans. The next morning, he was confessing on Twitter that he wasn't feeling great. Freddie knows his darts.

He wasn't the only one heading, literally or figuratively, to the Ally Pally. In this cold snap, or winter as we soon will have to call it, the darts has been a beacon, the shining city on a hill. They rose for their Christmas recess late last Thursday night and they will be back tomorrow. Less and less is certain in this world, but that is.

The rounds before the interval were all about the darters getting through so they could "enjoy their Christmas". There may not be pinting at the oche anymore, but darts hasn't lost touch with its roots. They will enjoy the Christmas, showing an epicurean devotion to good living, although with less emphasis on the 'good'.

They are living, up there on the hill. There was no danger of postponement at the Alexandra Palace. It was as if the health and safety brigade looked at them and said, "They're going to be drunk anyway -- let's put them all in one place where they can do less damage". Of course, it is possible they are simply not aware of the existence of the PDC World Dart Championships.

They may simply not be aware that there are drunk men climbing up the hill in the snow to the Ally Pally where they will become even more drunk. Later they will fall down the hill and they will not know how many units of alcohol they have consumed or if they are falling down the hill.

The authorities may not be aware of the beautiful women who lead the less beautiful darters to the oche and then walk away suggestively holding hands and blowing kisses to the camera for no good reason at all.

They may not be aware of all the drinking and betting and darting that is going on and that it is going on guilt-free.

Darts may have made a great leap forward with Phil Taylor coming second in the Sports Personality of the Year award, but it is possible only the core support are paying attention. They venture to the Ally Pally with thoughts of freedom. The music that is pumped out at the end of each set as they dance their magic dance is the sound of freedom, or at least a glimpse of it.

Christmas may be coming, but they are looking at spending some time away from their families. Perhaps they will even pull an all-nighter, emulating their heroes and Freddie Flintoff, who is getting too old for that.

They are comfortable with their identity and in a place like the Ally Pally, it looks comforting.

* * * * *

Flintoff was captain the last time England travelled to Australia for the Ashes. He was the popular choice as captain so it was no surprise he was a disaster. Freddie had pulled an all-nighter in the celebrations following England's epic Ashes victory in 2005 and was hailed as an heroic figure. Some saw his heroics as the all-nighter, not his exceptional cricket.

England have done a lot to get away from their old patterns of behaviour. Yet some of the ancient ways remain. Before the last Test, they were preparing to hail the retention of the Ashes before Christmas. Articles were published wondering if this was the worst Australian side ever. England expected and when England expects, the worst usually happens.

It hasn't happened yet, but the manner in which Australia responded in Perth suggested the Worst Australian Side Ever may yet pull it off.

England are trying to be what they are not and so far they are succeeding. Traditionally, they have gone on these tours with a devotion only to the haphazard.

Now they are measured and patient, determined not to make changes, to do anything that might resemble panic.

Eoin Morgan remains ignored and it's easy for the selectors to ignore Morgan as their batsmen score runs -- or most of them do -- and there is no clamour for his selection.

There may come a time when Morgan is a regular in the England side and they look back and wonder what they were doing selecting Paul Collingwood or Jonathan Trott (I've reluctantly come to accept Ian Bell's presence) instead of this instinctive genius.

It may be that instinctively they distrust genius which is another of their core values.

But Australia are so far from their own core values that it didn't seem to matter. Australia's selection policy reminds people of nothing more than a traditional England selection policy.

It reminds people of an English selection policy during one of those long summers when they would select about 145 players and 17 captains while trying some innovative approach like playing with two wicket-keepers. Or none.

Australia have scrambled around but in the aftermath of the Perth Test, Ricky Ponting talked about how he had been given the team he wanted and the team went out and smashed England.

Ponting is a tragic figure. He is a great player and a deeply flawed captain, if not as flawed a captain as Flintoff. He has had the bad luck to captain a side just when all the greats were checking out.

Instead he must try and get the best from Michael Beer or Dougie Bollinger, men whose very names remind him of what he has had to deal with, on and off the cricket field.

Now there are glimpses of the Australian ruthlessness. The rumours that they would use a drop-in pitch in Melbourne that would replicate Perth turned out to be groundless, but the memories of Perth may keep them going.

Australia may yet remember who they are. They are prepared to do anything to deny England. That is who they are.

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