Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Taylor Affect

A post over at Andy's Blog is looking forward to the World Matchplay (the next televised PDC tournament, at the end of July) with some trepidation:

I guess it's inevitable after so many years of Phil Taylor being the dominant force in professional darts that the question is asked: is Taylor's dominance actually good for the sport?

I take Andy's point that for some people the sense that they already know what the outcome of the tournament will be can take the edge off watching. However, I'd like to look at things from a somewhat more optimistic point of view.

Phil Taylor has done an enormous amount to bring darts as a sport into the mainstream, and there are a large number of people out there who only got into watching darts because they heard about Phil Taylor. Those people, for whom watching Taylor is a highlight, shouldn't be put off by a continuation of his dominance. Taylor playing like he has done recently is a great thing to watch in and of itself; much excitement comes from wondering whether or not he'll surpass himself.

Also, we know for a fact that Phil Taylor is not unbeatable because we've seen him get beaten before, so there's also a certain frisson that comes from wondering whether anyone will be able to stop him this time. He sets the level which every other player wants - or should want - to beat.

Andy is right to point out that it is up to the other players to take the game to Taylor and play at his level, and he's also right to point out that even the best players can play below their usual standard when up against the Power; during the UK Open one commentator referred to this as 'The Taylor Affect'.

One thing that the darts detractors (and despite recent improvements, there are many) consistently underestimate is the psychological nature of darts, and the amount of mental strength that is required to play at the top level. To regularly put two or three darts into an area of board with roughly the surface area of a 10p piece from 7 feet 9 1/4 inches away takes a throwing action with incredible consistency. This in turn requires every muscle and sinew in the hand, arm and shoulder to act in exactly the right way; even the slightest doubts or emotions or rush of adrenalin can cause loss of focus and concentration (making the arm muscles tense up a bit, or the fingers linger on the barrel at the release, or the shoulder move out of line or the wrist bend too much) and throw the shot off target. On a board which was designed (by Brian Gamlin in 1896) to punish inaccuracy to the greatest possible extent, this matters a great deal.

Regular snooker players will know how this works: when Ronnie O'Sullivan is stroking in shots the length and breadth of the table, and everything just seems to drop in perfectly, the commentators say not that he's aiming well, but that he's cueing well. That's because aiming is a relatively small part of the shot; what really counts, and what is most difficult, is ensuring that the cue action is consistent, accurate and controlled enough to put the cue ball and the object ball where the player's eyes are telling him they should go. A little too much tension in the arm can result in, say, screwing the cue ball back too far or sending the object ball towards the pocket at the wrong angle.

Therefore 'The Taylor Affect' could aso be put down, not just to players crumbling, but on them being too focused on beating the Power and too emotionally invested in the match. When things start to go wrong, as they did for Gary Anderson in the UK Open Final, determination to get back into the match can make matters worse; then frustration and resignation set in, and as soon as that happens the match is as good as over.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Phil Taylor is only human; it is possible, although difficult, to rattle him and cause him to pull shots or slip off line - Denis Ovens demonstrated that in the UK Open Semi Final when Taylor missed several shots at a double. The players who achieve this are those who come at him like a bat out of hell, break him early and open up a lead, putting him under pressure; once Taylor gets his head in front it's almost impossible to pull him back.

I think Andy is a little harsh on Gary Anderson's performance in the UK Open Final. His scoring stats (2 180, 15 140+ and 19 100+) are not that different to Taylor's (3, 16, 20). However he hit just over a quarter of the doubles he went for, whilst Taylor hit just over half; doubling is the weakest aspect of Anderson's game and this must have played on his mind. Also, Taylor and Anderson get on well; I thought seeing Anderson take his defeat in a good spirit showed character, rather than standing by the oche with a face like a slapped arse. Finally, I suspect that when Anderson said he was happy he meant with the tournament overall, which he should have been, rather than with the final specifically. I'm sure he wasn't happy with second place, but he still had a good tournament.

I'd like to ask Andy to comment on this, but his blog isn't configured for comments and there are no contact details (reading a few posts down should explain why); if he wants to comment he's very welcome to, as is anyone else...

Overall, I think Taylor attracts many more people to darts than he puts off, but the other players do need to raise their games to his level more often. Of course, many young players have grown up watching Taylor, and I can't think of a better darting role model for them.

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