For a bull's-eye view of SA's top darts players, look no further than the Cape Town nationals.
While the rest of the country has been glued to its televisions, indulging in the four-yearly binge that is the World Cup, the darts community was honing its skills before the start of the national championships in Cape Town this week.
At the Randfontein Sports Club in late June, the members of the Gauteng West and West Rand associations came together in a practice match, tightening their games, getting into a positive frame of mind and receiving last orders from Gauteng Darts Association president Danny Pillay.
The World Cup might have been blaring away on a screen nearby but the darts throwers remained largely oblivious of whether so-and-so was faking a dive into the box or not, searching instead for the rush that comes from plunging your dart into a triple 20 three times in a row.
There are places up for grabs in the Proteas squad for the World Championships in Turkey next year. If local darts can be said to have reached its Waterloo then this is it.
Leading the Gauteng West charge down to the Cape is Angel Morgan, the closest thing darts in this country has to an AB de Villiers or a Teko Modise. Angel – real name, Engelbert Stewart Morgan (Angel is an adaptation of the “Engel” in Engelbert) – is a little guy with a big mullet and a wistful demeanour that belies an intense will to win.
Some players have darts down to a fine art. (Madelene Cronjé)
His dedication apparently knows no bounds because he has violated the sanctity of the matrimonial bedroom by hanging a dartboard on one of its walls. His wife, Brenda, appears to be comfortable with Angel’s decision and, indeed, in what can only be seen as a vote of confidence, has taken up darts herself.
Whether this is out of a well-developed sense of marital pragmatism or a genuine love of the sport is difficult to say. Still, Brenda will be at the nationals, egging on her man, hoping that the Gauteng posse can blow away some of Western Province’s finest, such as the internationally ranked Devon Petersen and the mighty Mitchells Plain policeman Charles Losper.
Angel learnt his darts at the feet of Lenny Moodley, initially of Overport in Durban but latterly of Lenasia, what one might call the Alamo of the local darts scene with an estimated 800 players.
“I would say of Angel here that he’s a legend in the making – I don’t think he’s finished just yet,” says Moodley with a nudge in his protégé‘s direction.
“He used to sit and watch me play when he was a laaitie [youngster], maybe for two or three months when he first came up to Lenz from Durban. I was an arrogant prick way back so that was what inspired him to learn the game and work harder to make himself better than me.”
Unlike most darts players, who graduate through the smoky, wood-panelled ranks at clubs like the one in Randfontein, Moodley was a pub hustler, learning the game as a student while playing for Black Label quarts in Overport hotels such as the Admiral and the Hilltop.
“It used to take about 20 quarts before I was beaten,” he says of his hustling days in the mid-1980s.
“We would get six small glasses of beer per quart for me and my friends and, in return, they would throw me a braai on the weekend. We were watched by the gangs, the Crimson League and the Salots. They knew I was hustling. They didn’t mind because I was a student. It was a good school to learn. People interrupt you, they walk across you. It’s a pub; people don’t give a shit.”
Known as “Jiver” because of his tendency to bend his knees after throwing and his jive-talkin’ ways, Moodley is one of the sport’s larger-than-life heroes. He can both tell a good joke and be the butt of one, one of the few characters who is able to tease the more naturally reserved West Randers in a way they all secretly love.
What’s most noticeable watching the community in action in Randfontein, a low-lit place full of bric-a-brac and carpets of truly unique colour combinations, with the chalk for scoring collected in miniature potjies beneath the boards, is their sense of camaraderie.
They curse together and drink and smoke together, and then curse and drink and smoke together some more. It can mean a long evening, although you rather feel that speed darts – followed by a mandatory quick round of lager – would somehow be anathema to the communities’ leisured sensibilities.
Camaraderie plays a big part in darts, lubricated by rounds of lager. (Madelene Cronjé)
Which is not to say that there aren’t fault lines in the sport. There have been issues about the status of professional players in the local association and some of the younger, more ambitious players have a sense of grievance towards Darts South Africa for not doing more to promote a sport that translates easily to television and is often fun to commentate.
Darts in South Africa has no instantly recognisable heroes or men who are asked for their autograph when they pop down to the local pizzeria, unlike, say, Raymond van Barneveld of the Netherlands. With money and television time being limited, this is unlikely to change quicker than you can say 501.
Whatever the minor stresses and strains of the sport, “Jiver” and Pillay still qualify as darts brekers [bruisers]. Both were there in 1993 when the respective racially defined organisations played against each other for the first time – darts’s Codesa, if you like – and Moodley tells a good yarn about what a surreal day it was.
“There we all were by the Goodwood showgrounds for the nationals and the nonracial guys enter the hall from the one side and the white guys come in from the other. We walk straight past each other. Don’t say a word, checking each other out as if to say: ‘Who are you?’ Strange thing was that honours were shared at that tournament between the white guys and the nonracial guys. Out of that comes the first unity board. We were one of the first, if not the first, sports in South Africa to amalgamate.”
The Western Cape is again the site of a big tussle as the National Championships unfold this week. Losper, who is known as “The Sensation” in darts circles, is expected to give the upcountry boys a run for their money, as is Petersen, known to aficionados as “The Spartan” and now campaigning out of Yorkshire from where the substantial professional rewards of the European circuit beckon like a bull’s-eye.
There are others in the mix, such as upcountry players such as the talented Shawn Hogan. They will be doing everything they can to wrest the initiative away from sundry Spartans and sensations, hoping to do well enough for a seat on the plane to Turkey.