What have we learned in 2023?
When Rob Cross missed out on a place in 2022, it was the first time in more than ten years that a player winning a televised ranking tournament had not been chosen for the next edition of the Premier League. The bitterness of the Cross camp was apparent at the time and seems to have lingered, judging by his comments about the Masters and disdain for the thought of a call-up.
Today, two more names joined Cross on the list of major winners to miss out: Danny Noppert and Ross Smith. Neither Noppert nor Smith were even the most surprising omission, with Luke Humphries taking that unwanted accolade. Humphries was considered by many as a certainty after five titles in 2022, four of which were on stage in Europe.
In contrast to these disappointments, the winner in Milton Keynes has now been included three years running, in all cases without having won a televised title prior to that. Has the Masters become a qualifying event for the Premier League? Not necessarily so. In his interview explaining the decisions made, PDC Chief Executive Matthew Porter gave a typically polished account of the thinking behind the eight names, and at the same time questioned whether the Masters was becoming overshadowed as a spectacle in its own right, by talk of the Premier League. Porter admitted that the current approach might need reviewing.
Whilst the Masters trend may or may not continue, what is evident from Monday’s announcement is that the recency bias of selection is getting stronger. The last third of Noppert’s season was not at the level of the first two. The second half of Humphries’ season was underwhelming following the rod he made for his own back: after establishing himself as one of the very best by running away with titles in the early part of 2022 and reaching number five in the world, great things were expected of Cool Hand that didn’t materialise. Ross Smith has not made it past the second round of a televised tournament since his epic win in Dortmund.
On the other side of the coin, Dimitri Van den Bergh found something at the business end of the season, reaching the semifinal at Alexandra Palace then following it up with a couple of ton-plus averages in the World Series to illustrate the kind of form that would mix it with the elite (he did win a Players Championship tournament in the Spring too). After topping the Premier League table, Jonny Clayton went on a poor run before recovering with some impressive displays in getting to the last four of the Players Championship Finals, last eight of the World Championship and last four of one of the World Series events. He also looked sharp at the Masters with an average just shy of 100 in a destruction of James Wade, even though he lost his next game to Peter Wright. Chris Dobey, of course, won the title and as Porter quite rightly pointed out, had previously gone a long way at the European Championship, Grand Prix and World Championship. Nathan Aspinall was defeated in a nail-biter at the World Championship against the new golden boy of darts, Josh Rock, but had reached the final of the Grand Slam just over a month earlier.
The PDC makes no bones about the fact that selection outside of the world’s top four is arbitrary. Porter spoke of judgement calls being made on the readiness of players, which sounded like a consideration of their welfare. He described the assessment of this as something along the lines of being able to handle the rigours of performing on stage in front of large crowds every week, demonstrated by the ability to consistently go far in the high-profile events. People will no doubt question whether this was a way of justifying a decision after making it, with other factors being at play like the potential to sell tickets and generate more commercial interest. It’s hard to tell – is Van den Bergh more appealing than Humphries? If social media is a barometer of public feeling, many have begun to find the Belgian unenjoyable to watch. Is Clayton more of a spectator draw than Ross Smith or Danny Noppert? It’s all a matter of opinion. If it was purely about dollars and cents then the marketable Joe Cullen might have got another call up or they could have turned to their old favourite, Raymond van Barneveld, who would have packed out arenas everywhere. Porter’s rationale kind of stacks up even if you disagree with it, when you analyse those respective players’ performances in the big events more recently.
So, it appears that you have to be playing well at the time, as well as being a proven TV performer on a consistent basis. This brings us back to Rob Cross, who has been in the final of two of the last three major TV tournaments, threw one of the highest averages ever in Milton Keynes two days ago, and is a former World Champion. Surely, he meets these criteria more closely than any of the other four wildcards? Cross shot himself in the foot though, or perhaps more aptly, blew both his feet off with grenades by criticising the system and suggesting (falsely, one assumes) that he wouldn’t have played in it anyway. Alas, no point in inviting him then.
The goalposts have definitely moved in the last few years , and could continue to move. With so much money at stake and the players desperate to be part of it, perhaps what’s required of them should be made clearer and more measurable.
It would have been fascinating to see whether the trend of Masters winners’ inclusion continued if Cross, and not Dobey, had emerged victorious on Sunday night. Or whether the antics of Cross would have come back to haunt him in the ultimate snub. We’ll never know.
Image by Taylor Lanning.