A big presence: Luke Littler on the oche at the world darts championship

Dream teens

Promise is no guarantee of a long career


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Luke Littler may have discovered that sudden fame has a downside. A month ago, the 16-year-old darts player would have been able to buy a pint underage thanks to a mature physique that had been well honed at the kebab vans of Merseyside. Now, having reached the final of the world darts championship, watched by 4.8 million, a record on Sky for a sport other than football, he has been rumbled. It’s Fanta for you, sonny.

Littler’s prodigious talent — and to those who scoff at darts being called a sport, I invite you to hit a 170 finish with £500,000 on the line whilst being bayed at by a hall full of Smurfs — was developed over hours of practice on the oche of The Windle in St Helens, his local. Littler said he has been going to the pub five times a week since he was eight. That’s devotion to your craft.

A romantic might give a sad shake of the head at the finalists this year: a lad who was too young to drink beer legally and an opponent, “Cool Hand” Luke Humphries, whose BMI is in the “normal” range. What is darts coming to? Where are the literal giants of the game, such as Andy “The Viking” Fordham, the 2004 world champion, who tipped the scales at 31 stone?

Humphries, who had shed four stone during the pandemic, won the final 7–4 to become the leanest world darts champion since Bob “The Limestone Cowboy” Anderson in 1988, but let us hope that his young opponent sticks to what works for him. Littler by name, tubbier by stature, even if it does feel odd that our teenaged sports prodigy looks older than the new prime minister of France.

As well as a formidable talent for flinging tungsten into sisal from the gloriously precise range of 7ft 9¼in, Littler had the fearlessness of youth. It was a joy to watch. He was rightly compared to other stars of his age. At 16: Pelé made his Brazil debut and won the World Cup a year later; Sachin Tendulkar played his first Test and was still playing for India aged 40; Martina Hingis was world No 1 in tennis and won seven Grand Slam singles titles as a teenager; and Michael Phelps won his first world title in swimming and retired 15 years later with 27 of them plus 23 Olympic golds.

All this could await Luke “The Nuke”. Perhaps the most helpful thing for his career was that his run at Ally Pally earned him selection — on marketability rather than his world ranking of No 31 — to the elite group of eight who will contest the Premier League Darts over 16 weeks. Regular matches against the very best, rather than having to trudge round the circuit, will improve him.

But promise is no guarantee of a long career.

The 15 year-old Anna Kournikova

As boys in Mumbai, Vinod Kambli was talked about as much as Tendulkar. They shared a stand of 664 together in the semi-final of the Indian schools’ competition (Kambli 349, Tendulkar 326), where Kambli also took six wickets. He then hit the first ball he faced in first-class cricket for six.

Whilst Tendulkar was fast-tracked into the national side, Kambli had to wait until he was 19, but he reached 1,000 Test runs in only 14 innings — one more than Don Bradman. Then a run of poor form and off-field indiscretions came along: his Test career ended before he turned 24.

Consider, too, Theo Walcott, who was picked for the England football team in 2006 at 16, scored an international hat-trick at 19 and only got five more goals for his country in the next eight years. He retired last year at 34 having scored just 20 times in 160 club matches since 2017. The teen machine stopped firing.

Anna Kournikova was set for greatness when the Russian tennis player reached the fourth round of the US Open aged 15 and the semi-finals of Wimbledon at 16. Over the following years there was more focus on her looks than her groundstrokes: she won two doubles grand slams but was never a contender in singles.

Let’s also add Guan Tianlang, a Chinese golfer who qualified for and made the cut at the Masters in 2013 when he was 14 and has never played another major. He’s still only 24, but scrabbling round on the China Tour he is currently the world No 2,950.

But let us not be fixated with youth. Leslie Compton didn’t make his England football debut until he was 38, in 1950; Deon Fourie, a rugby flanker, was almost 36 when he first played for South Africa in 2022 and he was in their World Cup-winning XV a year later; Bert Ironmonger, a left-arm spinner, played all 14 off his Tests for Australia after the age of 45; and Richard Bland, a journeyman golfer, finally won his first European tour event in 2021 at 48, in his 478th start.

Success can come late. Anton Bruckner composed his first symphony when he was 39 — at that age Mozart had been dead for four years. Kenneth Grahame didn’t write The Wind in the Willows until he was almost 50; Raymond Chandler’s first novel The Big Sleep came out when he was 51; Mary Wesley’s first novel came at 70. It gives me hope, at 47, that a fat man with dubious fashion sense could still become a world champion. Now where did I put my darts?

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