One down, 15 to go. The task of trying to catch Phil Taylor’s record of 16 World Matchplay titles is a daunting one, A task you would not even expect Michael van Gerwen, the world number one, to get close to completing.
Rob Cross, the world number two, has his first World Matchplay crown. An 18-13 win against Michael Smith, in a final which featured two first-time Winter Gardens finalists, earned Cross the £150,000 top prize and the second biggest title of his career.
It is a career, in professional darts, which let us not forget is still in its relative infancy. Cross won a tour card through the PDC’s second tier Challenge Tour at the back end of 2016, earning him at least two years on the main circuit.
Cross finished his first year on the professional tour by lifting the biggest prize in darts, the World Championship, and beat many people’s best two players to ever grace the oche, van Gerwen and Taylor, in the semi-finals and final.
It was at that very tournament, Cross was labelled in some quarters ‘the new Phil Taylor’. The similarities were there during those life-changing few weeks at Alexandra Palace. Taylor won the World Championship on his debut in 1990, Cross repeated the feat in his first appearance. Taylor breezed past, at the time, the best player ever, Eric Bristow, in the final, Cross did the same beating Taylor, the new incumbent of the ‘best ever to do it’ tag, 7-2 in the final.
Despite that stunning success, which the PDC even referred to on their official Twitter account as the Leicester City of darts, it has not been a completely smooth ride so far for Cross. Last year, by his own account, was a tough one, getting to grips with being the world champion and all of the responsibilities and pressure which came with it.
2018 was not a complete write off for Cross, though. He reached the Premier League play-offs at the first attempt, won a World Series event in Brisbane, and made two more finals on the World Series. A run of early exits on TV followed and the defence of his world title ended in the last 16, to the unranked Luke Humphries, and it felt like a weight had been lifted off the former electrician’s shoulders.
No longer the reigning world champion, 2019 was a fresh start for Cross. A clean slate, but also an important season, as for the first time he would be defending prize money on his ranking.
So far this year, Cross has been performing at a consistently high level, but the one thing which has been missing is a title. He reached the finals of both the UK Open and the Premier League, as well as a decider on the European Tour, but has fallen short on each occasion.
Not at one point did Cross start to doubt himself and doubt whether that winning feeling would return. He opened up his third campaign at the World Matchplay with a comfortable 10-3 win over Chris Dobey, averaging 100.60.
An 11-3 triumph against Krzysztof Ratajski followed in round two, as Cross ended his last-16 hoodoo at the Winter Gardens, and from there came two stern tests to reach Sunday’s final.
First, he held off a valiant fightback from Stephen Bunting, winning 16-14, then came one of the two best comebacks in the history of the World Matchplay. From 15-9 down, Cross won eight legs on the bounce to dump out Daryl Gurney 17-15 in the semi-finals.
It was a truly remarkable comeback, not a flawless one by any stretch, Gurney’s doubling did desert him, but there was several moments of quality. A 10-darter to make it 15-12, a 180, followed by an 88 checkout, with Gurney sat on 20, in the next leg. A clutch finish on 66, with one dart at double 18, again with Gurney sat waiting on a double, to make it 15-15. Three moments when Cross withstood the heat in the Winter Gardens furnace and showed a resilience we rarely saw for large parts of 2018.
In the final against Smith, Cross raced into a 9-1 lead at the second break and, when Smith was coming back at him and closed to within two legs behind at 15-13, there he was again capitalising at the crucial moments.
Leg 28. Smith has just missed the bull on 87 to break and get the match back on throw. Cross, on 72, finds the treble 20 with his first dart, and with his last dart pins double six to hold for 16-13 and derail Smith’s hot streak.
Leg 29. Smith misses the bull again, this time for a 161, a shot he did not necessarily have to go for with Cross not on a finish. Cross senses an outside opportunity, fires in a maximum to leave 43, Smith misses two at double on his return to hand Cross a chance again. Cross misses the big 11, straying into the eight, but composes himself to hit the single three and double 16 to break for 17-13 and now throw for the match.
Leg 30. Scores of 100, 140, 97 and 128 puts Cross on 36 after 12 darts. Three missed match darts gives Smith a lifeline, but he cannot take it, and Cross checks out on double four to get over the line 18-13 and join Taylor, van Gerwen and Gary Anderson in an exclusive club to have won both the PDC World Championship and World Matchplay.
As Cross said moments after in his post-match interview on stage, it is not a bad return for someone who has only been a professional for less than three years. Perhaps the World Championship win came too soon for Cross, even now he is still learning.
The new Phil Taylor? That might still be too early to say, but this success at the Winter Gardens, winning the World Matchplay, a second major title, should give him huge belief that he can leave a legacy to be reckoned with.
Picture: Chris Dean/PDC