Cross aiming to give darts a lift
DON'T judge a book by its cover - that might well be the mantra for PDC world darts champion Rob Cross.
Modern-day darts players like Cross, the 27-year-old from Hastings on England's south coast, have been battling to change the sport's image.
Darts has and always will have a link to the British pub, big men and drinking alcohol.
And for those who don't understand the game as it is now, it is still perceived to be like that.
But darts is one of the fastest-growing sports on the planet, both in participation numbers and TV viewers, and for Cross, who in his world championship debut in January defeated Phil Taylor to capture the world crown, that perception needs to change.
Thanks to the Professional Darts Corporation, darts is now a big-money industry with top players earning huge amounts. But for some, the game is still not recognised as a sport and that is something Cross cannot understand.
I spoke to him in the Pullman Hotel in Auckland before the start of the World Series of Darts' Oceanic Tour, which heads to Brisbane this week after setting alight Melbourne.
Cross, a former electrician, who turned professional only 11 months before winning the world crown in January, has a message for those who don't view darts as a sport.
"We sacrifice a lot and to say that it's not a sport with the amount of effort and practice we put in every day, I think it's an insult to get judged like that," he said.
"It's easy to judge and social media is the best one.
"Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but for those people who think that (darts is not a sport), I would like them to step into my shoes and see the work I put in and let them have a go at it and see if they can do it as well as me.
"If they can then good luck to them, but if they can't then hopefully it will change their mind."
Cross said turning professional was not an easy decision but with the support of his family, he has no regrets.
"I get to do things I never dreamt of and this (the World Series of Darts' Oceanic Tour) is one of them," he said.
"You have to work hard at it and dedicate yourself to it.
"I think it's important that we make the rest of the world aware that this is actually a job.
"We have come away from the pubs now and it's not just a pub game anymore.
"We are never going to forget our roots. It makes me appreciate what I do now because I used to work too.
"I know what it's like to go and graft. But if we look at darts it's only growing, it's only getting bigger.
"Look how far it has come on from the 1980s and 1990s. I think the change in it has been great and has been great for the sport.
"These boys on this tour work doubly hard and they have all got what they have got through hard work and dedication ... you have shooting and archery in the Olympics. It's no different."
Cross's story reads like a boys' own fairytale.
He grew up in Edenbridge, Kent, a small village of about 9000 people about 70km southeast of London.
His family were all darts players and he recalled a board being put up in his house when he was about 11.
"I looked at the board and when no one was playing, I thought, 'I will have a go at this'," he said.
"After a while I found it quite addictive and said 'actually I want to get better at this', so by the time I was 13, 14 I could throw the darts straight and play half all right and it kicked off from there."
While Cross knew he had a talent for darts, he had to put the game on the backburner when son Leyton was born.
"When I was 18 I was playing well and kept playing, but then my little boy came along at 21 and I gave up," Cross said. "I wanted to buy my first house and I did that. Then there were other commitments and bills to pay and I had to provide for Leyton.
"Darts went off the agenda. I still used to play on a Friday night here and there but never played in any leagues.
"So when I came back at 24, I played and won a lot of local competitions and people kept saying to me, 'Rob you need to take this more seriously'.
"But at the time I still had to wake up Monday, still had to go to work and pay the bills."
A believer in fate, Cross said his life changed in 2016 - thanks once more to the support of a family member.
"It wasn't until the UK Open qualifiers in Norwich my uncle said, 'You are playing really well, I will take you to Norwich'. And I said, 'I haven't really practised, I don't want to go', and brushed it off.
"Come Sunday morning 6am still sleeping, I hear a tap on the door. I go to answer it and it's him. He's all dressed up and he said to me, 'Come on, let's go. I said I would take you to Norwich'.
"I told him I didn't want to go, it's 200-odd miles (320km) for me to get there. He more or less wrenched me off the sofa and told me to shower and get ready."
The rest, as they say, is history. Cross qualified for the UK Open and a few months later reached the last 32 before losing to the best player in the world, Michael van Gerwen.
But getting through that event proved to Cross the time was right to chase his dream.
"When I came off stage I said to myself, 'Do you know what, I feel like I belong up there but I could do so much better'," he recalled.
"That was the catalyst for me and I started to believe. I had just played the best in the world and I was not a million miles away, he had two 170 finishes and a nine-darter.
"Then I believed I could do it so I went and played the challenge tour. I won that comfortably and then went pro last year. I have to admit the way everything fell into place, it must have meant to be. It's like a fairytale."
Cross says wife Georgia and children Leyton, 6, Imogen 3, and Maddison, 1, are still the most important part of his life.
"I wasn't willing to take the money off my family," he said of the delay in turning pro.
"I would have backed myself, but I still thought I was taking the food out of their mouths and that was a massive part of why I didn't do it.
"When I did decide to do it, I said I just want a couple of years at it, so if it didn't work out I would have gone back to being a sparky and normal life.
"(But) If you look at my story and the way things have gone, you couldn't write it. You couldn't have expected things to have gone that well."
The Darts Masters Brisbane will be staged at the Brisbane Convention Centre from Friday through to Sunday.