Ian Blackwell: Cult hero worth the wait as he begins to punch his weight

All-rounder has been too laid-back for his own good. Stephen Brenkley talks to a man with a chance to convince the doubters
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A few years ago at a gathering of cricket writers, who like to think they know a thing or two about coming young shavers about to make an impression in the game, the after-dinner speaker ended some amusing ramblings with a brief homily. He told his audience of a player to watch out for, a man who could well have a thunderous effect on the fortunes of English cricket, which had then still to redirect its downward spiral.

This fellow could knock the leather off good bowling and also had some pretty serviceable left-arm spin at his disposal. Some took note, others shrugged their shoulders, a few probably fell over. Drink had been taken by then.

The man doing the talking was Dermot Reeve and the man he was talking about was Ian Blackwell. Reeve's star has fallen a tad since then. He was an innovative coach of Somerset at the time and left to be a cricket commentator on Channel 4, with whom he parted company in unfortunate circumstances last year when a newspaper executed what is known as a "cocaine sting".

But Reeve had been a cricketer and a captain who allowed invention, flair and adventure to prosper. It was not to everyone's tastes, but he recognised the attributes in others. He was right, or far more right than wrong, about Blackwell, whose star has probably never been as ascendant as it is now.

This weekend and for the next two days, the selectors on England's cricket tour to India must decide whether Blackwell, his slow left-arm rival Monty Panesar or (less likely) Shaun Udal will be England's spinner in the First Test. It is highly improbable that they will play two spinners if the seam quartet manage to get and remain fit, and it is unthinkable that any of this trio would have had the spin- bowling place if Ashley Giles had recovered from hip surgery.

Blackwell and Panesar are contrasting rivals. Blackwell is a blockbusting batsman who bowls, Panesar is a bowler alone. Blackwell has to convince the selectors, Duncan Fletcher and Michael Vaughan, that he is more, much more, than a fill-in bowler.

The trouble with Blackwell, the big trouble with Blackwell it might be said, is his size. He simply does not fit the idea, still less the ideal, of the modern professional sportsman. In the field and at the crease, he looks, well not to put too fine a point on the issue, he looks fat. This is his strength as well as his weakness, of course. It makes him one of us, and the fact that his shirt flops out of his trousers as soon as he tucks it in only increases the sense of identification.

At Somerset, where he went (fled almost) from Derbyshire six years ago, he is a cult hero. The sense of anticipation when he goes to the wicket is palpable. He is almost permanently ruddy of complexion and with the build, the countenance, the name and the way he hits a cricket ball he could be the blacksmith of village green yore.

But what England have not been able to get out of their system while at the same time failing fully to realise it is that he is a seriously good player. No mere clubber of trifles could do as he did in September 2004, making 247 not out from 156 balls, the last 147 coming from 63 balls. Though were he to play against India in Nagpur this week he would be wise to reduce the number of horizontal-bat shots.

"I'm sure that they're more pleased with me as a cricketer now than they were two or three years ago, when I got into the one-day team and went to the World Cup and was so inexperienced," he said. "It is about helping yourself and looking after yourself by doing whatever it takes, and it's something I didn't do before.

"In the domestic game I would say I was a lazy cricketer in that I would do as little as possible and get off the ground and go and have a sit-down. But you've got to understand that you've got to be ready to bowl that first ball. You've got to feel in good rhythm, and now I do as much as anyone else."

There are moments speaking to the 27-year-old Blackwell that are redolent of conversations with Andrew Flintoff a few years ago, a cricketer of natural talent not doing everything in his power to harness it and usually doing a darned sight less.

Flintoff famously changed while remaining the same charming lad. Blackwell is some way along the road but has not reached journey's end. He is trying to shed pounds but he is not svelte. He has reorganised some of the weight rather than lost it entirely. In discussing actual measurements he can be slightly conspiratorial.

For instance, he was 111kg when he was summoned from a Barbados beach to replace Giles for the one-day series in Pakistan. But now he is 107kg and has a burning ambition to be 100kg. But what are kilograms anyway? Do they deceive a certain generation? In this particular case they are 17st 61b, 16st 12lb and 15st 10lb.

"My eye and natural ability had got me so far," he said. "Then you come up and see the Fletcher regime and if you don't comply you're quickly out.

"I am a laid-back character, I hope I didn't come across as somebody who wasn't bothered or was lazy, but I'm one of those guys who isn't fazed by much. But you've got to be seen to be buzzing around the field and I hope I'm doing that now."

Fletcher was widely assumed not to have been a huge fan of Blackwell's modeof preparation and approach. Deep down, and probably not so deep down, Blackwell knew he was messing up. Fletcher let him know through the Somerset coach, Kevin Shine, who was recently appointed as England's bowling coach.

"I would have probably liked a more direct approach from him, though I can see why he probably doesn't think he has to explain, but it was good feedback," said Blackwell. "I knew my work-rate wasn't there. You kid yourself, I guess."

He recognises his weakness. "When you're drained and tired you need a quick fix sometimes and you have something like a ham-and-cheese toastie, which you know is bad but you know is nice. It's stupid really."

There is still in some ways a sense of exasperation with Blackwell. You can feel it among his colleagues. They josh about his weight. It is pleasant enough but they still josh. He is a popular man. Indeed, partly because he is so relaxed he is impossible to dislike. Last summer he took over as captain of Somerset from the intense young captain of South Africa, Graeme Smith. "Yes, that was a bit different. Smithy was forever geeing up the youngsters and I was 'all right lads' so there was a bit of a difference."

It has become a much more professional game but somehow you are thankful there is a place in it for Blackwell. He has not quite burst through (except, occasionally, his shirt perhaps) in his 28 one-dayers. The barnstorming 82 he made from 68 balls in his second match in Colombo remains by 39 his highest score, but he has learned an economical way of bowling over the wicket.

Brought up in a Derbyshire village, he had a cricket-daft dad and began professionally as a left-arm spinner batting late in the order. Since he was at Derbyshire, where they considered mowing an indictable offence, spinning was not altogether conducive to career advancement.

Reeve's delicate approach was all he wanted. He has become a batsman who bowls, but an allrounder still. Last summer he bowled more than 400 Championship overs, and while the bowling average was above 40 the economy rate was around three runs an over. He regularly reminds people that his career economy rate is 2.88 runs (note the accuracy) an over.

Still, he does not look a classic left-arm bowler like, say, Panesar. "I still land flat-footed like a seamer. I go through a few boots because I rip off the sole. I think I'm more on my toes now but I do bowl round myself a bit and a lot of the action comes from my shoulder, especially when I'm tired. I try and look at the way Monty bowls, really high on his toes."

Throughout his career Blackwell has not had a regular bowling coach, though he was helped by the former Australian spinner Ashley Mallett, and enjoys talking to the chairman of Somerset's cricket committee, the journalist and former player Vic Marks. "He's shrewd, always thinking, you can be having half a conversation with him and you know what he means."

So is it Blackwell's time? "I think they will look down the list and consider if they can play Simon Jones, Hoggard, Harmison and Panesar in the same team, four potential No 11s. If it was me I wouldn't have thought they could." If he plays, Reeve, wherever he is, would be entitled to a wry smile.

LIFE & TIMES

NAME: Ian David Blackwell.

BORN: 10 June 1978, Chesterfield.

VITAL STATS: 6ft 2in, 16st.

STYLE: Left-handed batsman, left-arm orthodox spinner.

COUNTY CAREER: Derbyshire 1997-99; Somerset 2000-current; 6,232 first-class runs, avge 39.19, highest score 247no; 184 wickets, avge 43.25, best bowling 7-90.

ONE-DAY INTERNATIONALS: debut 2002 v Zimbabwe; 28 ODIs, 344 runs, avge 15.63, HS 82; 19 wkts, avge 34.05, BB 3-26.

FINEST HOUR: 247no off 156 balls in 10th-wicket stand against former club Derbyshire at Taunton in 2003, including 204 off 98 balls with 11 sixes between lunch and tea - fastest double-century by an Englishman.

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