A cold winter looms for boys the Academy chose to forget

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The Independent Online

"Good morning, Somerset County Cricket Club," said the polite male receptionist. "Good morning, would it be possible to find out what your young starlet, Ian Blackwell, who so narrowly missed out on a precious place in the new National Academy after being so instrumental in the county's success last season, is doing instead this winter?"

"Yes, certainly, this is Ian Blackwell, and I'm answering telephone calls and chasing membership subscriptions all winter here at the club headquarters in Taunton."

So went the opening part of the conversation with the 23-year-old all-rounder last week, demonstrating in the process the difference between selection and omission for a professional cricketer.

Blackwell was perhaps the unluckiest of the candidates vying for a place in the new establishment. The 17 players who were picked fly out today for eight weeks in Adelaide and return after Christmas.

It leaves Blackwell, for one, not only with a less exciting close-season but also with appreciable ground to make up. Those at the Academy who graduate successfully will be fast-tracked into international teams. The England and Wales Cricket Board have made it clear they expect 90 per cent of future England sides to consist of former Academy men. Which leaves 1.1 places for non-students.

Blackwell thought briefly about playing abroad this winter, probably in Australian grade cricket, but he knew that the Academy was where he stood to make genuine progress. Taunton it is.

"I knew I had a real chance at the Academy or even a place in the one-day team," Blackwell said. "It was pretty disappointing not to get picked but I know the reason why. They just weren't happy enough with my general fitness levels and my approach to it and they told me so. And it's true I've tended to rely on my natural ability in the past."

Blackwell's natural ability has never been doubted and he has gained many supporters during his advance up the county ranks. A little over a year ago, Dermot Reeve, then coming towards the end of his tenure as Somerset's coach, spent a significant part of an after-dinner speech espousing Blackwell's skills with bat and ball. He was a player, said Reeve, who should not be overlooked in the future. Reeve may be occasionally irksome as a commentator and while he was an idiosyncratic cricketer, he was highly successful, wonderfully innovative and few should doubt his judgement of what it takes.

The protégé repaid his verdict by scoring four first-class hundreds at an average of nearly 50 last year as well as featuring prominently in Somerset's triumphant one-day side. "It was a setback, not making anything in the winter, but I'm not just answering phones. I'm doing two gym sessions a day with Somerset's own personal fitness trainer which isn't exactly me."

As it happens, the omission may be the spur that Blackwell needed. That certainly seems to be so with the Nottinghamshire seam bowler, Paul Franks. His is a slightly different case in that injury to his patella in June kept him out for the rest of the season and effectively ruled him out of contention for an Academy place. "I could have played on or come back earlier with some pain-killing injections but that wouldn't have got rid of the problem," Franks said. "I'm probably suffering in the short-term which is frustrating but I've got to take the longer view." Franks, 22, is also spending winter at home, though not working for his county.

Franks, like Blackwell, probably has another chance of being considered for the Academy. The age range the ECB appear to have settled on is between 19 and 24. But that hardly dulls his disappointment. In the summer of 2000 he was picked for a one-day international and now he has fallen right back in the queue. Such, already, is the importance of the Academy.

"The annoying thing is that everything was going so well when it happened. It had been getting worse for a few weeks and maybe if I'd stopped earlier it wouldn't have been like this. But I'm not downcast. I know how much I've improved as a bowler and a batsman and I also know I can do both for England."

Franks mentioned another point which may be crucial in determining future Academy students. He believes he is still in contention because he has already been recognised. Otherwise, he is concerned that playing in the Second Division, as Nottinghamshire are, will militate against serious consideration in future. Not yet, however. Nine of the 17 successful nominees for the first intake were with clubs playing in the Championship Second Division in 2001.

It is pretty clear that players like Blackwell and Franks (and perhaps to a lesser extent others such as Gary Pratt, of Durham, and James Hockley of Kent, who have gone to Australia under their own steam for the winter) personify the importance of making it to the Academy. They both have a chance some day of competing seriously for the 1.1 England spots likely to be available. If, for some reason, it should not work out for Blackwell, he should definitely make it as a telephone receptionist.

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