The big-hitter out to prove that England's loss is Durham's gain
He's the finest all-rounder in the land – and if Ian Blackwell was 'a bit leaner' he could have had Flintoff's career. Stephen Brenkley meets a man happy to be a local hero
Wednesday 21 April 2010
England's selectors love a list. At present they have a list A for players close to being picked, a list B for those not quite so close but not far away either and a list C for those who might, or might not, play in the future.
Oh, and lists of centrally contracted players, incrementally contracted players and England Lions members for those who are actually playing at present (although the contracts themselves remain unsigned after seven months). In the winter there was, too, a list of fast bowlers for a specially designed programme.
This makes a grand total of 68 players. Ian Blackwell is not among them. If there was a blacklist (which, of course, there isn't – heaven forfend) he might have made that.
All-rounders are always worth their weight in gold (if not in Mars bars) and although Blackwell's bowling discipline is entirely different, it has always been tempting to wonder if he could have performed a role for England similar to Andrew Flintoff's. They are cut from the same cloth.
Blackwell played a solitary Test match four years ago in Nagpur when he scored only four runs with his big-hitting, crowd-pleasing batting and took no wickets with his parsimonious, left-arm spin bowling.
By any worthwhile measurements, Blackwell is the best all-round cricketer among the English counties and he will probably play a pivotal role in Durham's attempt to win a third successive Championship pennant, which resumes at Chester-le-Street against Hampshire today. He was quietly influential in their retention of the title last season, when he scored 801 runs at an average of 40.95 and took 43 wickets at an average of 23.53.
They remain short favourites to retain the title in this risibly organised season despite failing to meet expectations in their opening fixture against Essex. It needed some belated Champion-style jaw-jutting and bad light to escape with a draw and the "wake-up call, must do better" slogans were swiftly trotted out.
Blackwell bowled 25 overs in Essex's innings, a record for his opening match of the summer, and helped to stave off defeat with a steely half-century.
That he is playing for Durham at all seems astonishing since he was quite as effective at his previous county, Somerset, where he was also the most popular player among fans after moving from his native Derbyshire in 2000. In the time he has been playing since 1997 only David Sales has hit more sixes; he is huge fun to watch whatever he is doing and also immensely skilful. The trouble is that Blackwell does not fit the perception of what a modern cricketer should be.
Throughout a career which has lasted 13 years he has perplexed those – and they are in the vast majority now – who reckon that the gymnasium is every bit as important to preparation for cricket as the nets. He has never quite managed to subscribe fully to this theory and it has cost him dearly. There could have been, should have been a score or more of Test caps, a limitless number of the one-day variety. Instead there is only Nagpur. And there is no longer, as a result, Taunton.
"To leave Somerset was the hardest decision of my life," he said. "Things didn't go quite according to how I wanted with Justin Langer there. We had a big chat at the end of the 2008 season and they said, 'Maybe your cricket is going in a different direction to our cricket'. I'm not sure how that works really when I got 1,000 runs and 26 wickets and was the most economical bowler in the team, but it was one of those things where they had a different way of looking at things from me."
Put simply, Blackwell's way of preparing for cricket is a world away from that of Langer, the tough if whimsical former Australia opener who was captain of Somerset for three years until last summer. Langer (and maybe others, but mainly Langer) were not willing to put up with the Blackwell way any longer. The cricketing world is much too regimented for that sort of malarkey.
It is tempting to suggest that Blackwell's career has been one of gross underachievement, but he is having none of that. At Durham he has found peace as well as an extremely accomplished team. He has come easily to terms with travelling from his Somerset home, where his wife, a local girl, still lives with their one-year-old twins. The flight, as he says, takes 48 minutes.
"Langer obviously prepared very differently, he was very straight down the line and very regimented in what he did," Blackwell said. "I am more laid-back and take things more as they come. People prepare differently and he couldn't understand why certain people prepared as they did, he thought everyone should prepare the same way as him.
"I think that the way they thought was a bit anal and, ultimately, I'm happier for it. I'm with a team who let you get on with your cricket provided you do your stuff. The atmosphere and the ethics they have got here are second to none. We didn't play as well as we should have done in that first match, maybe we underestimated Essex who had just been promoted but when it was needed we fought back. We think Hampshire are beatable."
Durham are not so much fancied as expected to become the first team since Yorkshire 42 years ago to win three County Championships in a row. They have a young, bright, clean-cut captain in Will Smith, an experienced batting line-up which includes illustrious old pros like Michael Di Venuto and Dale Benkenstein, and a battery of formidable seam bowlers. Blackwell sits formidably amid all this, beefing up the middle order, bowling the holding overs and, increasingly, taking the wickets to go with it. But there remains a sense of unfulfilment.
"Ultimately, I have played only one Test for England," he said. "When your career is at the mercy of someone else's selection you can only do your bit. I felt I have done my bit in terms of statistics and, yes, maybe if I had been leaner, thinner, smaller, fitter, whatever, but would that make me happy and would that make me the same player?
"There is room for everyone in this world in this game if you have something a little bit different to offer. There is no point in being the 11 fittest players in the country if you can't stack up the figures. I understand there is a need for fitness and all the rest of it, and we do work hard here."
There was a real passion in Blackwell's voice as he delivered that judgement and, although he is the sort of relaxed character who will have no regrets (or not exhibit them), there is the sense of something missing. "I won't beat myself up if I get nought, I won't beat myself up if I don't play for England. It would be brilliant but, then again, if that was what I really wanted I would have got thinner. The modern game has moved on without doubt but I'm probably more of the old-school cricketer and that's hard for me to shake off."
It is a changed cricketing world but if it cannot find room for Blackwells it might not be worth inhabiting. Go, Durham.
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