As I've touched on before here, one of the drawbacks of having a life to lead away from writing about cricket - a life with its bereavements, and funerals, and work demands which, sadly, don't involve writing about cricket - is that those people for whom writing about cricket is work tend to find the time to write about people, and issues, well before you do. They also do the job better, by and large, but so it goes. An example of this is Andy Bull's excellent piece about Ian Blackwell, which couldn't do anything other than touch a chord with me.
As time passes, even if, as he hopes, he's seen around the counties in an umpire's coat, people outside the broad acres of Somerset will mostly forget about Ian Blackwell. In many cases, I'm sure, they already have. Ian Blackwell? That porky bloke who hung around the England one-day side for a while, clubbed a few boundaries here and there but mostly got out quickly, bowled a few overs occasionally notable for parsimony but rarely for penetration, and lumbered about in the field.
But for people such as myself, who watched him play for Somerset at Taunton in his glory years, the memories will be much less marginal. For to be at Taunton - perhaps in the front seats of the Ian Botham Stand, which catch the sun from early morning, in those largely forgotten days when England still had summer weather - when Blackie walked to the wicket from the Colin Atkinson Pavilion was to be touched by a very individual, parochial, vulnerable type of brilliance.
There was never anything very elegant, or refined, or polished, about Blackie. Although many tried to make him conform to the fitness-conscious stereotype of the modern professional cricketer, he never quite managed it. Like Colin Milburn or John Jameson before him, or Samit Patel or Mark Cosgrove after him, Blackie was more interested in hitting the cover off the ball. Ultimately, as Andy Bull records, his indolence was too much for Justin Langer and the parting of the ways came. For me, and, I'm sure, more than a few others, the County Ground has never quite been the same again.
Blackie did his fair share of bowling, where economy of effort was all and 398 first-class wickets tell the tale of a decent operator, and tended to graze in the field. But he could catch, of course, and throw the ball miles, sometimes even over the top of the stumps. Batting, though, was really his thing.
Although he was brought up in north Debyshire there was always something of the rustic Westcountryman about Blackie. Taunton was his adopted home, and, with his parents always around as they were, it never felt anything but right. As he padded to the crease, his sleeper of a bat by his side, you could fondly imagine that he carried echoes of the way Ian Botham used to do the same. Without the same self-regard and flamboyance, sure, but with just the same murderous intent.
His ability to guide the ball to the Taunton ropes with a sweetly-timed off-drive or a robust leg-side punch, or, when his shoulders really came into play, deposit it into the St.James's Street car park or the Tone, got him noticed by England. In his second ODI he made a powerful, rapid 82 against India on a steamy Colombo evening; he was always ruddy-faced but after that knock he looked as though he was about to explode. But he never built on it. At international level he came to be regarded as a bowler who could bat a bit, but that was so, so wrong. At the very top level his statuesque footwork and relative immobility always undermined him, but at county level he was a rough-hewn gem.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking aspect of Bull's piece is the photo above it, taken at Nagpur in March 2006. Blackie receives his first and only England Test cap from his captain Andrew Flintoff, with his fellow debutants Monty Panesar and Alastair Cook alongside him. Typically Monty looks happy but a little diffident, perhaps unsure of his ability to fulfil the trust placed in him by the selectors. Equally characteristically, Cook looks self-assured, pleased, but without elation. For him this was always going to happen. Blackie just beams. He is simply overjoyed to be there, perhaps unable to believe his luck. He knows the moment may not last, and he is determined to enjoy it while he can. In the game that follows, Cook scores 60 and 104 not out and Panesar gets Tendulkar out. Blackie makes just four and bowls seven insipid overs for twenty-eight runs. For his fellows the rest is history, but he is never asked back.
But for Blackie there is little sadness. There are 11,000 first-class runs at a shade under 40. There are Championship titles in the colours of Durham and Warwickshire. And, at Taunton, as the ground continues to change, there is lasting hero worship.
There are some things fitness can't buy.
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