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.

Oh, him.

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.



I've written about TMS before. The last occasion was just a couple of weeks ago, in fact.

It's been part of my life for a very, very long time. And, in truth, I've always had a bit of trouble relating to the way in which certain commentators who I haven't liked very much (Johnston back in the old days, Blofeld more recently) have been the popular face of the programme. The slightly self-conscious, often contrived, 'humourous' face. A face I could always take or leave. I always thought others were more deserving of wider recognition

I'm a little young to have really appreciated Arlott, so Christopher Martin-Jenkins was always my favourite commentator. To me there was always something timelessly reassuring and empathetic about his unfeigned humanity, his sincere love for the game and his precise, unfussy diction.

His writing never quite had the verve of his commentary. It tended to be stolid and a little bland, but his book about the 1973-74 England tour of the West Indies, Testing Time, has stood the test of time better than most. Tour books of that type - tours of that type, in fact - have gone out of fashion, but if you want a representative example of the best of the genre (not quite up there with Alan Ross's best work, but pretty damn good) you can do far worse. When he signed a copy for me back in the eighties he described it as his favourite book.

When I was in my teens and CMJ was editor of The Cricketer I sent him something I'd written about Sunil Gavaskar. He replied with a warm, encouraging letter. As the tributes paid today by the likes of Andrew Miller and Lawrence Booth show, this was far from unusual. While his commentary may have brought him wider recognition, it's clear that he regarded himself just as much as a journalist.

Ten or so years later I was on a supporters' tour of South Africa for England's first series there after re-admission. CMJ, together with many other members of the press pack, was at a reception which we attended in Port Elizabeth. My birthday was coming up, and, unknown to me, some of my compatriots were passing round a card. Vic Marks signed it, I think Jonathan Agnew signed it, and CMJ signed it. In fact, I saw him sign it without knowing what it was, and I can still remember the comment he made.

'I don't mind signing things but I'm not so keen when someone asks you for a thousand words by five o'clock.'


In May 1977 I returned home to the London suburbs after the first extended period I'd ever spent away from home without my parents - a 'lively' school trip to a small seaside town in Dorset (name witheld to protect the innocent) which is probably still recovering - and my Dad met me off the bus.

I was only eleven but I really liked my cricket. He knew that, which was probably why one of the first things he told me was that many well-known cricketers, led by the England captain Tony Greig, had signed contracts to play cricket for someone neither of us had ever heard of called Kerry Packer. The news had just broken, which was why it was on his mind, but I, after a week of visiting 'places of interest' and trekking across the rain-blasted Dorset countryside, had no idea what he was talking about.

I soon found out, though. That summer's Test series against Australia was to be the last time Tony Greig would ever represent England, although, with hindsight, it's staggering that he remained in the side after being stripped of the captaincy.

It's almost become trite to say that Tony Greig is better remembered for his intimate involvement with the development of World Series Cricket than for his deeds on the field, but it's no less true for all that. In the days when Andrew Flintoff was everyone's hero he tended to be compared to Ian Botham with barely any thought given to anyone who wore the England all-rounder's mantle before him. But before Botham came Tony Greig, and Tony Greig, I promise you, could play.

My memories of Greig are fractured by the passage of time and age. Not my age now, you understand, but the age I was then. Certain things stick in the memory - like Packer and 'grovel' (I wonder now if I'd ever heard the word before Greig used it so clumsily) and the London West Indian crowd dancing in front of the pavilion at The Oval after Holding bowls him for the second time in that match. And I remember his angular bowling action, which spawned a thousand playground imitations. And I remember his SP bats and gloves. And I remember his upright stance. And I remember the withering power of his cover drive, enhanced by his immense reach and stride and invariably played with a self-conscious flourish. But I don't remember either of his Indian tours, or his trip to the West Indies, or his debut. Those came from a long-forgotten time when I occasionally had other things on my mind apart from cricket.

My lasting memory of Greig, though, is one which has been mentioned in virtually every tribute paid to him in the days since his death. The England tour of Australia in late 1974 and early 1975 was the first overseas tour by an England team that I was ever aware of. Which meant that the first Test in Brisbane was the first overseas Test match involving England that I ever followed. I was up early to listen to Alan McGilvray on my little brown radio, and there were highlights on TV each evening. You didn't need to be very old to tell that Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee were fearsome bowlers. And you didn't need a very mature grasp of psychology to know that signalling the four for yourself each time you hit one of them to the boundary was likely to make them even more fearsome.

I might not have known the expression, or what it meant, but, at the time, I knew what I was seeing.

Tony Greig had balls.

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