Ian Blackwell was an everyman cricketer to whom weekend players up and down the country could relate. He didn’t fit the mould of the identikit, robotic modern sportsman – it was apparent he had a voracious appetite for, well, life, and appeared to play cricket purely for the fun of it.
Yet he was no joker – Blackie, as he is affectionately known, was capped by England 35 times, and in first class cricket averaged 40 with the bat and took 398 wickets – making him one of the finest county all-rounders of the noughties.
One of the great county cricket all rounders of the 00s
Cricket has known its fair share of big lads, but as the game modernises they have become a dying breed. When Ian Blackwell retired in 2013, the game lost one of its throwbacks. An all-rounder, Blackwell was a big man and a big hitter – a destructive middle-order batsman and a more than useful left-arm spinner who could take wickets as well as hold down an end. It has been said Blackwell never quite maximised his potential, but his numbers speak for themselves.
A star-studded England debut
He was given his Test debut in Nagpur in 2006, a game in which Paul Collingwood made his maiden Test century. Three players made their England debuts that day. Blackwell, Monty Panesar and Alastair Cook. Since then, Panesar and Cook have racked up 177 Tests between them. For Blackwell, his first Test was his last. He did, however, turn out for England’s ODI team 34 times, travelling on 10 overseas tours.
He will be remembered for a litany of brutal innings, most notably a double hundred off 134 balls for Somerset as he routed his former side Derbyshire. It was the fastest ever double hundred by an Englishman. Not bad for someone who, according to some, didn’t fulfil his potential.
Since retirement Blackwell is poacher turned gamekeeper, having qualified as an umpire. We caught up with him for a chat about his career past and present.
Kudos: Did cricket come easily to you as a kid, or was your career more a result of hours of dedication and practice?
IB: “From what I remember growing up I really enjoyed going to cricket with my Dad. He was a keen club cricketer so I used to go with him to games from an early age. I just loved whacking balls and getting involved. But you could also say I dedicated a lot of time to the game!”
You made your Derbyshire debut aged 18 against an Aussie touring team featuring the likes of Steve Waugh (who would later become your first wicket in first class cricket) and Shane Warne – exactly how terrifying was that? Or did you thrive on it?
“I can tell you I was completely terrified and in awe. Playing against some amazing cricketers at the age of 18 was ridiculous looking back. Completely out my depth! I was picked as a batter that could bowl too, probably not really how my career panned out. It was an amazing experience though and to get the wicket of Steve Waugh was more than I could expect to achieve. During the game things were good, it always seems easier to be in the mixer rather than watching.”
Teenage sportsmen are by their very nature green, impressionable and naive, and invariably look up to some of their more senior team-mates. When you first broke into first class cricket at Derbyshire, who did you look up to the most and why?
“I was very fortunate to be involved in a strong Derbyshire set up. The likes of Dean Jones, Chris Adams, Dominic Cork, Karl Krikken, Phil Defreitas, Kim Barnett and Devon Malcolm to name a few. It felt an honour to get a game for Derbyshire at the time. I looked up to Phil Defreitas more than anyone, he helped me no end and have a lot to thank him for.”
Despite more injuries than you would have liked, you scored over 11,000 first-class runs at a shade under 40, took 398 first-class wickets at 35.91 apiece, and represented England 35 times. You can’t have many, if any regrets after such a tremendous career?
“Personally I look back at my career and stats in disbelief. I thought I over-achieved without a doubt! Slow left armer that spun the odd ball and was hit and miss with the bat! Injuries got the better of me for sure. I have no regrets whatsoever, I played hard and enjoyed life off the field.”
Why do you think cricket lends itself to articulate and insightful analysis so much more than other sports, in particular football? And did you never fancy punditry?
“I think the very nature of the sport and the length of the game means that there is more analysis, it’s a complex sport with many connotations. Cricket is seen as a gentleman’s sport (public schools and the MCC see to that). I’ve worked with Sky plenty of times but they tend to employ ex-England captains. I still do some work with BBC Radio Somerset which I enjoy.”
You are now an umpire. When I was a kid most umpires seemed to be very old men. Is umpiring becoming more of a young man’s game, and if so why?
“Well it’s my 2nd year on the reserve list so there is still a way to go for me. I enjoy umpiring and I think the whole image has changed. The game is much faster and its full on constantly. Umpires are younger as its a great career with many opportunities now. It’s great to see ex players wanting to get involved, as a player you always had confidence in umpires that used to play. That’s just a fact.”
Your decisions as an umpire obviously play a key role in determining the result of any game – do you feel more pressure umpiring than you did as a player?
“Things are very different as an umpire, of course you are conscious that you can shape a game. But in all honesty you give what you see, gut feel and do what’s right in your head. There is pressure for sure, as an umpire you are expected to know everything and run the game. As a player you are at the mercy of your skills. I’ve lost count of how many players ask when tea is!”
I remember a study a couple of years ago that found umpires provided by the home team are more likely to be biased than neutral umpires. What are your thoughts on the neutral umpire situation, and do you think you could umpire an England game without bias influencing your decisions?
“Very leading question, well played! Personally it doesn’t matter who’s playing to me, decision making is about bat and ball (not who is batting or bowling). I want to go as far as I can with my umpiring so I need to make as many right decisions as possible. England games wouldn’t be any different.”
England have finally embraced a much more aggressive and positive intent in their game, in all forms. As a front foot cricketer yourself, you must welcome this and wonder why on earth it took England so long to adapt to modern cricket?
“Cricket has changed massively, the game moves on and it’s great to see so many diverse English cricketers involved within the England set up. Three versions of the same game and so surely it needs different players. It seems that the shorter format needs specialists. England has those in abundance and the World Cup this year proved that.”
Lastly, what advice would you give to any aspiring cricketer?
“Firstly, any aspiring cricketer needs to enjoy the game. If you don’t enjoy it then it can be a nightmare. It’s a great game for meeting new people and building friendships. My boy is 7 and he loves it, I’m not pushy at all. I love the fact he wants to play. Expensive sport though!”
It was a real privilege to speak to Blackie and we would like to thank him for his time and wish him all the best in his new career as an umpire.
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