Ian Blackwell’s record, Tim Wigmore once wrote, “made him arguably the best county all-rounder of the 2000s.”
That record was very good: he played for a decade and a half, making over 11,000 First Class runs, averaging barely a shade under 40, and picking up over 600 wickets (across formats) to boot.
There’s no way Blackwell’s career could be condensed into a Six Ball Over, so instead the Mind The Windows spin department tossed up a spell of three overs; 18 questions.
Thanks go to Ian Blackwell for his time.
1. Playing county age-group cricket, and then Derby 2nd XI, what was it like as a young spinner? Was the help on offer actually constructive for an aspiring English spin bowler?
Blackwell: “Growing up I was a medium pace bowler, I changed to spin at 16/17. Back in the ’90s there was minimal help on hand I suppose. Not like today where there seems to be a coach for everything. Normally you’d have one coach that did everything, then you would learn from other players. I very much learned on the job as to what worked for me. I worked out a method to become successful pretty much on my own from watching other spinners and listening to feedback.”
2. In 1997, still a teenager, you made your First Class debut – was it daunting to be entering that stage at a young age?
Blackwell: “Thinking back to 1997, it was a daunting prospect to be playing FC cricket. Especially as my debut was at 18 vs the Aussie touring team. So I was very much thrown in at the deep end. Playing against the likes of Warne, Taylor, Steve Waugh and co. at 18 was a privilege too. Once out there though you relish the opportunity and just get on with what you have been picked for.”
3. Across the next few seasons, you had what would probably be best described as limited success. In 2000, you made the move from Derbyshire to Somerset after something of a dispute with Dominic Cork. Was that mainly about being involved with a better side? Being the county of your birth, it must have been somewhat difficult to make the move?
Blackwell: “I really enjoyed my time at Derbyshire and it was a great starting point for me. At the time I was progressing, we were playing on green wickets at Derby because of our pace bowlers (Dominic Cork, Philip DeFreitas, Kevin Dean, Devon Malcolm, Andrew Harris and Paul Aldred). I felt as though I was being held back batting at #9 and rarely bowling. I had ambitions of playing for England at an early age and I needed to be playing regularly and bowling more. So the opportunity of moving to Taunton and developing felt like a no-brainer.”
4. It paid dividends – 2000 saw you make your first FC 100, and 2001 saw you average nearly 50 with the bat. With the ball, you were bowling far more than previously. That kind of success, and the far more regular place you held in the team, must have given you a huge confidence boost in your own ability?
Blackwell: “Every game you play you break down mental barriers, as the performances improve the confidence grows. Eventually you gain consistency too and your job in the team becomes more important. I never doubted my ability ever, just questioned my form sometimes!”
5. You hit your peak at the right moments: in the lead up to your first national call-up, you carted 28 off an over from Matthew Hoggard with the national coach at the ground, and went at a strike-rate of 162 in a one-day semi-final to win the game. Did those kind of performances make you feel you were close to international selection?
Then, when you hit 82 and dismissed Sehwag in just your second ODI, that must have made you feel fairly confident in your abilities to step up to that level?
Blackwell: “Those sorts of things I never thought about. What I did try and do was keep things simple, I never tried to add extra pressure to my game. I always played better when relaxed. I didn’t know I was close to an England call up at all, it was a stroke of luck via an injury to Flintoff. Things happen for a reason and maybe it was just my time? Actually playing for England was an awesome feeling, I don’t think it ever really sunk in at the start. Again I never really questioned my ability, I wouldn’t have been called up if I couldn’t play.”
6. That England side still had some of the old guard – the likes of Alec Stewart, Nasser Hussain, Andy Caddick and your not-quite-best-friend from Derby, Dominic Cork. How were they in terms of welcoming the newcomer into the side?
Blackwell: “It was great to be involved in an England team with other teammates. Richard Johnson and Caddick were there so the whole experience was less daunting for me. I had no issues with any other players and the ‘older guard’ were very welcoming I have to say.”
7. You made it to the World Cup squad for 2003, but then endured a bit of a horror run in the VB series – 0, 0, 0, 1 (although 3-26 vs. Australia would have dulled the pain somewhat). Did that bad trot dent your confidence going into such a major tournament?
Blackwell: “I was young at the time and to play against Australia in Australia was the hardest thing I ever did in my career. Their team were ruthless, star studded and a super power. I ended the VB series poorly with the bat but was always down the order so it wasn’t as black and white as 0, 0, 0, 1. On the flip side I was England’s most economical bowler in what was a tough tri-series. I was proud rather than anything.”
8. That 2003 World Cup was a bizarre one for England; eliminated in the group stage, but any on-field activities very much outshone by politicking. It must have been an awkward situation, having so much of those events determined a long way from any cricket field?
Blackwell: “It was bizarre, unfortunate and really disappointing to go out of the 2003 World Cup as we did. Lots of meetings with the realisation of potential safety issues made things 10 times worse. We knew if we pulled out of the Zimbabwe game then we would have to beat Australia to qualify. The decision was one on morality and safety, not just for us but for our families. If we had travelled to play that game in Zimbabwe then there would have definitely been issues outside the ground with demonstrators. We would have had to have shaken Mugabe’s hand pre-game which would have sent out the wrong political message. It was an impossible situation that ultimately became ‘bigger’ than the game.”
9. A few more games followed, where you probably didn’t do as well as you would have wanted, but were then excluded from the national squad for about 18 months over some issues with the fitness regime; what was the relationship like between you and the coaching staff?
Blackwell: “There was no issue with any regime and I got on reasonably well with a lot of the coaching staff. I think cricket is a unique sport where there are many different characters that play the game. It’s how those individuals are managed which is the key to a successful unit.”
10. You came back for the tour of Pakistan and India – a handful of ODIs, but also your Test cap. When you look back on it, what are your feelings about that recall, and that Test especially?
Blackwell: “At the time I felt I was playing some of my best cricket, I knew my game better and I had matured more. I felt in a good place in order to play for England again. I owe a lot to Duncan Fletcher as he was the one that showed faith in giving me more than one chance. I’d had a good tour to Pakistan and although the team got a beating in India I felt I had contributed quite well. To come back from that tour with a shoulder problem was devastating. I missed six months and ultimately lost my place again in the squad.”
11. The only time you looked near international selection again (mainly courtesy of injury) was leading into the 2011 World Cup – do you think by then, as a vastly more experienced cricketer, you would have been better placed to make that step up to international cricket?
Blackwell: “I never felt I wasn’t capable of playing international cricket, I played 35 capped games. I knew what it was about and it felt like a disjointed opportunity. I was picked for 10 England tours and the majority were to the subcontinent. Out of the 34 ODIs I played, only two were in England. I didn’t feel an automatic selection (which I wasn’t) so I felt as if I was always playing for the next game. Maybe I tried too hard as I didn’t feel relaxed. But doing things under pressure I was fine with. I think if I got into the England set up nowadays then it would be an environment where you can relax knowing you’re getting a good run.”
12. You spent some time as Somerset skipper – what was your approach to captaincy, and was it an enjoyable element of the game?
Blackwell: “I only managed to captain Somerset on a handful of occasions because of missing five months of 2006 due to my shoulder operation. It was an immense honour to have had the opportunity and something I relished. It’s hard to say what job I did as there is no real evidence to say one way or another. I knew it was tough as we had a young team, no money, no overseas and told to bring on the local lads. On that front we did well I guess.”
13. Injury stalled your game to quite a degree, before you lost your one-day spot at Somerset with Justin Langer as captain. Given your excellent record for Somerset in one-day cricket (nearly 4000 runs at an average of 30, over 100 wickets), added to the fact you were good enough for England two years earlier, this must have been a pretty disappointing moment? The issues between yourself and people (such as Fletcher and Langer) who really wanted to push for very strict regimes seemed to crop up throughout your career. Retrospectively, do you think you could have had a different outlook to your game, or did you play and prepare as suit you best?
Blackwell: “Like I said before, cricket is really individual and you can’t have one training program for every person. The modern game is tailored to suit individuals and I think the game lacked that flexibility in my early days. I never had a problem with Langer, although I did feel I wasn’t understood by him and that was seen as a big negative. County cricket is a very rigorous and arduous game that allows for no breaks in the season. Guys have to get by best they can. I found a way to put good numbers in the columns that count, and was relatively successful. I have no regrets about my cricket.”
14. In 2009 you moved to Durham, the champion county (who backed it up that year, too). Did you enjoy the change up north? You said at the time that wanting to push for an England slot again was the driving force; did your lack of game-time with Somerset help make that decision an easier one?
Blackwell: “There were a multitude of reasons why I had to leave Somerset (unfortunately I can’t speak about them). It was a great period of my career and I was saddened in how it ended. My move to Durham was to win things, if another England call up came along then that would have been a bonus. Winning the Championship and getting Player of the Year in 2009 was one of my proudest years playing.”
15. Going from Taunton to Chester-Le-Street meant you moved from a very flat wicket, to a very seamer-friendly one – there must have been times you really regretted being a spinner in England!
Blackwell: “The wicket in Durham had improved beyond all recognition by the time I went there. My first year was fruitful on both fronts with 950 FC runs and 47 wickets. That was my biggest haul of wickets in a summer and it turned out that it was a pretty good place to bowl as a spinner too. Plus if I wasn’t a spinner in England I wouldn’t have had a job so I couldn’t complain too much!”
16. You spent some time with Warwickshire in late 2012, as the county managed to win the Championship. Your last game was in that dramatic tied Lord’s final. What was it like playing for Warwickshire – was it difficult to settle into the side as a loan player? As well as this, you became a highly regarded T20 player, and had a stint with Central Districts. Was the shortest format the one you enjoyed the most?
Blackwell: “I had an amazing month with the Bears. It was a month made very easy in the fact I’d played against these guys for years and thought I was decent. So I settled in really quickly and their relaxed nature helped me settle in. Ending my career at Lord’s was emotional, although I didn’t know 100%, I knew deep down my shoulder had gone. It had, a 3rd operation followed and that was that. I always enjoyed the shorter format although I preferred Championship cricket. I loved my time in CD too, met and played with/against some great players. There were a few in our side back then. Ross Taylor, Dougie Bracewell, Jamie How, Michael Yardy, Adam Milne to name a few. I was very fortunate in order to get these opportunities and I loved it.”
17. Injury led to Durham terminating your contract early, before the 2013 season – did you consider looking for another contract elsewhere, or did you figure that it was time to move on from playing?
Blackwell: “I knew after that Lord’s final I was done. I wanted to go into umpiring and although it seemed early at 34, my body had taken a battering and the surgeon recommended I stopped. It was an easy decision in the end, I never felt like trying to cling on to playing when I knew I couldn’t perform to the standards in my mind.”
18. You’re now a First Class umpire – two questions immediately arise. Firstly, bowlers always say far less looks out once you’re an ump; has that been the case for you? Secondly, what are your ambitions in a white coat?
Blackwell: “I am starting my third year as a proper umpire, I’ve done a year on the EUP (Emerging Umpires Panel) and now this is to be my second year on the reserve list. I am loving it and I hope to go as far as I can with it. I need to prove I’m worthy enough to be placed on the full list, once I get there then who knows. No pressure and ultimately I’d like to umpire internationally. I can tell you that the angle of an umpire is very different to that of a bowler! Bowlers think everything is out for one, and always look surprised when they are turned down. But with technology today there is always the chance to review the decisions and in the main the umpires generally get things pretty much spot on.”