England vs West Indies: The paradox of T20

West Indies’ anchor in Southampton is essentially a Test batsman trapped in a T20 mould

It’s been five years since Jermaine Blackwood featured in a T20 match, and three years since he enlisted his name in a Caribbean Premier League auction.

Yet, when you watch him tee away in Test cricket, striking sweetly and cleanly, straight off a bygone Caribbean batting canon, you must have presumed that he’s already a T20 glitterati, pay cheques flying in faster than the sixes that fly out of his bat. He’s far from it. He is often spotted with Chris Gayle, his ‘father figure’ and Andre Russell, his ‘brother and mentor’. Yet, he has adopted none of their high-flying life. He still lives in his functional house in St. Elizabeth parish, not far from Russell’s sprawling mansion, barely parties, and by his own admission, is an ‘indoors person’.

At the Sabina Park in Jamaica, he is considered a chip off the old block, more Jimmy Adams than Chris Gayle. So loved he is that head groundsman Charles Joseph brought rum and chips to his staff when Blackwood made a surprise appearance as a concussion substitute in a Test against India. His confidence endeared him to former West coach Stuart Law, who once complimented: “He is only 5ft 2in tall but he walks around like he is 10ft tall and that is the sort of attitude that really warms my heart.” Yet, at times, he seems petulant.

It’s the paradox of being Jermaine Blackwood. A batsman lost in perception. A Test batsman trapped in a T20 mould; or a T20 maverick frozen inside a Test batsman. Or is he neither? A miserable nowhere man, as his first-class average of 33 suggests and T20 aggregate of 12.92 vindicates. It’s Test cricket that he considers ultimate, yet it’s Test cricket that was punishing him. After he was dropped for the sixth time in two years, in October 2017, he was a disturbed man. He sought out Russell, who was incidentally serving a one-year ban for doping. “He told me, ‘why don’t you come over? We will have a hit’,” Blackwood once told Jamaica Gleaner.

For the next few months, it was all about regaining that mental space, the clarity of mind that manifests in his stroke-making. He was confused and tormented, and the strokes automatically lacked his customary punch.

“There were a few technical glitches we ironed out, but mostly it was getting into that mental space. Just seeing Russell go about in the nets itself is a great feeling, suddenly you feel confident. He is kind of a big brother in that way,” he had said.

A maniac as Russell is with fitness drills, Blackwood’s fitness too improved. “He trains like mad, so you have to keep up with him. It’s bloody hard work, but you realise you become much fitter and tougher. I have never been so fit in my life,” the interview had quoted Blackwood as saying.

It’s not always nets and drills, though. Like during the lockdown, a period he spent mostly in Russell’s house, utilising the gym and facilities, he learned fishing too. But the overwhelming focus was on the game, as he could not get the sport out his head. The break couldn’t have been more untimely, for he was scoring truckloads of runs in the regional first-class competition. He feared the break would make him rusty, but Russell assured it wouldn’t. “He was always there with me, guiding me, pumping me up, bowling at me. I have to give thanks that I have such a good friend and brother like Andre, who has a big home that has almost everything. So I can do some work in the gym and then I use the [practice] nets and focus on my skills, batting-wise,” Blackwood told a WICB podcast.

While Russell helped him kill the mental demons, Jamaica Scorpions batting coach Andre Coley tweaked his approach, advising him to refrain from lofted strokes in the early stages of the innings. “When I used to start my innings, I used to hit the ball in the air a lot. Coach Coley told me to try and score my runs on the ground for at least the first hour or two hours and since I have made the adjustment, I started to spend more time at the crease and the runs started to accumulate,” Blackwood told reporters before leaving to Antigua, where the team assembled before embarking on their trip to England.

Going over the top is probably too big a temptation to resist for Blackwood — after all, his second scoring shot in Test cricket was a meaty blow over Trent Boult’s head in Port of Spain. Intemperance often creeps in, like in the first innings in Southampton, though he was relatively restrained in the second. He needn’t have to, because he has all the ground-strokes in his quiver that the best of batsmen possess. Yet, perhaps the joy of a ball in flight takes over. It’s the paradox of his batting.

But this year in the league, he swore to be different. He practised monkish abstinence from taking the aerial path. He faced 1,332 deliveries and struck only four sixes. He though rattled out 91 fours, the most by any batsman this season.

Two of those sixes came en route composing his maiden first-class hundred—248 against Leeward Islands in North Sound, the same venue where he had registered his only Test hundred. He was relieved, for it was the first time he managed a three-figure score this season after going past 50 on as many as six instances. But Russell was aghast when he texted him: “You missed out on a 250.”

It’s been pretty much the story of his career — centuries nipped before fruition. It’s evident in his first-class numbers: six hundreds and 41 half centuries; a bit underwhelming for a top-order batsman. Even in his ‘start-stop’ Test career, he has converted only one of his 11 fifties to a century [three 90s, four 60s]. There have been shades of Collis King, to whom Viv Richards once likened Blackwood’s carefree stroke-making. King was a ferocious stroke-player but a two-innings wonder; once when he carted Richard Hadlee all around Christchurch for his only Test hundred and then outshining Richards himself in the 1979 World Cup final at Lord’s.

Blackwood sought the counsel of former opener Devon Smith during a first-class game in St Vincent. He advised: “The same way you approach 50, is the same way you’re supposed to approach getting a hundred.”

The double hundred arrived soon after the advice. A Test hundred beckoned in Southampton too. But how spectacularly he squandered it! The old habit kicked in. A loose, airy drive failed him, as often as it has in his career. In the context of the game, it didn’t matter much. But for a man keen to debunk the paradox that he is, and running out of time, it must have hurt. But who knows, a few such knocks might relight his T20 career instead. The paradox of being Jermaine Blackwood