Ben Jones analyses a joyous 95 from the Jamaican.
That’s the question that Jermaine Blackwood has asked with every shot he’s played in Test cricket.
What if I middle it?
What if I come off?
What if one day, I can do what others can’t? What if I don’t get it wrong, but get it right?
Today we saw the answer.
When Blackwood arrived at the crease, West Indies were effectively 27-4, John Campbell removed from the field by a Jofra Archer yorker. WinViz, for the hosts, was at 82%. The contest was by no means over, but England were swarming, snarling, circling. Blackwood walked from a bio-secure bubble, into the heart of battle. West Indies needed a hero.
The only batsman to attack more than Blackwood in this Test was Zak Crawley, and it was marginal – 32% attacking strokes to Blackwood’s 31%. This is isn’t a reformed offender, this is a man playing his natural game. This is the way he plays, skipper. Since he debuted, the only batsmen to attack more (and play as often) are keeper batsmen – your de Kocks, your Sarfrazs. He plays with the freedom of a man that has another discipline, of a man without discipline. That attracts followers.
And yet, as he has professed on more than one occasion in the build-up, he has changed. He has put up serious numbers in first-class cricket, and arrived at this game as an experienced pro. Since his FC debut, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Kraigg Brathwaite are the only Caribbean players with more first-class appearances. He has a body of work, that of a senior batsman, that allows him that most oft-used phrase for reformed sinners. “I’m a changed man”. Thankfully, he’s not.
There is often a bit of snide in discussion about the West Indies players who focus on T20. A touch of shaming, a touch of under the breath criticism. It’s unfair, and it’s wrong – but it also misses the point. The separation of the Caribbean talent pool, which has seen so many players focus on T20, has given the red ball players room to breathe, to improve. It has given the likes of Blackwood time to grow, and build a CV in long form cricket and return to the Test team a better player.
This was the latest Blackwood has ever played the ball in a Test innings, min 50 balls. He played late, under his eyes, just 1.65m from his stumps. This was attacking from a solid base, not swinging from the hip, picking and choosing the moments to scythe through the infield. This was the same man, but altered slightly, switched up to get the best out of him.
Turn up the bass, tweak the treble, but play the same tune. Jermaine Blackwood, the remix. Blackwood has made 95 in a Test match before, against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi. Again, it was innings defined by being busy, by going at the opposition. On that day in the UAE he left just 6% of his deliveries – an identical number to today. He was still going hard, still playing, still coming at the bowlers. England were never able to tie him down and restrict him.
England will be asking the same question, of course.
What if they hold the first chance that Blackwood gave them? What if they held the second, the third? What if they ran him out, when they had the chance?
It was the highest score by a batsman to be dropped three times in an innings since 2015. Blackwood was using his luck, and using it perfectly.
England got their selection wrong by not picking Stuart Broad. They were weakened significantly in the batting department by not having Joe Root, and they unnecessarily weakened themselves by not picking their best attack. That is clearer in hindsight, but it was visible before the Test. Mark Wood struggled, and took 2-110. His average in England is closer to 50 than 30. The only seamers in Test history to bowl as many balls in England with a worse average are George Geary and Wally Hammond.
But what if they had got their selection right? Would we have all enjoyed all of those moments, all of that Blackwood magic?
Those whips off the stumps, slaps behind square, those upper cuts that deserved not just a crowd, but a standing ovation.
Those slaps through cover, up and over the infield. Once off Anderson’s bowling, once off Wood but just over Anderson’s head.
And once into his hands.
Because Blackwood didn’t need the century, so he went again. Plenty, many with Caribbean blood in their veins, will have been angry that their nerves were jangling once more. But that’s the way he plays, skipper. Blackwood asked the question.
What if he’d got it over Anderson’s head again?
What if he’d made a century? Well, he’d have five more runs to his name, and not a lot else would be different. The legend of Blackwood would still be the same. And what’s more, it suggests we’re in for more of this. Because here we have a young man willing to hold onto what makes him special, and match it what others want from him. The difference in stature between the two men at the crease, as the win flew into view, was notable. But even Holder’s towering presence looked up to Blackwood today.
Today, Blackwood answered the question – the perennial question – not with what if.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.