The story goes that three years ago, Sir Vivian Richards was invited for a motivational lecture at the Sagicor High Performance Academy in Barbados. After the lecture, when he was heading back to the airport, he chanced upon a reserved youngster in the nets whose batting instantaneously reminded him of his former colleague Collis King, a similarly cavalier approach and flourish. Impressed, he stopped and watched him bat for five more minutes before he went up told him, “Keep playing like this son, you’ll soon play for West Indies.”
Nearly a year later, that reserved youngster, made his Test debut against New Zealand in Antigua, in the stadium named after the legend and watched on by the legend himself. In any other era, even half a decade ago when the West Indies were in as much as of a mess as they are now, or in any other team, his name wouldn’t have been crept into even the list of probables. Definitely not with a sub-30 first class average and with a reputation of playing one shot too many. But Richards’s words and views are as much valued and revered as his batting.
In a matter of 10 balls he demonstrated to the world why his batting had Richards in awe. He collected his first Test runs with a streaky boundary. The next ball almost ended his debut on a sombre note—Trent Boult’s in-swinger missing his bat’s edge and the middle stump by a whisker. He seemed just like one of sketchy experiment gone awry. But he dismissed such notions the very next ball. With a fearful swivel of his bottom-hand—so quintessentially
Caribbean in his blending of raw power and sublime timing—he smeared him over wide mid-on for a six. Blackwood had just announced his arrival in international cricket. In Test cricket. He made 63 off 110 balls.
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Two successful years, 16 Tests and 30 innings later, he once again scored 63, this time off only 54 balls, again reinforcing the judgment and foresight of Richards and illustrating that West Indies, by no stretch of imagination, has stopped producing batsmen of game-changing prowess. He didn’t divert the course of this Test, but before perishing rather softly shot what he is capable of achieving on his day. He has that cool nonchalance of his famed predecessors, to be unflustered by the scenario and kick up an unbridled storm against quality bowling attacks.
In the final analysis, his knock might not have hurt India, just like his 73 in the first innings. But he certainly bruised their egos, for such was the sheer audacity of his stroke-play. Sample some of his shots. After bedding in with three sweet hits to the fence, he lifted Mohammad Shami, the most penetrative Indian bowler of the morning, over his head with almost nonexistent footwork and follow through. He then bunts another boundary through mid off. A feature of his innings was his daring to loft the pacers. Few modern-day batsmen in Test cricket resorts to an approach. Fewer still will pull it off with profuse consistency. And with the orthodox cricketing shots. There wasn’t a single slog or a banal heave. It was all instinct and exceptional hand-eye coordination.
His use of feet against Ashwin was exemplary, especially for someone who hasn’t played a spinner of this high ability. For the first time in the series, he made Ashwin look ho-hum. He ferociously hammered him down the ground, and sometimes he didn’t even care to reach until the pitch of the ball. He just gave it a bloody thud, accentuated by a golfer-like free swing.
But just when he seemed to have fully grasped the craft of Ashwin, the latter showed his cunning. He duped the Jamaican with frequent change of pace. The slower Ashwin bowled, the more troubled Blackwood suddenly looked. And he eventually perished.
Like Blackwood, Roston Chase too validated his spot in the eleven. He was a nervous wreck on Test debut last week, and there were whispers that he will be the likeliest casualty if West Indies were to draft in another pacer. But here, he showed he is technically and temperamentally equipped to meet the rigorous demands of the format. He was tidy and compact, nonplussed by the circumstances, despatching to the fence anything that was marginally leg-sidish and almost Ramnaresh Sarwan-like on off-side.
The two youngsters, besides wicket-keeper Shane Dowrich, are a few bright silver-linings in the pervading darkness. It’s now West Indies cricket’s responsibility to not disillusion them.
Brief scores: West Indies 196 and 215/5 R Chase 70 batting, S Dowrich 33 batting, M Shami 2/53)