Twenty-nine years to the day since Viv Richards thrilled Antigua with one of the greatest – and certainly the fastest – centuries in Test history, his latest protégé announced himself to the world with a maiden Test hundred.
Jermaine Blackwood is, in many ways, an old-fashioned West Indies player. In an age where most young players are taught to defend and leave and take their time, he likes to give the ball a whack.
Coming to the crease with his side in some trouble, he responded in bold style. From the second ball of his innings, with West Indies teetering on 99 for 4, he skipped down the pitch and carved James Tredwell for six over extra cover.
A few minutes later he played a similar stroke off James Anderson. While he was only able to slice the ball over the in-field for a single, the message was clear: here was a young man who was not going to be intimidated by situation or reputation. Later he lofted Ben Stokes, bowling with pace and aggression, for another six over long-off. It was a shot of which even Sir Viv would have been proud.
We probably shouldn’t have been surprised. His second scoring shot in Test cricket was a lofted drive for six over long-on off Trent Boult. Blackwood plays Test cricket like West Indies’ players used to play Test cricket.
It was a point made by Richards, who first came across Blackwood when asked to cast his eye across the batting talent in the Sagicor High Performance Centre in Barbados, and he admits to being “very impressed” at first glance.
“I love his confidence,” Richards told ESPNcricinfo. “It’s not often you see a young man who has the confidence to take on these well-known fast bowlers as soon as they come into the game.
“He has that Caribbean style. He’s a bit like Collis King; he can tear an attack apart on his day. Any attack.
“Sure, there are some rough edges. But I would rather have a guy who can play the shots and teach him the defence than a guy who doesn’t have any shots. He’s a natural. It’s all natural instinct. And that’s the way it is with most of the best players.”
Blackwood hails from St Elizabeth, the same parish in Jamaica as Andre Russell and Jerome Taylor. Russell has been an especially significant figure in his development: he took in him as a teenager and ensured that, while other young men strayed and faltered, Blackwood kept his head down, worked hard and did not squander his natural talent. The pair have lived and trained together for a couple of years.
“Andre is like my big brother,” Blackwood said. “I’ve known him for about 10 years and I’m staying with him in Jamaica. We live under the same roof. We train at home and we talk a lot about cricket. Even this morning he sent me advice on my phone. He said stay focused, stay positive, bat for long and make sure I score a century for him.
“I met Viv at the HPC last year. He’s been a very important person. He’s taught me a lot. He talks to me always about staying positive. He tells me to play the way I play, but be patient. He was always telling me to be patent but positive at the same time.”
With such a range of strokes, Blackwood could become the latest West Indian talent to be lost to the IPL. For now, though, his priorities are representing the West Indies. “I can play all formats, but I really love Test cricket,” he said. “I really want to play Test cricket for a long time, so right now my main focus is Test cricket and making as many runs as possible.”
He has long been seen as a highly promising player. He scored a double-century in an otherwise low-scoring game against Guyana in U-19s regional cricket – a rare achievement in a format that tends to be played at a fast and furious pace – and was taken into the Sagicor High Performance Centre.
While his scores in domestic cricket this year have been modest – a reflection, perhaps, of Caribbean pitches more than anything – he has now passed 50 four times in nine Test innings. Twice he has been unbeaten.
“They have to stick with him,” Richards said. “He is still learning and there will be bad days along the way. But he can damage teams. He can make a difference.
“When you hit the ball like that, and when you have a passion to hit a ball like that, you don’t try and curb it. You may channel it. But it’s a natural talent and it is to be encouraged and celebrated.”
He enjoyed some fortune. Once he was caught at slip off a no-ball, once he was dropped in the gully and once he edged through the vacant second slip position. On several occasions, after being beaten outside off stump, he forced himself into exaggerated forward defensive practice shots. They do not come entirely naturally. There will be times, no doubt, on green pitches in England or bouncy tracks in Australia, where the technique looks a little loose.
On other occasions, he was troubled by the short ball. Stuart Broad, at his bullying best, struck him on the arm with one delivery and Stokes also made him uncomfortable in a particularly good, hostile spell. “It’s Test cricket. I’m used to it,” Blackwood said. “I’m from Jamaica. We have a lot of fast bowlers. I’m not afraid of any short balls. The bowlers will get tired and that is when I will damage them.”
Indeed, he never took a backward step and, when Stokes overpitched he leaned into a perfect on drive that might just have been the stroke of the Test
“He corrected himself,” Richards said. “He stopped following the ball outside off stump and he showed some restraint. It shows it can be done. And it’s better to brush up on these things than try to look for something that isn’t there.
“It’s hard, you know. The breeze was strong and taking the ball away from him. But he worked out how to combat everything that was thrown at him – the short ball – whatever. That’s how he will learn. That’s how all batsmen learn.
“This innings will give him a lot of belief. It’s like a golfer winning their first tournament; they feel they can win them all after that. He’ll have days when he doesn’t win, but West Indies need players like Jermaine Blackwood.”