Recent T20 debutant Josh Blake spoke to Richard Spiller about his cricket journey, the privilege of working with Alec Stewart and professionals like Ben Foakes and Jamie Smith, the hard yards he’s been putting in, and much more.
It was a little more than a year ago that Josh Blake was looking on as Surrey’s squad prepared for the season.
At 23, the wicketkeeper feared his ambition of being a professional cricketer – and even more, playing for the county he had followed since childhood – had all but slipped away.
Blake was engaged in a teambuilding session as part of his role with the Surrey Cricket Foundation, doing much valuable coaching work in the community and helping along youngsters who also dreamed of being a player.
It wasn’t for lack of trying that his progress appeared to be blocked. Blake had played for Surrey from U9s to U15s but after that, others were preferred, while the pandemic had closed off other routes into the game. Yet he remained on the fringes for Surrey, being a reliable option in the second team while scoring buckets for runs and keeping at a consistently high standard for his club Sutton.
Blake’s refusal to give up paid off midway through last season, receiving the call he had feared would never come from Surrey’s Director of Cricket Alec Stewart with an offer of a professional contract. Making his List A debut against Leicestershire at Guildford on August 2, he was ever-present in the side for the Royal London Cup campaign.
“There’s a big difference between being on the outside and the inside,” he reckons. “I was only thinking the other day that this time last year I was looking down from our teambuilding session on the lads going about their work.”
Blake might have been a later starter than some in the professional game but he also has more life experience than some. He spent much of last winter in Sydney, but this time did not have the worry of having to find the money to fund it, unlike his previous two visits. Travelling to Australia and staying there for several months is expensive these days yet that outlay has proved an excellent investment.
He spent his time with Hawkesbury CC and relished that experience: “It was very different this time, playing grade cricket at Hawkesbury. They are a lovely bunch of lads and although it was a difficult season, they did okay in the end.”
When Blake returned home in February, his aim was to get straight back to training but there was a delay: “I had to do jury service, which is a bit different again from everything else.”
In eight List A games so far, Blake has hit 163 runs at 23, his highest score coming on that debut day at Woodbridge Road – when he made 44 out of 105 with Ben Geddes for the third wicket – and there was another valuable contribution of 40 in a lively partnership with Nico Reifer which helped to secure a tie with Warwickshire.
“I was pleased with those innings but there were a couple of ducks too, so I saw both sides of it,” says Blake, as he assessed targets for this year: “I’d like to make my debut in the four-day side. That’s quite a stiff challenge with the strength of the squad here but if I can do that and play all the 50-over games again it would be quite satisfying.”
But just going to work each day is a pleasure, bringing the opportunity to work with Alec Stewart and his fellow keepers Ben Foakes and Jamie Smith: “Being able to pick Stewie’s brains each day is such a help and it’s wonderful to be able to work in such an awesome group of keepers. There’s a set routine and you can’t fail to learn in that environment. I played alongside Jamie at the U8 level, so we go back a long way.
“There’s no secret to success – they work so hard and you appreciate it much more being part of it. Going from coming to watch when I was growing up – and even last year when I was still on the fringes – to being involved is awesome.”
Fourth-highest run-getter in the Second XI Championship, before the fourth round of fixtures, with 306 runs at a brilliant average of over 61 and a top score of 111 not out, Blake has been in great touch throughout the season.
The promising wicket-keeper bat also scored a stylish 123 against Middlesex in the Second XI Friendly at Guildford, while he lead the run charts for the Three Feathers’ in the Second XI T20 competition, crossing fifty on three occasions and collecting 246 runs at a healthy average of over 30.