By Sam Colvine
From the storied cricket pitches of Hanworth Road to the only slightly more prestigious wickets at Lords, Blake Cullen OH (2020), in his short albeit
eventful cricketing career thus far, has already accumulated a wealth of experience, plying his trade in both red and white ball disciplines
for Middlesex County Cricket Club, whilst even participating in the inaugural instalment of the Hundred.
The cricketing production line at Hampton, masterfully stewarded and tinkered with by Messrs Banerjee, Parrish and Harrison, has seen a steady flow of boys taking their talents to the county scene and even to an international level. Cullen follows in the footsteps of Zafar Ansari and his Middlesex teammate, Toby Roland-Jones, and, unsurprisingly, he reminisces fondly about his time at the School.
Particularly crucial to his growth, in his view, were the “high standards within the team and the high standards of the teams we played against,” while the quality of coaching cultivated solid technical foundations in his game. Mr Banerjee’s unadulterated passion for cricket, as well as his dedication to the players – “he is more than happy to give up his free periods for you” – combined with Mr Harrison’s in-depth focus on the intricacies of the game, with Cullen remarking that he would still seek the latter out for advice even today, enabled him to burnish his ever-expanding array of cricketing skills, standing him in good stead to venture into the professional game.
A further step in Cullen’s development during his time at Hampton was playing in the U19 World Cup for England in early 2020, sampling his first taste of international cricket. Though he recognises the value of it being his first experience of a “professional environment” since “they run [the side] as if it were a county,” he is careful not to overstate the importance of being involved in the early age groups of international cricket: “People tend to overthink it – I know a lot of good players in county cricket who were nowhere near that U19 team so I wouldn’t say it helps you into the professional game.”
Reflecting on his record at Hampton, Cullen doesnot over-emphasise the successes of his cricketing exploits: “I didn’t take loads of wickets and I didn’t
score loads of runs.” In spite of an illustrious summer with the bat in Third Year, garnering plaudits from Roland-Jones for the five centuries he amassed that
year, the pinnacle of his cricketing time at Hampton, captaining the First XI as an Upper Sixth pupil in the summer of 2020, was cruelly wrestled from his
grasp by the Covid pandemic, ending his journey exploring the game at the School in an abrupt and unceremonious manner.
While the pandemic brought a sudden conclusion to his time at Hampton, it also precipitated Cullen’s first real chance in the county arena. The quirks of the Covid summer saw Middlesex having to contest seven games in seven weeks and, due to the gruelling nature of fast bowling, rotation was necessary, allowing him to secure a berth in the first team.
At the start of the summer, the bowler was “in a good place to start performing” and he was quick to seize his opportunity, taking Alastair Cook’s wicket, the England Test side’s all-time leading run scorer, in only his second game – as Cullen attests, “it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Looking back on his first season in the Middlesex first team setup, he views it as the ideal starting place for his career: “Although it was hard cricket and it was first-class cricket, it wasn’t the usual divisions so there wasn’t necessarily the same amount of pressure that there is in a normal year. It was a fairly relaxed environment and a nice entry into the professional game.”
The wickets at Lords are frequented by an abundance of fast bowling talent, with the Middlesex bowling attack empowered by wily operators such as Roland-Jones, Steven Finn and Tim Murtagh, all of whom have featured at an
international level for England and Ireland. Although this high level of bowling talent has seen Cullen face stiff opposition for a place in the county’s strongest
XI, he places greater emphasis on how the advice of the team’s bowling stars has enabled him to hone his game: “They are always very understanding and willing to give up their time for me, to answer questions and help me out.”
This fellowship between the generations of players is vital to the functioning of the Middlesex squad, with the younger members accruing expanses of knowledge about the particulars of the game from their more seasoned colleagues, while the squad veterans are forced to maintain their standards by
those ascending the ranks.
Nonetheless, in Cullen’s opinion, this cohesive blend of youth and experience is not the norm at every county, with older stalwarts often intimidated by a ‘young gun’ making their name in the game.
After a fruitful first season with the first team, a further tranche of opportunities arrived for Cullen in the 2021 season. Picked up by the London Spirit in the first edition of the new Hundred format, he opines that this is an invaluable addition to the game for both the players and the fans: “You get to
mix with people from other counties and coaches that you haven’t worked with before,” enhancing his performance through collaborating with and facing off against some of the best cricketers and technicians in the game.
So far in his time at the zenith of the national game, Cullen has been deployed primarily as a bowler, yet, earlier in his career, he was just as capable with the
bat in hand, exemplified by his aforementioned collection of centuries in Third Year.
The 20-year-old is well aware of this transition from an all-rounder to more of a specialist, noting that “while it’s happening, you don’t necessarily realise it.” Indeed, he “didn’t used to bowl particularly fast.”
A factor in this change, apart from a growth spurt in his teenage years, is rooted in the physical demands of pace bowling. The toll this takes on the body leads to injuries, thereby necessitating more rotation than among batsmen; this was crucial for Cullen in his formative years, gaining opportunities in the county second team while, in contrast, “there were a lot of batters waiting on the side because there were no opportunities in the second team.”
Cullen has spearheaded the Middlesex attack in both red and white ball formats, so the question naturally arises: which does he prefer? The bowler is characteristically pragmatic and grounded in response: “It’s not a straightforward answer because I thoroughly enjoy both and it’s so early on in my career.” Cullen’s current aspiration is to capitalise on any opportunities that are on offer so “to make any sort of decision on prioritising one format would be
2022 promises much for Cullen, having been retained by the London Spirit for the Hundred and seeking to earn more opportunities for Middlesex in both first class cricket and the shorter formats. However, his mindset and aim remain the same: “To keep getting better and take any opportunities that come my way.” The county’s bowling outfit, “unmatched in experience and skill,” is once again
burgeoning with talent, with Pakistan star Shaheen Afridi adding to an already star-studded line-up.
Cullen recognises it will be a challenge to cement
himself in the county’s First XI, yet, showcasing his skill among some of the world’s best, he wouldn’t have it any other way.