Baseball cap back to front, flip flops kicked off and bare feet swung casually over the seat in front, the lad and his mates in the Courtney Walsh End stand occasionally boom out support to the Jamaican batsmen being bombarded by the Barbados pacemen.
Power and passion: Yohan Blake brings dedication to his training Photo: REUTERS
“It’s important that they know we’re behind them, man. Gotta show them love . . .” he drawls.
Yohan Blake looks so youthfully chilled and comfy at Sabina Park, he could easily pass as one of the boys going around the ground flogging water to the diehard fans.
Except this is the world’s youngest 100 metres champion, the national hero who would be Jamaica’s Olympic king, the phenomenon some believe will be the one to beat his unbeatable mate and training partner Usain Bolt in the marquee duel of the entire 2012 Games.
It is almost impossible to square the vision of this charming, invisible local with that of the intense, muscular colossus who, the following day, strips off for action in his day job amid the shrill cheers of a few thousand at a high school meet in Jamaica’s National Stadium for his first race of the year.
That is a miraculous transformation when his young pal becomes, in the words of Bolt, ‘The Beast’.
At the cricket, though, The Beast is a pussy cat who no-one bothers. He comes along with a couple of old schoolmates and joins a few regulars who just gleefully take the mickey out of the “big man” when they see our photographer taking a picture.
“Things have changed since I became champion; everyone wants a piece of me now. This is where I chill out. Here, people let me be,” he says, gazing across one of the sport’s great cathedrals. “Cricket’s my first love. Any time it’s on, you find me here before trainin’. As a boy, I’d rather have played for the West Indies than go to the Olympics. It was my dream.
“When I was starting out at 12, I didn’t go to school a lot so I was puttin’ up a stick in the yard and bowlin’ at it.” And some old habits are hard to break.
"Remarkably, it can now be revealed, the world champion is still bowling like the wind in competitive cricket every Sunday for Kingston CC.
If it had not been for yesterday’s Twenty20 match being cancelled, Blake would have been pounding in for his weekly four-over spell, less than 24 hours after opening his Olympic campaign with a new lifetime best for 400 metres – 46.49sec – in the Camperdown Classic meeting.
He couldn’t have looked any happier with his run than when he recorded his season’s Twenty20 “pb” the other week.
“I took four for 10!” he says proudly. It seems a wonder that his coach Glen Mills would allow him to indulge this cricketing passion but, apparently, the only thing he draws the line at is that Blake doesn’t go motorbiking on Kingston’s pot-holed roads.
Blake was runner-up in Saturday’s race behind world championship relay medallist Allodin Fothergill but still ecstatic to knock 0.31sec off his one-lap best. He looked ominously sharp over the first 200m, starting effectively where he left off last summer when he followed up his world championship triumph with a quite astonishing 19.26sec 200m in Brussels, the second fastest half-lap in history.
“I’m much, much stronger this year and faster,” he beamed, suggesting he is fine fettle to take on Bolt in the races, over maybe both 100m and 200m, which will bring the island to a fevered standstill this August.
Blake, who benefited from Bolt’s extraordinary disqualification for false starting in the world championships, at Daegu, is far too respectful to make inflammatory predictions for 2012, even if you can find many here convinced it could be the 22-year-old’s time.
“It’s going to be down to the person on that day,” he shrugs. “If Usain wins, I’m happy; if I win, he’s happy. If a Jamaican wins, Jamaica’s happy, we all are. It’s a bit of a good drama yes, one of the best sport has ever seen.”
But if he’s coy about who’s the fastest runner, he is not so shy when quizzed on who’s the quicker bowler. Bolt counts Chris Gayle among his victims but Blake laughs: “Usain thinks he’s much better than me but even though he gets more bounce and pace because he really tall, I’m better! I’m pretty quick, fast through the air!” Blake’s Jamaican manager Timothy Spencer swears only Fidel Edwards is nippier in the entire Caribbean!
Actually, cricket made Blake. He tells of when his school principal O’Neil Ankle saw him bowling, could not believe his speedy run-up and suggested track could be his forte. He passed him on to St Jago, the high school which produced countless athletics champions and where Blake became the fastest 100m teenager the island had seen.
For the young boy, the sixth of seven brothers and sisters from a desperately impoverished background in Bogue Hill near Montego Bay, this was the escape he dreamed of.
“l wanted a better life to help my family. I wasn’t born with a golden spoon in my mouth; it was a really tough life. So many times, we had no money to even get to school. I’d have to find empty beer bottles to sell and spent hours carrying water on my head because we had no water at home. It gave me strength which helps me today.”
His background inspired Blake to set up the YB Afraid Foundation, designed to help fund a new life to underprivileged kids. When he distributes gifts at the Mount Olivet boys’ home the Foundation has adopted, he can see a touch of himself reflected in these youngsters.
“It is important to me. I want to help these kids because if you follow them around Jamaica and see the reality, it makes you want to cry because it’s really, really hard for them,” he says with considerable emotion. “I feel I’m a role model and encouragement for all of them. I say when I go to talk to the kids ‘look at me, I’m only young but I did it you can too’.”
Blake seems a deeply impressive character. Those around him are fiercely defensive of his reputation despite the three-month doping ban he served following a failed test in 2009. They insist that a stimulant, ingested innocently in a nutritional supplement, was not even on the banned list. He deserves no stigma, the Jamaica AAA President, Dr Warren Blake, told me here.
There is little of Bolt’s showman exuberance in Blake; he seems quieter, more studious. Where Usain still likes his increasingly infrequent nights out clubbing, Blake reckons he “not a party man but more of a family man, easy going with my friends, playing dominoes. And, trust me, Usain is a genius at dominoes ”
The pair train side by side daily at the University of West Indies track here under the fatherly eye of coach Mills. To outsiders, it seems extraordinary for the world’s two best sprinters to be so cosy; to Blake, it could not feel more natural.
“People outside think ‘how can they be friends?’ but we are, we have fun and a wonderful chemistry. Usain’s a unique character, the greatest talent the world has seen, and he helps and encourages me. But training together is good for both of us. When we line up, it is business but apart from that, it is friendship. For me, it is not a rivalry — and I don’t think it is for him too. It’s just good competition. Nice and excitin’.”
You cannot escape Blake’s burning intensity, though. “You know why Usain calls me ‘The Beast’?” asks Blake. “Because when you’re sleepin’, I’m workin’, I’m toilin’ through the night. It’s what great men do.” H
e is not joking. Coaches at Mills’s Racers Club confirm how Blake will do his exercises in the dead of night. Within the camp, they fancy he has inspired Bolt to up his game too.
And if there’s a danger that he becomes too much of a workaholic, then there’s always Sabina Park to embrace. As Tino Best fires in a short one, Blake looks a mite wistful. So come on, Yohan, if we offered you a Test ‘five for’ or an Olympic title, what would you take? “Well, at this time of my life,” this beast of a cricketing dreamer ponders thoughtfully, “I think I’ll go for the gold . . .”