Cricket: Barnett aims to write a new chapter

NatWest Trophy final: Gloucestershire banking on grit and experience of their elder statesman at Lord's tomorrow
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The Independent Online
IN AN era when the old pro in cricket is under attack, the prospect of a 39-year old batsman in the first season of a three-year deal with a new county is ripe for ridicule. But Kim Barnett is not hanging on simply to delay the inevitable. Instead, the opening batsman with the shuffle and swish technique was headhunted by Gloucestershire for his experience of cricket and his expertise in story-telling. With one limited-overs trophy already in the bag and another for the taking at Lord's tomorrow, it is a tale that is fast becoming folklore.

Cricketers change counties for many reasons. For Barnett, a Derbyshire stalwart for 20 seasons, 13 of them as captain, the reasons were straightforward. "After the political wranglings at Derbyshire, it was a new challenge," he said, adding that he'd been approached by John Bracewell, Gloucestershire's New Zealand coach, who said he wanted an experienced batsman to work with the younger brigade.

For his part Bracewell said he targeted Barnett to toughen up his talented but under-achieving young batsmen. "Ever since the county was known as Proctershire, I think there has been a tendency for players to hide behind the overseas star," he said. "I want them to learn on the park as well as discuss the game off it. There is so little sharing of knowledge, what I call campfire teaching, that young players miss out on a lot of information. Kim is marvellous at imparting that." It is obviously a mental thing, as few sane coaches would hold Barnett's ungainly method to be a paragon of batting technique.

Unconventional it may be, but Barnett has nevertheless scored some important runs this season, none more than the 98 against Yorkshire that propelled his side into the NatWest Trophy final. Although a bout of tonsilitis caused him to miss the last County Championship match, he will be utilising his trademark slash at Andy Caddick's outswinger tomorrow.

Primarily an off-side player when he is set, the ball can end up anywhere, as Ryan Sidebottom found out when he conceded 23 runs from a single over in the semi-final. The young Yorkshireman shouldn't fret, almost 13,000 one-day runs have come from Barnett's bat, nearly twice as many as his old Derbyshire colleague Peter Bowler, the next highest of those playing in tomorrow's final.

Good enough to play four Tests for England in 1988-89, Barnett was one of those who opted for the big pay out of a Rebel tour. Uncertainty has never sat well with professional cricketers and selection policies at the time did little to allay those worries.

Batting wasn't always Barnett's forte, and when picked as a member of the England Schools side that toured India in 1977/78, leg-spin was his speciality. If memory serves (your correspondent was in the same side), he showed a far greater aptitude for scoring runs than he did for spinning the ball past cobra-wristed Indian schoolboys.

In those days he had what Californians call big hair. Twenty-one years on he has lost most of it and some say his humour too, the often joyless grind of county cricket having taken its toll on both, as well as one or two marriages. Staffordshire born and bred, his humour is actually drier than a potter's kiln, which is presumably why people often mistake it for something else.

He came of age for Derbyshire in 1981, when a fine 59 in the semi-final against Essex, saw his side through to the first NatWest final at Lord's. This will be his sixth Lord's final, three of which have seen him on the winning side.

Appointed captain of his county at the age of 22, he found he had power when most contemporaries were just beginning to cement their first- team places. Since 1970, only Mike Gatting has been at the helm longer, which suggests he was doing the right things at least as far as the committee were concerned.

Many feel Derbyshire's recent problems stem from Barnett, though an equal number feel he has been harshly judged. Certainly his ideas of playing on grassy pitches with a seam heavy attack caused many batsmen to lose heart and both Bowler and John Morris left for less green pastures.

The haemorrhaging did not end there, and not long after he had stepped down as captain in 1995 there was another wave of resignations, including the new captain Dean Jones, a move that caused two more key players, Devon Malcolm and Chris Adams, to offer their services elsewhere. Now Barnett has left too, the irony being that his one season at Gloucestershire could yield as many trophies as 18 did at his old county. "We have a good blend that gels collectively and most of the lads can bat or bowl," he said. "We've a top notch fielding side as well and from my position at mid-on it has been a pleasure to watch them operate this season."

Typically Barnett underplays his own role, though his steady start against Yorkshire in the B&H Super Cup allowed Gloucestershire to post a huge total their opponents never threatened. Providing they beat Somerset, and the old tonsils are not to sore, he may well tell the younger element about the time in 1981 when the final was decided on the last ball. Then again, London beckons.