The defects and defections

Derek Pringle studies the plight of Derbyshire and their criticised captain
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ASK almost any county cricketer where in the world he'd least like to ply his trade and the answer would be unequivocal: Derby. Believe it or not, that middling town halfway up the M1, even shades Islamabad when it comes to personal discomfort, and almost everyone who has played there bleats the two syllables with irrational fear and loathing.

But, while for years visiting sides have marvelled at the steadfast loyalty of those calling the windswept acres of the Racecourse Ground home, six defeats in the County Championship, including yesterday's at Durham, as well as the recent defections of leading players to other counties, have caused disquiet among the members.

Last Wednesday the chairman, Mike Horton, called for an emergency meeting of the cricket committee, which then met with the players. Publicly at least, the blame was firmly laid at the blistered feet of the powerful pace attack, which contains three England bowlers: Phillip DeFreitas, Devon Malcolm and Dominic Cork. Apparently, a failure to dispose of the tail was the official reason for the poor showings, though the whole team in general was criticised for lacking the "killer instinct".

Privately, however, many supporters blame the long-standing captain Kim Barnett and, in particular, his publicly-stated differences with John Morris and Peter Bowler, unresolved spats that led to both batsmen departing for other counties, where the pastures, but not the playing surfaces, were decidedly greener.

Their loss has been even harder for supporters to bear now that both are scoring runs for their new counties, which must have really rubbed salt deep into the wounds, Bowler taking a hundred and Morris 99 off their old club. It must have particularly irked Barnett, whose tenure at the top, since 1983, currently makes him (alongside Mike Gatting) the longest serving county captain.

It is a position that has seen him steadily accumulate power, as one might collect Green Shield stamps, slowly marginalising those with an interest in the decision-making process. According to Bowler and other ex-Derbyshire players, it was Barnett's seam-orientated vision, with its reliance on grassy and untrustworthy pitches, that caused most of the dissent, coming as it did from batsmen and spin bowlers.

When Barnett first played back in 1979, the pitches at Derby were slow and flat. However, after assuming control, and seeing how the West Indies achieved repeated success by using four fast bowlers, it wasn't long before Michael Holding, Ian Bishop and the Dane, Ole Mortensen, were signed and the groundsman was told to go and lose his mower.

Bowler's main beef with Barnett, it seems, revolved around these underprepared pitches. He felt that the captain's strategies had given them an unbalanced side, without a frontline spinner (Barnett himself is a part-time spinner). Bowler further argued, acknowledging the presence of a formidable pace attack, that Derbyshire shouldn't need green pitches to outperform their opponents. All that did, he claimed, was to have a deleterious effect on the home side's batting, as well as bring less able opponents with weaker pace attacks into the game.

Having to spend half your season on sporty pitches where luck plays an important part will inevitably douse a batsman's confidence, and Bowler felt that even when the team played away on ironed shirtfronts, the batsmen couldn't make the most of the opportunity because they were still traumatised from the pitches at home.

It is a state of affairs that has not changed, as several premature finishes have testified. Although the club will be quick to point out that there have been no "poor" marks from umpires this season.

Barnett, whose devotion to Derbyshire can never be in doubt, does not deny that pitches were specifically prepared. "If you don't put things in your favour, your best bowlers are going to end up toiling," he said. "I just took a leaf out of Nottinghamshire's book of the early Eighties, when Rice and Hadlee won their matches on green pitches. The message then was that if their batsmen could learn to get runs on those pitches, then they'd win far more games than they'd lose." It is pure self-interest, an affliction that most counties have been guilty of, but one that has held English Test cricket back.

Kim Barnett has said he will retire as captain at the end of the season. It will not surprise many if it comes sooner. Derbyshire, it seems, can even prove too much for hardened devotees of the tough outdoor life.