WARWICKSHIRE all-rounder Keith Barker aims to deliver more of the same in 2017 after finishing top of the Specsavers County Championship Most Valuable Player rankings in 2016.
The 30-year-old took the coveted MVP accolade for a championship season which brought him 608 runs (including one century and four half-centuries) at an average of 32 and 59 wickets at 23.13 apiece.
That left him unassailable at the top with 402 MVP ranking points, 46 clear of fellow Warwickshire player Jeetan Patel, who made it a Bears double by lifting the MVP award across all formats, and Durham’s Keaton Jennings.
Barker admits that securing the title was a “very pleasing” achievement – and one which appeared a million miles away when, very early in his career, he was contemplating a first-class bowling average of 245.
The left-armer endured a less-than-dazzling debut for the Bears, against Nottinghamshire at Edgbaston in 2009. After the first two days were washed out he then bagged a duck and took nought for 54.
Three weeks later, England faced Warwickshire in a in three-day friendly at Edgbaston to give Andrew Strauss’s side some Ashes preparation – and Barker was left with those chastening early-career figures.
Testing times. But Barker came through thanks to his own strength and skill and some top-class input from bowling coach Pop Welch.
“My debut wasn’t the best,” Barker recalls. “I remember getting out, second ball I think, to a big, wide half-volley from Luke Fletcher that I sliced on to my stumps. Not the greatest start.
“But the biggest worry came after we played England and I took one wicket and went round the park and my first-class bowling average was about 245. It’s a bit worrying to see that against your name but Pop, who was bowling coach then, said ‘don’t worry, that’s not a true reflection, just keep doing what you do and it will come down.’
“That’s was really important to hear because, as a young player in that situation, you need some reassurance. Because of Pop, I didn’t panic and he was right, the average did come down. And I haven’t done too badly since.”
That is an understatement. Barker has long been a linchpin of Warwickshire’s team, never more so than in the championship last season. While inconsistency as a whole left the Bears a disappointing sixth in the final First Division table, Barker, along with Patel, was a model of consistency.
“It was very pleasing to finish top of the MVP but I would have sacrificed some of those wickets and runs for the team to have done better,” he said.
“It wasn’t a bad season for us overall because we won a trophy, and we have won them all in the last five years, so that’s pretty good. But we set the bar high. That consistency is what’s been missing from our red-ball cricket in the last couple of years.
“We know we have the players to be challenging at the top but have not done it consistently enough.
“Hopefully, I can carry on from last season. I managed to knock over two or three quite quickly a few times and that’s what a team wants from its new-ball bowlers. There is no bad time to get wickets but the earlier they come the better because that puts pressure on the opposition.”
With Ashley Giles back at the club as sport director and Jim Troughton appointed first-team coach, Warwickshire are aspiring to a much stronger championship campaign this year.
Those two were at the helm, as director of cricket and captain respectively, last time the Bears won the title, in 2012.
That triumph owed much to the new-ball pairing of Barker and Chris Wright, who took 56 and 62 wickets respectively – and that partnership is far from done yet.
“Wrighty finished last season brilliantly and is looking similar in the run-up to this one which augurs really well,” said Barker.
“There’s a really good feeling around the place with Ash and Troughts back together as they were in 2012 when we won the championship and played some really good consistent cricket.
“All the senior players know Ash and the way he operates – and I think it’s been a bit of an eye-opener for the younger guys being around him!
“For me, I just want to contribute as much as I can in all formats. It was made pretty clear to me in the last couple of seasons that I would be rested for a lot of white-ball cricket and at times that was a bit frustrating.
“I understood the thinking of keeping me fresh for the championship, but I was fit and felt I could have played some white-ball.
“Troughts has told me I am in the mix in all formats this season but I know I have to earn my place. That won’t be easy after the team won the 50-over cup and played brilliantly all the way through the tournament.”