Onions and Barker relishing second chances
Warwickshire 116 for 5 (Bell 59*) trail Durham 163 (Barker 5-33) by 47 runs
Sometimes it the threat of losing everything that focuses the mind and brings the best out of people. Certainly it was two men who had faced career-ending episodes who dominated the first day of this match.
Keith Barker, the Warwickshire allrounder, came to professional cricket only after his career in football ground to a halt, while Graham Onions, the Durham seamer, feared his cricket playing days might be over after sustaining a serious back injury that resulted in surgery and a prolonged period of rehabilitation throughout 2010. Both are now playing the sort of cricket that will win games for their sides and have the England selectors keeping tabs on their progress.
That Onions impressed with the ball will come as little surprise. He took ten wickets in Durham's last game, against Middlesex, after all. But his contribution with the bat was less expected. The fact that he top-scored, however, and played some surprisingly elegant strokes reflects as poorly on his top-order colleagues as it does on his own admirable efforts. Durham's batsmen reacted to a low, slow pitch offering seam assistance with a series of loose shots that suggested a lack of application.
Barker is also developing a reputation as a dangerous bowler. This was his second five-wicket haul of the season and once again he showed the ability swing the ball both ways at a decent pace. At one stage he claimed four wickets for one run in 12 balls - including three wickets in an over as a trio of left-handers - Ben Stokes, Phil Mustard and Scott Borthwick - fell in almost identical fashion. Each flashed outside off stump, edged and was neatly caught in Warwickshire's excellent slip cordon. Had William Porterfield, at gully, clung on to another tricky chance offered by Ian Blackwell on ten, then Barker would have taken five wickets in just 14 balls and Durham would have been precariously placed on 106 for 9.
As it was, Blackwell was an unlikely counterfoil to Onions in a 49-run stand for the ninth-wicket that saved Durham from complete capitulation. Their total should still prove at least 100 below par. Chris Wright, with four wickets, also impressed once again and dismissed both openers; Will Smith with one that nipped away and Michael di Venuto with one that nipped back.
"There were lots of times I feared I'd never play again," Onions told ESPNcricinfo afterwards. "I thought about training for other jobs like umpiring, coaching or teaching. But if you're going to come back from that sort of injury, you need a lot of determination. I'm desperate to wear that England shirt again but I love playing and appreciate playing for Durham more than ever now."
Much attention will, no doubt, focus on Barker's past as a professional footballer. A former striker, Barker represented England at age-group level and signed for Blackburn when he was just 16. He was unable to progress as anticipated, however, and by the time Northwich Victoria - in the Conference - had told him they were unable to offer him a new contract, he could tell it was time to find a new job. Warwickshire, who were the first club to spot his potential once he returned to club cricket, beat off a rival bid from Lancashire, where he developed as a young cricketer, for his services.
It is his future in cricket that should be of more interest. As an allrounder who bowls left-arm swing at a decent pace and who can also bat in the top six, Barker could well be forcing himself into the England reckoning before too long. Perhaps, with England seeking a replacement for the left-arm swing of Ryan Sidebottom in their T20 side, he could have a role to play in the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka later this year. He is improving with almost every outing and, as he put it: "I think I learnt through football, don't waste the opportunity you've got."
England may not be the only side taking an interest in Barker. He declined to sign the contract extension Warwickshire offered at the end of last season so will, as a consequence, be out of contract in September. He will surely not lack suitors. "We'll be coming back to him pretty soon," Ashley Giles confirmed afterwards.
Ian Bell showed how to bat on such a surface. Leaving the ball well and resisting the urge to follow the ball, Bell was content to wait for the poor delivery and displayed some typically well-timed drivers. He was reprieved twice, however, once on 51 when Mitchell Claydon was unable to cling on to a fiendishly sharp caught-and-bowled chance and once more, off the last delivery of the day, when di Venuto, at slip, put down a more straightforward outside edge off Borthwick. "Belly has been doing everything right," Giles said. "I've never seen him fitter, he is technically proficient and is not far away from a big score."
Varun Chopra and Jonathan Trott were unable to prosper. Perhaps unsettled by an incident when he was forced to use his bat to fend off a throw from Onions, the bowler, shying at the stumps having fielded in his follow-through, Trott soon departed when he edged an uncharacteristically loose drive, while Chopra was drawn into fending at one that climbed on him outside off stump.
This match represents something of a barometer for Warwickshire. They have not beaten Durham since 2006 and, in that time, have been defeated - sometimes by thumping margins - by them seven times. If Warwickshire's Championship challenge is to prove viable, this is exactly the sort of game they have to win. They also expect Chris Woakes to be available for first-team selection within little more than a week.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo