'I think we can be in the top four this season'

Kim Barnett hits towards midwicket Getty Images

To understand how Kim Barnett is once again centre stage at Derbyshire, determined to shake them from another long period of struggle, it is probably best to start with the story of his heart attack. It came six years ago during a troubled period that had the messy break-up of his second marriage at its heart. It was hard to imagine then that one day he would once again be the most influential cricketing figure in the county.

"I didn't make it public," he said. "I had a heart attack one night and went into hospital and a bloke came in and said, 'I can sort this out if you want; sign this form.' I was on the operating table in no time, he removed whatever he needed to remove, and the next morning I felt great."

If Barnett was a bit sketchy on the exact procedure, it is apparent that his tenacity was left in place. Immediately after his release from hospital, flouting doctors' orders to take it easy for three months, he turned out for Bignall End in the North Staffordshire League. It was a nice day, he fancied a bat and he didn't want to let anybody down.

"I didn't tell them. They knew nothing about it. The captain asked me if I fancied a bowl and I thought to myself, 'I'd better not today.' I had a bat and got about 20. Nothing alarming happened, so I thought 'well it's got to get better from here'."

Barnett is Derbyshire cricketing royalty, a status once granted in the pages of the Derby Evening Telegraph, which knows better than most. He captained them for 13 seasons, first taking up the job as a 22-year-old. In the most glorious phase in their history, he scored most runs, made most centuries, and played in three of only five trophy successes since they first joined the County Championship in 1895.

"I was asked to do a report on Derbyshire's underperformance. Once the board read it, it was decided somebody had to have total authority to put this right. And here I am" Barnett on how he was made Derbyshire's director of cricket

Royalty or not, his abdication was not a happy one. Amid talk of rifts, he left for Gloucestershire in 1999, where his strategic talent in limited-overs cricket later led John Bracewell, who also coached New Zealand, to remember him as a walking Duckworth-Lewis machine even before the rain tables had been invented, a man skilled in plotting a course to victory in infinite detail. When Barnett retired, Derbyshire's committee refused the request of the captain, Dominic Cork, for him to return. Typical, wrote one of the county's keenest observers, of a county forever lost in "black passions and scarlet enmities".

Barnett coached in schools, and in Staffordshire, and delivered cars to clients for a luxury car company until he drove one off the road on an icy night.

The heart attack, and all that came with it, seemed likely to encourage him into early retirement. But shortly afterwards, Barnett was enticed by Derbyshire's chairman, Chris Grant, to rebuild links with the club. Before too long, he was offered the presidency and says that the woman who would go on to become his third wife, Sue, a retired police officer, persuaded him it would be an interesting way to pass the time.

Barnett, though, is not designed for a ceremonial role. Derbyshire did not win a single Championship match in 2016 and flopped in both limited-overs tournaments. When he was invited to write a report on the club's affairs, he was not found wanting. Last September, as part of the restructuring, he was made Derbyshire's director of cricket, a job that has come 15 years too late.

"We had been playing what people perceived to be poorly, but we have been through that many times," he said. "Certainly in the '70s, before I started, the record wasn't great and people were getting a bit fretful. So I was asked to do a report on it. I thought, 'Okay, 10 to 15 pages.' It ended up about 70. Once the board read it, it was decided somebody had to have total authority to put this right. And here I am."

The outcome of the Barnett report was the scrapping of Derbyshire's "elite performance" coaching structure, which invested heavily in the skills and authority of coaches. Its instigator, Graeme Welch, had resigned mid-season, and it was not long before Barnett dismantled his vision, adamant that money should be rerouted to the playing budget and more control and responsibility should be put back in the hands of the players.

"The danger with an elite coaching model is that people take more credit than they should," Barnett said. "Eventually people think, 'People are not playing well, my job is at risk, so I have to go and shout at them', and eventually the players think, 'It's not our plan, I am not in charge of my own career.'

"That reverses everything I believe in - that you support players, you give them information, you get them to the point where they are doing something with it and ultimately it is up to them. How do you want to play? What help do we give you?

"If they want to call me director of cricket and give it a big title, that's fine, but now the restructuring is done, I just co-ordinate. I'm doing managing and strategy and turning up where I want. If they tell me something is a shambles I will sort it out but I won't be telling them what to do."

Instead of a bank of full-time coaches, specialist freelance coaches - John Emburey for spin bowling, Jack Russell for wicketkeeping and Graham Gooch for batting - will supplement a smaller coaching staff from time to time. In their absence, senior players will be expected to pass on their knowledge.

"Barnett was adamant that money should be rerouted to the playing budget and more control and responsibility should be put back in the hands of the players"

There is an imaginative approach in T20, too, where John Wright, coach of Mumbai Indians and a former Derbyshire player, is one of only two specialist T20 coaches in the NatWest Blast.

"John has a great record with Mumbai Indians. He is a hard competitor, the perfect guy. We are rubbish at T20, one of only two counties who have never been to Finals Day. I said, 'Can you come and teach us, and teach our coaches, how to play it?'"

Even as the youngest captain in Derbyshire's history, Barnett was not to be trifled with: almost from the outset, he had strong opinions on how the game should be played. He insists the impetus for his return comes from identifying in Derbyshire's captain, Billy Godleman, something of "the Barnett of old".

Since becoming the second youngest cricketer ever to play for Middlesex, at 17, Godleman's career has not quite kicked on. A stormy phase at Essex was followed by a bit of a backwater move to Derbyshire; he was awarded the captaincy in 2016 and a desperately poor season ensued. Barnett wants to free up an unfulfilled talent.

"I wouldn't have taken the job without knowing Billy's potential because I thought, 'This guy is tough.' And we have some decent guys in the 2nd XI who just need someone to lead them. When I was playing, I was a far more aggressive person. Now I want to be a bit more tranquil and I want to do something for somebody else, rather than wresting away, wanting to prove myself for my own career."

Derbyshire's history has been one of adversity. Barnett still remembers being taken aback at the reaction of Bob Taylor, Derbyshire's England wicketkeeper, when they beat Yorkshire for the first time in 26 years at Abbeydale Park in 1983 and Geoffrey Boycott carried his bat.

"Bob got the champagne out afterwards. I thought that was a bit over the top, and he said he had never beaten Yorkshire and he planned to celebrate it. That's the difference between a Derbyshire history and a Yorkshire history. We have patches where we are bottom or nearly bottom and then a batch of people come along and we have a better patch.

"I suppose the biggest concern for the smaller counties like Derbyshire is that first-class cricket is ultimately going to be taken away."

Throughout Derbyshire's history, they have mostly been sustained by the quality of their seam bowlers, such as Les Jackson, a stalwart of the 1950s who took more wickets for the county than any other bowler. He played cricket in the summer and worked just as hard in the mines in the winter; so tied was he to this most demanding of industries that in later years he worked as a chauffeur for the National Coal Board.

Harold Rhodes' England prospects as the '60s dawned were wrecked by a throwing controversy. A decade or so later, Alan Ward was briefly the fastest thing around. "Bring Back Ward!" the Sun once demanded during times of England struggle, only to change the headline in its southern editions to "Bring Back Snow!"

While Barnett chatted enthusiastically about the season ahead on the edge of the Derby outfield - no longer the windswept wasteland upon which he cut his captaincy teeth - he received a call from Mike Hendrick, a miserly back-of-a-length seamer who could boast a Test average lower than the likes of Harold Larwood, John Snow or Ian Botham but who rarely gained the credit for it. Hendrick is back as cricket advisory director and sounds like just the man to help Barnett keep the board in place.

"That's the difference between a Derbyshire history and a Yorkshire history. We have patches where we are bottom or nearly bottom and then a batch of people come along and we have a better patch"

Then there was Devon Malcolm, who, though his fielding and batting could be comically myopic, produced one of Test cricket's great spells of fast bowling when he took 9 for 57 at The Oval against the 1994 South Africans, enraged by a bouncer that had struck him on the helmet while batting. Cork, too, whose opinions will be put to good use once T20 comes around.

Barnett stayed true to this tradition as captain, emphasising the need to rotate a squad of fast bowlers, and unapologetically seeking to win home matches on green pitches. The toss regulations introduced last season, where the visiting team can bowl first by choice, make such a tactic a non-starter. So Barnett's Derbyshire, for virtually the only time in their history, will put the onus on winning matches with legspin. There are three of them - Sri Lankan Jeevan Mendis for the first phase of the season, Imran Tahir once his IPL duties are over, and the local tyro Matt Critchley, back from a close season in Australia and eager to learn as much as he can.

"In my days we would just make the pitches green and like meadows, throw the ball to the likes of Michael Holding and Ole Mortensen and see who came out on top. You can't do that now, so how are we going to win these four-day matches? Spin's a good option.

"I am shocking myself to wonder about playing two legspinners in the same side at Derby. It can't be right, can it? I must be dreaming. But I think Imran will bring Critch on, who is a superbly talented lad.

"We have to try and dry the pitch out somehow. The groundsman is looking forward to the challenge. You just want to win cricket matches. Last year we lost six fair and square, and of the draws, we had half-a-dozen opportunities and we weren't good enough to take them.

"Near the end of last season, the chairman said to me, 'We need to get some loan signings in to stop us being bottom.' I said, 'Bottom or second bottom, it doesn't matter - it still has the word bottom in it.' I am not saying we are going to go from bottom to top this season but I think we can be in the top four."