Sydney Barnes: The Demon Bowler

In the current situation where there is little cricket and many people are restricted in their movement, a fad of selecting all-time XIs and the like has taken hold. In such selection there is no doubt that everyone who is not actually perverse would list Bradman first. After all he was the greatest batsman ever. But what of bowlers? Opinions of course vary. But in truth the name of Sydney Barnes should go down as automatically as Bradman’s, because he was the greatest bowler ever. However, whereas Bradman’s career, interrupted by World War II, ended in 1948, Barnes’ first class career and the whole of his test career occurred mainly before World War I, and most of his career was not actually in first-class cricket. The case for Barnes needs a bit of explaining, but it is nonetheless a powerful one.

It is, in the first place, difficult to judge players who lived so distantly from our own times that almost every criterion of greatness is hard to apply. Statistics? Well, bowlers generally did very well on pre-1914 pitches, whereas batsmen generally struggled. Opposition? Test matches were far less frequent than nowadays, opposition at the highest level being confined to matches between England, Australia and South Africa during Barnes’ career. Of course, the strength of opposition is only ever relative, and some English counties were only good enough to lose as opposed to being trounced by the big ones - Yorkshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Surrey. Worse than this, selection was riddled with prejudice and inconsistency. In England the county hosting a test match got to select the England team. Can you imagine how that worked? Yes, selections were eccentric. As an example of prejudice, a county member in England could get a professional bowler to bowl at him in the nets at any time (yes, I did say member, not player). Bowlers were usually professionals, while batsmen were usually amateurs; at least they were amateur in theory if not in practice. The point was that professionals needed the pay in order to live, whereas amateurs did not. Bowlers were subject to economic distress and class oppression, to put matters plainly.

So, assessing somebody like Syd Barnes is extremely difficult, even leaving aside his uniqueness and his obdurate and contrary nature as man. The extraordinary thing is that Barnes, although he played for England 27 times and was always, if available, a shoe-in, actually preferred to play in league cricket and latterly in minor county cricket. Indeed, to this day Barnes is the only man to be selected for England from the leagues. This was mainly because, as a professional born in 1873 into a working-class family in Smethwick in the English midlands, he had to earn enough money to keep his family – a family to which he was devoted and that remained totally devoted to him until he died in 1967 at the age of 94. Barnes was ahead of his time and would have approved greatly of Packer’s ‘World Series Cricket’, where cricketers were finally able to demand payment according to their worth. Barnes was well aware that one could not play cricket for ever, although he came close to that, playing his last game at 72 years old. When asked at 80 years old to bowl the first over in a charity game involving the Australians in 1953, he joked that he had better not take the new ball for fear of precipitating a collapse! He had no concept of retirement and was still working for Staffordshire County Council, executing official documents in a beautiful copperplate hand, when he died. He also resented the class structures that dominated the game, and got into many fights with club committees, and other representatives of established order. He did not care if they were club chairmen, lords, or England captains, or even all three at once. Yet everyone wanted Barnes on his team, despite his reputation for being demanding and difficult – because he was a truly great bowler who routinely won matches. It was often said in England that he was the difference between beating and losing to Australia, depending more on availability than on form.

Statistics are not all, but no great player ever had modest ones, and Barnes’ are astonishing. In the leagues in Lancashire he took 4069 wickets at 6 apiece. At minor county level, for Staffordshire, he took 1492 wickets at under 9 each. In first class games he took 719 wickets at 17 each. His first-class career spanned 36 years between 1894 and 1930, when he was 57, but during that time he played only 133 games. But – just consider this – at test level he took 189 wickets in 27 tests at 16 apiece.

But for the last statistic you might have been tempted to say this is all very well, but league cricket and minor county cricket was not played at the highest level, and even county cricket was variable in quality. But let me correct this. As far as we know league cricket was serious, intense, of high quality, and eventually attracted some of the world’s best players. Barnes was the first but by no means the last. Even Gary Sobers, Learie Constantine, and Frank Worrell played league cricket. They in turn were forerunners of the international players in county cricket and its equivalents across the world. The difference was not one of quality but of social class, and although English cricket to many means the MCC, cucumber sandwiches and graceful 19th century pavilions, it is also historically very much a working-class game too, one of beer, rough humour and tough cricket. Barnes played in the leagues not because he did not relish real opposition, of which there was plenty, but only because the counties – principally Warwickshire and Lancashire – could not offer him the living he sought.

You may then say that any good bowler would flourish in the generally damp middle and northern English conditions. True enough, but Barnes flourished more than anyone, and knew how to exploit the conditions like no one else. Tellingly, however, he was also able to deal with very different conditions in Australia and South Africa. In fact, he was for the most part as unplayable in those drier climes as he was in England, and did well even on very flat pitches, where he regularly took plenty of wickets and was also very hard to score off. Two thirds of his many Australian scalps were achieved in Australia. Can Jimmy Anderson or Dale Steyn claim as much?

So, what was the secret? What made Barnes the most demonic of bowlers?

Barnes was not an express fast bowler, although in early years he tried to be. He was a new ball bowler who bowled right-arm at what we would now call a brisk medium pace, but it was his ability to make the ball talk that put him ahead of his time technically. When someone had the misfortune to compare him to Bill O’Reilly and point out that O’Reilly had a googly, which Barnes did not, the gruff reply was that he never needed one of those. Barnes was a master of swing (called ‘swerve’ in those days), seam and spin, bowling from a great height as he was tall and straight-backed, with a very high action. From 1920s footage it seems he had a relatively short run, rocking back with his right arm before it came through delivery, brushing his right ear. He made the ball swerve, seam and spin, according to the situation, and also lift nastily from a length – an he was a master of length. He was taught how to bowl an off-break, but everything else he taught himself. He claimed to have had only three hours’ coaching in his life. He insisted testily in an old-age interview that he spun the ball rather than cut it. His trade mark was the ‘Barnes ball’, which dipped in from outside off to pitch leg, spinning sharply away to hit off stump. Simply unplayable, and unrepeatable by any other bowler, including his excellent England foil, Foster, and his idol, Richardson. Let me add here that, as a spin bowler brought up bowling on Staffordshire marl, which was suitable for spin but very slow, it seems to me that Barnes would have had to maintain a perfect length and be quick through the air to enjoy his extraordinary successes in his home county. As one Staffordshire player put it to me, ‘tha’d as lief bauwl long ‘ops as a good length on this’ (translation: if you bowl a good length you may as well bowl long hops on this surface). And I can affirm the truth of the story that in games where Barnes bowled for Staffordshire the opposition would have the first seven batsman padded up as the innings began. One can well imagine a number seven wandering off to find a cup of tea only to have his name called out in a panic as the fifth wicket went down.

Uncannily Barnes was able to be more effective with his varied armoury than any other bowler during his playing career, but also under any conditions. Take, for example, one of his greatest feats – at Melbourne in the 2nd test of the 1911/12 ashes series. In one of the most remarkable spells in test history, on a shirt-front perfect batting wicket he took four wickets for one run in seven overs, and altogether in this spell, 5 for 6 in 11 overs, with 7 maidens. The wickets were those of some of Australia’s greatest players – Bardsley was yorked by his first ball, followed quickly by Kelleway lbw, Hill bowled, and Armstrong caught by the wicket-keeper. Trumper he did not dismiss on this occasion – that had to wait for the second innings (bowled for 2, Hill caught by Gunn for 0), as England romped home by 8 wickets. Altogether he took 34 wickets in that series at an average of 22 – a critical contribution to England’s crushing 4-1 victory. An improvement on 1907/8 when he merely took 24 wickets at 26 in England’s 1-4 loss to Australia. On that tour, however, he also won a match with the bat, steering England with last man Fielder to a famous one-wicket win at Melbourne with 38 not out, the last run famously got as Trumper failed to hit the stumps from cover point.

On Barnes’ first tour to Australia in 1902 he collected 13-163 in the 2nd test, following a 5-for in the first test, but was then injured. His performances against Australia both at home and away are remarkable in particular because when you look at his victims they were invariably the likes of Hill, Armstrong, and Trumper for single-digit scores; they greatly feared facing him, and said as much publicly – at least they flourished mightily whenever Barnes was not playing. You could make out a case that Trumper and Hill, two of Australia’s greatest ever, were Barnes’ bunnies, so often did he dismiss them. In the triangular series in England in 1912 he took 5 wickets on no less than 8 occasions, including 8-29 (13-57 in the match) at the Oval against South Africa, for whom he seemed to reserve his most demonic bowling.

Barnes’ most remarkable series was, however, his last against South Africa when he was 40 years old. He missed what would have proved his last test match in 1914 against South Africa because the MCC refused to pay for his wife’s accommodation (typical Barnes umbrage). It did not stop him establishing what is still a series record with 49 wickets in only four test matches: 1st test, 10-105; 2nd test 17-159 (a world record until Laker’s 19-90 in 1956); 3rd test 8-128; 4th test 14-144 (England struggled to achieve a draw in that test, in spite of Barnes’ crushing performance). England won the series 4-0. The South Africans were simply unable to play Barnes’ bowling. It was not as though the conditions were awkward. England managed 400 in the match in which Barnes took 17 wickets, and achieved that three times in the series. South Africa reached 300 twice in spite of Barnes’ overwhelming onslaught.

As a man Barnes was not clubbable in anybody’s club. He was proud, unsmiling and unyielding. When barracked in Australia for slow field-placing he simply sat down and waited for it to stop before continuing. On the way to Australia in 1901 the ship carrying the English team got into difficulties in the Bay of Biscay. The captain Archie McLaren comforted his men with the immortal line, ‘at least if we go down with this ship, that bugger Barnes will go down with us’.

Barnes’ long-term impact on the game was immense. He was an early promoter of professionalism, living to see the abolition of the gentlemen v players distinction. Technically he opened possibilities that had never been dreamed of. As for his prickly personality, it is interesting that he was tolerated and managed in spite of some very difficult situations and the pervasive class structure. Nowadays it seems any player who displays the slightest similar tendency will be pushed out of the team, described as arrogant and undermining team spirit.

So, when you list your GOAT team, 9 of them will be a subject of choice; but after D Bradman you need to list SF Barnes.

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