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Sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

Fiery Syd

Sydney Barnes, the most feared bowler of them all, was a colourful, forbidding and often misunderstood character who wouldn't have been out of place in the modern game

Rob Steen

December 18, 2013

Comments: 13 | Text size: A | A

Sydney Barnes demonstrates his bowling action, Lord's, 1913
The secret of Barnes' mastery lay in the "the supple steel of his fingers and hand" © PA Photos
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"He was relentless, a chill wind of antagonism blew from him on the sunniest day." Of all the words donated by Neville Cardus to our appreciation of cricket's art and artfulness, those 15 are my favourite. The choices of verb, noun and adjective are exquisite, naturally, but it is the concise appraisal of what made Sydney Francis Barnes the most feared bowler of all that makes that sentence sing so bittersweetly down the years.

Of course, the absence of any significant film of Barnes means that, given the cellarfuls of salt demanded by his poetic exaggerations, we can only take Cardus' verdict on trust. Or distrust. More easily swallowed by modern sceptics is the one submitted by the historian Harry Altham, who drew his conclusions in part simply by gazing at the painting that still hangs in the Lord's pavilion.

At the end of those prolonged arms "was a comprehensive hand with long, strong fingers, a tall, gaunt, erect and co-ordinated body, and above it a face of austere but composed hostility". And the run-up? "Not long but full of life and spring, a high delivery, and the head leading a full and perfectly balanced follow-through - this was the basic machinery that commanded such control of length and direction." Fred Root, one of the first practitioners of "leg theory" (albeit with the intent of drying up runs rather than knocking off blocks), described him as "a fast leg-spinner" - though "fast-medium" appears to be the general consensus. Control, not pace, was his secular grail.

Deadliest of all, according to Altham, was "the ball which he would deliver from rather wide on the crease, move in with a late swerve the width of the wicket, and then straighten back off the ground to hit the off stump". The secret of his mastery, though, was strictly and supremely physical - "the supple steel of his fingers and hand".

My excuse for bringing Barnes up now is that this month marks the centenary of the start of the greatest sustained spell of bowling international cricket has ever witnessed, one still capable of smacking the most resilient gob and reducing it to quivering gibberishness.

In Durban on December 13, 1913, he delivered the first ball of the first Test to South Africa's master batsman, Herbie Taylor. Making short work of his opening partner, Gerald Hartigan, Barnes found his match in Taylor, ninth out for 101 out of an eventual 182, but added four more wickets. Taking another five in the second dig, he became the first to 150 international wickets. The next three games brought him a Test-record 17 scalps in Johannesburg (8 for 56, 9 for 103) followed by swagbags of eight (3 for 26, 5 for 102) and 14 (7 for 56, 7 for 88). All told, in 226 overs spanning those four matches, he netted 49 at 10.93 a pop. Not too shabby for a 40-year-old.

If Jim Laker's 19 for 90 and Bradman's 99.94 remain the least vincible of cricket's jaw-dropping stats, the next most unbudgeable must be that 49, facilitated by a strike rate of 27.6 balls per breakthrough. The only other man ever to bag more than 35 wickets in a rubber at less than 33 per strike is… well, Barnes himself - 39 at 29.2 in the 1912 Triangular Tournament.

Bowling on matting pitches may have been advantageous in South Africa - stumper Herbert Strudwick recalled him being "practically unplayable" - but that does nothing to diminish the sense of dumbstruck awe. He would have completed his half-century, too, had he not pulled out of the fifth Test, reportedly, attested Cardus, on a point of pragmatic principle: where was that bonus the South Africans had promised him for consenting to tour in the first place? Besides, where, with the series won, was the challenge?

****

Notwithstanding his Australian namesake, Barnes was also the least subservient cricketer to win a Test cap, hence that preposterously miniscule collection of 27, for all that they produced 189 victims. That he never played for England after sailing home from the Cape was partly due to unavoidable interruption - the First World War - and partly because he was closer to 50 than 40 by the time Test batsmen took guard again.

 
 
Barnes was the snarling embodiment of head-down, dander-up professionalism - a century ahead of his time. Doffing cap or tugging forelock was assuredly not his style. Compromise was poison. Obedience signified submission
 

Mostly, however, it was because he was regarded by the establishment (and even some of his more obedient fellow pros) as an impossible bugger whose genius simply wasn't worth the hassle. Inspired more by financial reward than status, he gave up county cricket in 1903, content to slum it in the Lancashire leagues, earning a prettier penny.

Barnes was the snarling embodiment of head-down, dander-up professionalism - a century ahead of his time. Doffing cap or tugging forelock was assuredly not his style. Compromise was poison. Obedience signified submission. "There's only one captain of a side when I'm bowling," he once declaimed, "and that's me." Inevitably, this made his exclusion from sundry England teams and tours immeasurably less juicy a bone of contention than it would now.

Much the best-known sound-bite came from Archie MacLaren, the Lancashire captain who took him to Australia in 1901 on the basis of a net. At the height of a storm on the voyage out, he found consolation: "If we go down, at least that bugger Barnes will go down with us."

In A History of Cricket, a neglected chronicle as trenchant as it is elegantly and perceptively written, Benny Green lambasts Wisden's take on Barnes's departure from Lancashire two years later as "the greatest gaffe in its long history". The good book certainly pulled few punches: "Temperament is a great thing in a cricketer, and in this respect Barnes has always been deficient. If he had possessed the enthusiasm for the game that characterised Barlow and Briggs he might have made a great name for himself."

This angered Green on several levels. "The first thing to be said about this unique cricketer is that no bowler in history ever worked so tirelessly to acquire that complete mastery which the editors of Wisden so blandly define as 'natural gifts'. Nor could it be said of a man who for forty years played the game at the very peak of its artistic possibilities that he lacked either enthusiasm or resolution.

"As for the apparent mystery of his fluctuating form, the official eye had been too conditioned from birth not to see the solution. For the truth was indeed too awful to contemplate. There were occasions when Barnes, being supremely indifferent to the unwritten law that a true sportsman gives of his best at all times, simply never bothered to try very hard. It was not that he was immoral but rather he subscribed to a different morality, that of the artist, who will only give of his best when the circumstances challenge his virtuosity." Hence, to a degree, Barnes's refusal to play in the final episode of that 1913-14 series.

It was repeatedly said that he was too old to resume his Test career in 1921, yet as Green points out, he was a year younger than Wilfred Rhodes was when the Yorkshireman was recalled in 1926. Unfortunately Barnes already had three strikes against him: he'd rejected the accepted path to national selection by trading in first-class cricket for the leagues; he wouldn't take orders, and he cowed colleagues as much as opponents.


The MCC side on the deck of the RMS Saxon on their way to South Africa, November 1, 1913
The MCC side on the RMS Saxon on their way to South Africa. Barnes, wearing a hat and holding a cane, stands on the left of England captain Johnny Douglas © PA Photos
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As confirmed by that esteemed journalist and satirist Bernard Hollowood, whose father captained Barnes for Staffordshire, and who played for the minor county himself, crossing him was unwise. Put him at the wrong end and he would "scowl and sulk and develop mysterious physical disorders, sprains and strains". He also intimidated team-mates: "I was frankly afraid… afraid of his scowling displeasure, his ferocious glare, his crippling silences and his humiliating verbal scorn." And Hollowood only played with and against him in the (admittedly long) winter of his career.

By the time CLR James first saw him turn his arm over, it was 1932, he had just arrived in Lancashire from Trinidad, and Barnes was a ripe 59 - yet still, improbably, bowling irresistibly for Rawtenstall CC; his helpless Nelson victims that Saturday included CLR's not-untalented housemate, Learie Constantine, then barely half Barnes' age. CLR's "impressionist sketch" found its way to Cardus and thence into the Manchester Guardian: the start of a lifetime's soulful service to the game.

"He is tall and thin, well over six feet, with strong features," observed CLR. "It is a rather remarkable face in its way, and could belong to a great lawyer or a statesman without incongruity. He holds his head well back, with the rather long chin lifted. He looks like a man who has seen as much of the world as he wants to."

****

How telling that we refer to him as "SF" rather than Sydney, even Syd. Not in an affectionate way á la "MS", but as a measure of that distance he always kept. Today, he'd doubtless have divided his time between Tests, IPL and Big Bash. What fun we'd have had watching him puncture egos, cock snooks and kick against the pricks.

I can't help thinking of Coen Brothers' movies. Was Barnes Old Fink (the mooted Barton Fink sequel), the personification of True Grit or merely A Serious Man? Those mischievously marvellous Minnesotans really ought to shoot a biopic - not so ludicrous a long shot given how their affection for cricket courses through The Big Lebowski. The lead? Look no further than Mr Gruff, Nick Nolte. The title? Freelance sounds pitch-perfect to me, striking just the right balance between contemporary relevance, constant menace and absolute freedom of spirit.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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Posted by Beertjie on (December 22, 2013, 21:27 GMT)

Hard to see how anyone could ever omit him from any future World XI, and that 100 years after his career ended.

Posted by landl47 on (December 21, 2013, 22:35 GMT)

Bernard Hollowood, who is quoted here, devotes quite a lot of space in his cricketing autobiography 'Cricket On The Brain' to Barnes. He was a wonderful bowler, but maybe the most difficult character to manage in the history of cricket. He only played 27 tests and very limited first-class cricket, but his record is incredible.

I agree with dcglynn- if there's one bowler I would like to have seen, it's Barnes.

Posted by tjsimonsen on (December 20, 2013, 13:28 GMT)

@Nutcutlet@: I think SF once bowled Trumper with a ball Clem Hill at the non-strikers end described as "the kind of delivery a sick man would see in a feverish dream!". Exactly the kind of delivery described in this article: fast on (or just outside) off stump, moving in late in the air to pitch on leg stump, kicking back sharply and clipping the top of off. Pretty much the definition of an unplayable delivery! Barnes is THE player from yesteryears I would most like to see in action - with Trumper as second. So a duel between the two would be mouth watering.

Posted by lardster on (December 20, 2013, 11:42 GMT)

Best description of a Barnes over was by Aubrey Faulkner quoted in Before The Lights Went Out - the book that covered the 1912 Triangular series. Agree with M Jones on that spell against Australia. He was certainly one of the greatest bowlers.

Posted by MrKricket on (December 19, 2013, 0:51 GMT)

Don't you love how the greatest performances, those that will probably never be beaten, are still just short of 'perfection'? If Laker took 20 for 90, if Bradman finished on 100.00, if Barnes took 50 wickets. If Hobbs scored 200 centuries is another one. Would love to see that movie too!

Posted by Bonehead_maz on (December 19, 2013, 0:00 GMT)

@ dcglynn. He had a grip very similar to Jack Iverson and or John Gleeson. He bowled the leg spinner same way as Gleeson ( Btter and quicker of course).....Out the front of the hand with SPIN, not cut, imparted by flicking his long finger. There's a good photo of his grip attached to his profile here on Cricinfo !

Posted by   on (December 18, 2013, 23:13 GMT)

He played as a guest for Wales v the 1928 West Indians at Llandudno (just down the road from me) - aged around 55.

Analysis on 27 - 9 - 51 - 7.

Perhaps this was the 'club match' referred to in the Cricinfo profile of Barnes - 'So shrewdly did he conserve his energy that in 1928 when he was in his mid-fifties, the West Indies team of that year faced him in a club match and unanimously agreed he was the best they had encountered in the season.'

Posted by Nutcutlet on (December 18, 2013, 22:14 GMT)

In cricketing heaven, SF Barnes is bowling to Victor Trumper, probably the greatest-ever batsman on drying or damaged wickets, just the sort that Barnes exploited so expertly. The match of skills would have been breath-taking & so too the contrasting personalities. Barnes -- iracible, tetchy, liable to throw the ball angrily into the ground when the gods (or an Australian crowd!) conspired against him & Victor, possibly the closest any cricketer has come to being an earth-bound angel, serenely waiting for the next delivery. His sweetness & light would have been just the stuff to set Barnes off!

Posted by   on (December 18, 2013, 18:00 GMT)

It's a bit difficult to call a spell against a weak SA team the best ever; if you're going to cite a particular one as an example of the phenomenon that was Barnes, it might be better to use the first morning at Melbourne three years earlier, when he ran through a top order of Kelleway, Bardsley, Hill and Armstrong for ten runs between them. Hill, one of the greatest batsmen of the era, recalled that he'd hardly had time to lift his bat before his off stump was knocked sideways.

Posted by Deuce03 on (December 18, 2013, 15:16 GMT)

@dcglynn: There's a relatively well-known anecdote involving Barnes in later-middle/old age, when he bowled and it was observed he had cut the ball, to which he angrily exclaimed, "I spun it!" Whether that was actually the case or just that nobody wanted to argue, though, who knows. and @igorolman, yes, while the South Africans look poor, England had some fearsome bowling on that tour besides Barnes.

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Rob Steen Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton, whose books include biographies of Desmond Haynes and David Gower (Cricket Society Literary Award winner) and 500-1 - The Miracle of Headingley '81. His investigation for the Wisden Cricketer, "Whatever Happened to the Black Cricketer?", won the UK section of the 2005 EU Journalism Award "For diversity, against discrimination"

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