November 2005

Down but not out at seventy

Cricinfo staff
Bob Barber celebrated his threescore and ten with a match at Broadhalfpenny Down between friends and playing contemporaries.

Bob Barber celebrated his threescore and ten with a match at Broadhalfpenny Down between friends and playing contemporaries. Stephen Chalke secured an invitation

© Getty Images

Saturday, September 17, 2005. Not since the 1770s, when the great Hambledon club took on and beat an All-England XI, when John Small the elder's batting triumphed over the bowling of the broad-shouldered Lumpy Stevens, has Broadhalfpenny Down seen a gathering like it.

For Bob Barber's 70th birthday his son-in-law Simon Smith had organised a cricket match between the Gentlemen of RW Barber and those of MJK Smith, and the players arrived from all parts of Bob's life and all corners of the globe. There was his Warwickshire team-mate Lance Gibbs, all the way from Miami: "Man, if Bob Barber invites me to play a game of cricket, I'll be there." His university friend Aizaz Fakir, complete with family, from Karachi: "I couldn't afford it work-wise but Bob's such a lovely person - and orders are orders." Another Cambridge colleague Ian McLachlan was over from Adelaide and the Yorkshire keeper Jimmy Binks had flown in from California.

The day was blessed with sunshine, with just a hint of an autumnal chill in the air. The ancient ground sported a marquee alongside its wooden pavilion, with the downland fields of the Meon Valley rolling away in the distance, all harvested and ready for winter. With match rules that required each batsman to face 18 balls and a loss of five runs whenever they were out, the day's hardest task was that of the scorers, among them Bob's accountant Robert Godfrey. "They're hoping for a tie," it was explained, "so we need somebody who can be creative with figures."

How the years rolled back! With Donald Carr and Jack Bailey the day's first umpires, Fred Rumsey and Ian Thomson took the new ball. It was hard to visualise the menace that Rumsey once possessed but the 76-year-old Thomson still displayed a high arm and good control of length. "Is that really Tommy?" David Allen - sitting comfortably beyond the boundary - asked, breaking off his reminiscences about MJK Smith as a fine England captain. "I'm sticking to a turn of umpiring," he explained, "I'm afraid my bowling mechanics have completely gone."

First to take strike was Glenn Neil-Dwyer, a friend from Bob's Ruthin School days. The son of a Jamaican airman, he is now an eminent neurosurgeon and, before the first ball was bowled, he turned to the tall figure of Peter Walker standing perilously close to him at backward short leg. "What on earth are you doing there?" Back came the reply from one of cricket's greatest close catchers: "This is where I always field." Behind the stumps, impressively low, crouched Binks: "Getting down wasn't the problem," he said. "It was coming up again afterwards."

At the other end McLachlan, a former Australian Government minister, clipped his second ball for four over John Jameson's head at mid-wicket. Then, just as Neil-Dwyer was finding his touch with a four through mid-on, the scorer's voice came over the Tannoy: "Come in, No. 1, you've had your time."

Fakir, in his Pakistan top, batted with sweet timing, and several eyes were caught by the confident swing of Harold Rhodes' bat. "They didn't want me to bat at Derby," the one-time fast bowler explained. "They said that, as a tall man, I'd use up too much of my strength." Top score of the day, however, with 31 off his 18 balls, was the MCC secretary Roger Knight but then, at the age of 59, as the watching Alec Bedser put it: "He's a bit young to be playing this sort of stuff."

"I've just had my flu jab," Tom Cartwright said, "and I was looking round the field, wondering if all the others have had theirs. I've never thought about that on a cricket field before." Fakir flighted some lovely legbreaks and Robert Aiyar offered a hint of the schoolboy pace that meant that, for Barber, "I never had any fear of fast bowling again". But the pick of the bowlers was inevitably Cartwright, immaculately turned out and still leaping, crossing his legs and landing sideways on in his delivery stride. "He doesn't know how to bowl a bad ball," Carr said. In all his travels with the Old England XI, had Tom ever played here before? "Never, but I did visit here once. I went out on my own into the middle and I listened to all the ancient voices. And I knew which end I would have bowled. Uphill, into the wind, like Lumpy Stevens used to."

Mike Brearley arrived late. "I looked across the field, at all these old men playing cricket, and I thought it was a very odd sight," he said later in the day, "but now I've been here a few hours, it all seems quite normal." His own day was chequered: a dropped catch, a last-ball boundary that saved him from the ignominy of a minus score and a rare wicket, hitting the stumps of Bob's friend Owain Howell. Half an hour later the batsman was still full of delight: "Isn't it wonderful? I've been bowled by Mike Brearley."

The food and drink was plentiful, so too were the memories that flowed from early morning to midnight. The presence of the ever elegant Ted Dexter set off Rumsey: "He was such a fine player. I used to field in the gully and the way his bat came down, the noise it made, it frightened the living daylights out of me." Then there was Peter Richardson, telling of the encounter between the amateur Walter Robins and the sharp-tongued Roly Jenkins: "`That was a very good article on spin bowling, Jenkins; who wrote it for you?' `I wrote it myself, sir. Who read it for you?'"

And in a wheelchair Gloucester's very own Bomber Wells. "Do come," Bob Barber wrote, "and add a little class to our day." Back in their National Services days, Colin Stansfield Smith told me, a brigadier opened the batting against them and Private Wells - standing in the gully - produced a red water pistol and squirted it at him. "Only Bomber could get away with that." Then there was the story of how Barber called on Fakir's father in Karachi. Under orders not to reveal details of Aizaz's lifestyle at Cambridge, Bob found the old man, a colonel in the Pakistan army, reaching under his bed to produce a bottle of whisky. "Whatever you do," he said, "don't tell Aizaz."

"It is going to take me weeks to get rid of the nostalgia," one old cricketer said. If you wanted to remember how they all used to play, you could sit in the pavilion and watch a film that Simon Smith had compiled of the players' glory days, featuring - above all else - the magnificent 185 that Bob Barber himself had hit on the first day of the Sydney Test in January 1966. It was one of the great Test innings, played by a free spirit - as cricket at its best is always played. As John Woodcock - himself a spectator at Broadhalfpenny Down - had written in The Times: "In every line of Barber's remarkable innings, there showed an independence of character."

The film was of another age. He reached his hundred with a push into the covers, made one wave of the bat, took his cap off briefly and settled back to his innings. His father had arrived in Sydney that day and he reported back the words of a man on the Hill: "Why can't we have a batsman like this Barber?" Until Virender Sehwag hit 195 on Boxing Day 2003 it stood as the highest score by a batsman on the first day of a Test against Australia. "Bob hit everything in the middle of the bat," Dennis Silk said. "That innings was sublime. It had the hallmark of real talent."

In later life Bob Barber has settled in Switzerland. Successful in business, he is too private to trumpet his support for various good causes. Among them is the Broadhalfpenny Down Association that works hard not only to preserve cricket on the historic field but also to provide playing opportunities for children from all sorts of backgrounds.

Batting one last time, Bob was desperately anxious not to fall victim to the bowling of his old Warwickshire keeper Alan Smith but he struck the ball with freedom.

The final over of the match arrived. RW Barber's Gentlemen had made 155; in reply MJK Smith's side stood on 144. And who else should bowl the last balls but Bob Barber himself? He tossed up his legbreaks to his old Lancashire team-mate Roy Collins, and - with a little help from umpire Allen, who somehow let the over run to 14 balls - the scores finished level and the players departed from the field to much applause. For most it was a last departure.

The sun dropped down the Meon Valley, leaving that chill autumnal breeze. Many of the players drove off to change for the evening meal, MJK Smith led a small posse to the Bat and Ball pub across the road and a group of wagtails took up occupation of the pitch. "You've caught the sun," somebody said as I set off for a quiet walk down a country lane. So much fun, so many friendships. It was a day to live for years in the memory. "This," said Bob Barber, "is the heart and the soul of the real game of cricket."

Among those present: DL Acfield (Essex), DA Allen (Glos, Eng), JA Bailey (Essex), RW Barber (Lancs, Warks, Eng), AV Bedser (Surrey, Eng), EA Bedser (Surrey), JG Binks (Yorks, Eng), SIA Bokhari (Lahore), JD Bond (Lancs), JM Brearley (Middx, Eng), DJ Brown (Warks, Eng), DB Carr (Derbys, Eng), TW Cartwright (Warks, Som, Eng), EA Clark (Middx), R Collins (Lancs), ER Dexter (Sussex, Eng), Aizazuddin Fakir (Khairpur, Karachi), LR Gibbs (Warks, W Indies), DJ Insole (Essex, Eng), JA Jameson (Warks, Eng), RDV Knight (Surrey, Glos), IM McLachlan (South Australia), MEL Melluish (Camb U), JT Murray (Middx, Eng), RJ Parks (Hants), JF Pretlove (Kent), JSE Price (Middx, Eng), HJ Rhodes (Derbys, England), PE Richardson (Worcs, Kent, Eng), FE Rumsey (Worcs, Som, Eng), WE Russell (Middx, Eng), DM Sayer (Kent), DRW Silk (Som), AC Smith (Warks, Eng), CS Smith (Lancs), MJK Smith (Warks, Eng), WJP Stewart (Warks), R Subba Row (Surrey, Nthants, Eng), NI Thomson (Sussex, Eng), PM Walker (Glam, Eng), BD Wells (Glos, Notts), OS Wheatley (Warks, Glam)