June 1963

Sydney Barnes - cricket's living legend

In the June 1963 issue of The Cricketer, John Arlott paid tribute to Sydney Barnes

In the June 1963 issue of The Cricketer, John Arlott paid tribute to Sydney Barnes

Sydney Barnes: the greatest bowler that ever lived © Getty Images
The living legend of cricket that is Sydney Francis Barnes became ninety years old on April 19, 1963. Those who played with or against him, over a period of almost three normal cricketing lifetimes, had no doubt that he stood alone - the greatest bowler that ever lived. He played county cricket before the Boer War; he was still returning amazing analyses in club games during the Second World War. Yet he was perhaps the least seen of all great players.

He played in his first first-class match-for Warwickshire in 1895; his last, for Wales, in 1930, when he was 57. Yet in that entire period of thirty-five years, he played only two full seasons and six odd games, in the County Championship -44 matches altogether: he made more appearances than that for English touring teams in Australia and South Africa. But perhaps the most surprising comparison is that a man who played only 44 Championship games, played in 27 Tests.

Even if he had been an indifferent performer, the length of his cricketing life alone would make him remarkable. He played his first cricket match with adults for the third team of the local club in his native Smethwick in 1888: his last match was for Stone, in wartime Staffordshire league cricket, in 1940. That season, at the age of 67, he had such figures as 6 for 32 and 4 for 12 against Great Chell, 5 for 43 against Leek, and 5 for 22 against Caverswall.

More than six feet tall - he is still dominatingly erect at ninety - with high, wide, rugged shoulders, deep chest, long arms and strong legs, he was perfectly built to be a bowler. There was virtually no cricket in his family, and he was never coached. But he had a natural aptitude - and avidity - for the game, and, by application and determination, he made himself into a right-arm fast-medium bowler with the accuracy, spin and resource of a slow bowler, whose high delivery gave him a lift off the pitch that rapped the knuckles of the unwary and forced even the best batsmen to play him at an awkward height.

His usual pace was about that of Alec Bedser, with a faster ball and a slower one, in well-concealed reserve, and the ability to bowl a yorker. He himself is content that he was essentially a spin bowler, that his movement through the air was, in modern technical language, swerve - obtained by spin - rather than `swing', which derives from the 'seam-up' method. Certainly he made the ball move both ways through the air, and-with a first and second-finger application rather similar to that of Ramadhin - he bowled both the offbreak and the legbreak. Indeed, he could bowl the googly at about slow-medium pace and where, in exceptional conditions, the pitch dictated it, he could be a fine slow bowler.

This is such technical equipment as no one in the history of the game has excelled. Barnes added to it a sustained hostility and remarkable stamina, which were reflected in constant, unrelenting probing for a batsman's weakness and then attacking it by surprise, each ball fitting into a tactical pattern.

A striking example of this aspect of his cricketing character comes from the 1913-14 tour of South Africa, where his combination of lift and spin was virtually unplayable on the matting wickets and he set up a record for any series by taking 49 wickets although, because of a financial disagreement, he did not play in the fifth Test. H. W. Taylor was the only South African batsman who really resisted him, though Barnes took his wicket in five of the eight Test innings Taylor played against him. In the Fourth Test, Barnes, convinced that he knew how he might beat Taylor, bowled on and on at him: Taylor, content merely to defend against Barnes (32 overs for' 88 runs and 7 wickets) scored 93 before Barnes had him lbw-as he had said he would do.

Both Sir Jack Hobbs and Wilfred Rhodes thought this one of Barnes's finest bowling spells, though they were both playing two years earlier when, on a perfect, hard Melbourne wicket, he produced his epic opening spell against a strong Australian batting side. Starting the bowling with F. R. Foster, he put out the first four Australian batsmen - Bardsley, Kelleway, Hill and Armstrong - for one run. He had Minnett's wicket, too, and after eighty minutes, his figures were 11 overs, 7 maidens, 6 runs, 5 wickets.

It is hard to believe that a player of such quality could be allowed to stay out of county cricket in modern times. As a straightforward fast bowler of nineteen, he was promising enough to play for Warwickshire in a two-day match against Cheshire, then an immensely strong Minor Counties side: he did not bowl in the first innings: in the second he was one of ten bowlers used by Warwickshire while Cheshire built up a big score: his eight overs cost 27 runs and he did not take a wicket. Still raw, he played in one match for Warwickshire in 1895 and two in 1896.

Three wickets at an average of 75 runs apiece, was the extent of his cricket with Warwickshire before he went to League cricket with Rishton from 1895 to 1899 and then for two seasons with Burnley. He played twice in the Championship for Lancashire in 1899 (4 for 161), and then, in 1901, A. C. MacLaren put him in the Lancashire team for the last match of the season-against Leicestershire at Old Trafford.

Rain spoilt the last day but, in the first Leicestershire innings, Barnes took 6 for 70. Immediately afterwards MacLaren announced that the unknown bowler - with a first-class record of thirteen wickets, spread over seven seasons - would be in his team to go to Australia. Barnes began the tour with five wickets in the match against South Australia, twelve against Victoria and five against New South Wales. He was picked for the first Test (5 for 65, and 1 for 74); in the second he had 6 for 42 and 7 for 121. Then he broke down with a knee injury but, although he himself believes he was still far short of his best, he had established himself as a world-class bowler.

© The Cricketer
He spent 1902 and - much over-bowled - 1903 with Lancashire: but then he left them because of a dispute about winter employment and became, for the rest of his career, a professional in League cricket and for Staffordshire in the Minor Counties competition. He was proud of the profession of cricketer and while he believed, uncompromisingly, that the labourer was worthy of his hire, it would have been foreign to his nature to shame it by giving less than his best.

But that best, outstanding on international level, was killing when directed at league players. Small wonder that many of them found themselves shaking at the approach of this glowering near-giant in physique, utter giant in ability. His professional honour, however, was satisfied by the fact that every league club that ever engaged him won its competition.

His first league engagement was in 1895, his last in 1938: in those 43 years he earned his wages with over four thousand wickets for an average of about seven: seventeen thousand runs at roughly 25 an innings. For Staffordshire, in twenty-three seasons between 1904 and 1935, his record is 1,437 wickets at 8.04, and 5,254 runs at 22.45.

He continued to play for England, on and off, until 1914: in eight series (seven, if the Triangular of 1912 is counted as one) he played in 27 Tests, all against Australia or South Africa, and took 189 wickets, at the rate of one every seven overs for an average of 16.43. In eight matches for the Players against the Gentlemen he took 45 wickets at 15.26: no other bowler in this century has taken so many in that fixture at so low cost. Otherwise his first-class cricket was confined to appearances for Staffordshire, the Minor Counties or Wales, usually against the touring side. In 1929, his figures in two matches against the South Africans were 8 for 41 and 1 for 19 (for Minor Counties) and 6 for 28 and 4 for 62 (for Wales). That year, at the age of 56, he was fifth in the first-class bowling averages.

His last season as a professional was for Bridgnorth in 1938. He was 65 years old; he played on every day except Friday of August week and finished top, not only of the club's bowling (126 wickets at 6.94), but of the batting as well (314 runs at 28.55).

Five wickets in five balls in a league match: four in four four times (including the first four of Durham in 1907): an uncounted number of hat-tricks but including two against major batsmen. one in a Test Trial another in Gentlemen v. Players: and, once, two in an innings: all ten' at least a dozen times.

Durham seem to have been his favourite victims: in 1909 he took 14 of their wickets for 13 runs in a single day: the next year, 8 for 16 and 8 for 30: in 1911, 9 for 37 in the first innings, 8 for 46 in the second-and he himself scored 136 in his only innings of the match. In 1908, when the Minor Counties competition was arranged in four groups and played off between the four leaders in knock-out form, Barnes won it for Staffordshire with 24 wickets at 3.25 each in their semi-final and final matches.

In all cricket he took over 6,300 wickets at an average of 9. But one could go on and on quoting bewildering figures for him: and no one can hazard a guess at the number of times, even against the greatest batsmen and on good wickets, that he beat the bat and missed the stumps.

But certainly, with his peerless, flashing leg-break alone, he must have done so more often than anyone else in all cricket. So often the batsman could not even edge a catch. Hence the classic Sydney Barnes story of the day when two tail-enders were playing at him and missing or, occasionally, snicking, and he stalked away at the end of the over with the comment `They aren't batting well enough to get out.'

© The Cricketer
It is an essential aspect of his cricket, however, that in the second Test of 1907-08 against Australia, when he put on 34 for the ninth wicket with Humphries and 39 for the last with Fielder, his batting won the match for England by one wicket.

Indeed, there is good evidence that he could have made an extremely capable batsman if his captains, MacLaren in particular, had not been so anxious to save him for his bowling that they even told him not to take batting practice!

On the 1907-08 tour of Australia, when the M.C.C. side was troubled with injuries and Barnes himself was only partly fit, A. O. Jones asked him, half-jokingly, to `play for his batting' against Western Australia. After Hobbs, Fane, Hardstaff and Rhodes had all gone for less than 120, Barnes made 93, second highest score of the innings and his own biggest score in first-class cricket, and with George Gunn, put on over 200 for the fifth wicket. In League cricket, too, he often made runs at crucial stages of matches, batting very correctly and, from his appreciable height, getting well over pace bowling.

He was one of those fortunate athletes who, although very strongly built, never tended to run to fat. He kept himself sternly fit because he was deeply concerned always to bowl well: that guiding light to his life is important, for it explains the fact that no one records him bowling untidily, nor-amazingly, ever having an `off day'. Even now, at ninety, his essential strength and co-ordination are reflected in an impeccable, copperplate handwriting and in his unhurried, but unwavering, movements at an age when most men are at least somewhat shaky.

Nowadays, among cricketers, it is a memory to cherish-like having bowled to W. G. Grace-that one batted against Barnes. It is sad, though, that he was so little seen. He did not play twenty first-class matches in the south of England and barely a hundred in all England. Yet the evidence is overwhelming, in South Africa, Australia and England, that he was the greatest of all bowlers.

His bowling in 1913-14 made the South African batting look abject: but it should not be forgotten that they had beaten England in the preceding series over there. In fact, too, more than half Barnes's seven-hundred-odd wickets were taken in representative games.

Simply to see him bowl - and he was over sixty on the only occasion I ever watched him in action - was to make the instant impression of majesty, hostility and control. This was, without doubt, a born bowler, who lived to bowl.

No batsman even dared to claim that he was Barnes's master. Asked which of them he found most difficult he answers `Victor Trumper'. Who next? `No one else ever troubled me.'

No cricketer who played with or against him has any doubt that Sydney Barnes was the greatest bowler the world has ever seen. Had Warwickshire, in 1896, or Lancashire, in 1903, thought differently and kept him in county cricket, the history of the game would be markedly different - and richer.