When Virender Sehwag smashed Australia's bowlers all round the MCG on Boxing Day 2003, sprinting to a superb 195 before he was caught at long-on shortly before the close, the record books were hastily consulted as people tried to discover whether a visiting batsman had ever scored so many on the first day of a Test Down Under before. They could just have asked me: no one had scored more - but in the first series I ever read about in any detail, England's dashing left-hander Bob Barber hit 185 on the first day of the third Test in Sydney in 1965-66.
Accounts of this innings - in which Barber shared an opening stand of 234 with Geoff Boycott, who made 84 - struggle to find enough adjectives. The often acerbic EM Wellings, writing in Wisden, called it "the superlative achievement of the whole tour", adding: "When he succeeded, the runs gushed like oil from a new strike." And, added Wellings, this approach rubbed off: "Even batsmen with reputations for treating big occasions with solemnity, notably Boycott and Barrington, played Test innings of splendid dash."
The onslaught lasted just under five hours, and included 19 fours "in an innings of magnificent aggression, a match-winning innings", as Wisden's rather tautologous match report put it. Boycott, who had the best view in the ground, called it "an absolutely brilliant innings... one of the truly great displays of batting in Test cricket". John Edrich was also caught up by the thrill of it all: "[Barber] blazed away in all directions and had the crowd gasping at some of his powerful blows," he wrote. "His hits were hard and usually well-placed, they defied interception. This sort of thing is infectious and, although I couldn't reach his tempo, I soon found my way." Walter Robins, a former England captain and selector, and a survivor of the 1936-37 Ashes tour, reckoned it was "The greatest innings by an Englishman I've ever seen on the Sydney Cricket Ground. He might have been Frank Woolley."
Australia's opening bowler Neil Hawke eventually ended the entertainment. Hawke, who was recalled for this match, had earlier got it in the neck from the crowd as England made hay, "The kindest thing said being 'Get back to South Australia, yer mug.'" He tottered up with the second new ball, feeling stiff as he sent down the first delivery: "I nearly tripped over myself at the bowling crease, and the ball hit the pitch halfway at a gentle pace. Barber's eyes lit up as he shaped to pull the ball in the direction of the Ladies' Stand. Instead he got a bottom edge, and the ball struck his right foot before trickling into the stumps. He stood there in a state of shock, uttered a well-known expression in beautiful Oxford accents, and then trudged off."
But here's the funny thing: this was the only Test century Barber ever made, in 28 appearances from 1960. And after that Ashes tour, he won just three more caps. He cut down on his county commitments to deal with his varied business interests - agreeing pre-season with Warwickshire which matches he would play in - and the England selectors were reluctant to take chances on a part-timer. International cricket thus lost a great entertainer, in what should have been his pomp: Barber played his last Test in 1968, and bowed out of county cricket the following year, aged only 33. He turned out to be pretty good at business, too, eventually retiring to Switzerland. Most of the fortune apparently came from those little blue tablets that cleanse toilet cisterns.
I administered Barber a heftier thump below the shoulders, hoping the editor wouldn't choose that particular moment to come round the corner and find me assaulting one of his guests of honour
Actually Barber's cricketing life had been a strange one from the start. After a stellar schoolboy career he played for Lancashire as an amateur, often as a bowler of legbreaks, who, according to a later county team-mate Jack Bannister, "was a genuine spinner, as opposed to a roller". His early batting was staid, but things changed when he moved to Warwickshire and began to adopt the flamboyant style that served him - and England - so well in Sydney.
Just about the first cricket book I ever read was an account of the 1965-66 Ashes tour by John Clarke, the cricket correspondent of the Evening Standard at the time. I borrowed it from the local library, and since I never quite got round to returning it, was secretly relieved when I drove past recently and found the library had been demolished, hopefully sparing me a huge fine. In summing up the tour, Clarke wrote: "The part that Barber played runs like a gold thread through this story." I remember thinking this was rather a neat line that I might be able to use one day, but I haven't managed it yet (unless this counts).
All this meant I was thrilled a few years ago when Barber flew over from Switzerland to be one of the special guests at the annual Wisden launch dinner, 40 years on from his selection as a Cricketer of the Year in the 1967 Almanack. The editorial staff had been asked to look after the distinguished guests. I made sure Barber was in my group, and stood there enthralled as the talk soon harked back to that very tour.
"I knew I wouldn't be touring Australia again," he said, "so I made sure I enjoyed it." His fine opening partnership with Boycott - the dependable Edrich was pushed down to No. 3 - had its moments: "Geoffrey was always very good at taking a single off the last ball of an over. I told him if he tried it on me again, I wouldn't run - and he did try it, and I didn't run... he gave me quite a look when he realised I was sitting on my bat at the bowler's end. He got the message after that - although he did get his revenge in the final Test: he just galloped past me and I was run out by 20 yards."
These fascinating reminiscences were interrupted, though, when he turned to me and said "You're supposed to be looking after me, aren't you?" I had to agree. "Well, would you mind hitting me on the back? I seem to have something stuck in my throat." I gave him a gentle nudge, but it wasn't quite the Heimlich manoeuvre: "Harder!" he urged, starting to go a bit red in the face. So I administered a heftier thump below the shoulders, hoping the editor wouldn't choose that particular moment to come round the corner and find me assaulting one of his guests of honour.
It seemed to work: the gong sounded, and we trooped off to the dining room. Bob Barber was back talking about Tests past, and I was rather chuffed that I'd just saved the life of one of my sporting heroes. Sort of.
Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2013. Ask Steven is now on Facebook