Frith's encounters: Sydney Barnes

Was Barnes the greatest bowler of all time?

David Frith
David Frith speaks to former England bowler Sydney Barnes whose 49 wickets against South Africa in 1913-14 is still the record for most wickets in a series

Sydney Barnes bowled a brisk medium, but applied spin, with excruciating accuracy and was regarded as the greatest bowler of all by most thoughtful judges © The Cricketer International

"What do you want?" A nice greeting, I must say, to a pilgrim who had just driven for three hours all the way up to Cannock, Staffordshire. It was not as if my visit was unscheduled. Sydney Barnes had agreed to it by telephone. He was now 94, and still ferociously sharp mentally. And here I was, looking up into that gaunt face framed in the doorway, and wondering if I was ever going to be invited in.

Maybe he was playing games, teasing, provoking? The history books tell of how difficult he could be to captains, committees and opponents. Now he even refused to sign a book because I had only a ballpoint pen. His copperplate handwriting with a fountain pen - or was it a quill? - was renowned. "I'm not going into the office for you just to get my pen," he croaked. It was a Saturday, so the council office in Stafford where he worked part-time would be locked anyway.

He took some warming up. Then the stories began to flow, though I can't recall a real smile throughout that awesome session in the living room - a faintly evil grimace, yes.

Animatedly he talked me through his first morning spell against Australia at Melbourne in the 1911-12 Ashes series: bowled Bardsley with his first ball, had Kelleway lbw, bowled Hill, then had Armstrong caught by his Warwickshire wicketkeeper Tiger Smith: 4 for 1 in seven legendary overs. Having Minnett later caught by Hobbs gave him 5 for 6, all quality wickets, and England were on their way to sweeping the series after the first Test had been lost. That'd show that vain captain, JWHT Douglas, that Barnes and not he should use the new ball with Frank Foster.

Barnes revealed that the man who brought a bottle of whisky to him in his room the night before, after word had circulated that he was sick, was none other than the Australian veteran, little Syd Gregory, who was not playing. It made all the difference next day. "SF" was fiery as ever, shocking Australia with that 11-over spell, later flopping to the turf when he was barracked for slow field arrangement, resuming only when it stopped.

Did he cut the ball like Underwood? "Cut it!" He glared, and again I wondered if he might hurl something at me. "I spun the ball!" Those long, gnarled fingers gyrated around imaginary leather. He bowled a brisk medium, but applied spin, with excruciating accuracy. No wonder he was regarded as the greatest bowler of all by most thoughtful judges. His bag of 49 wickets in South Africa in 1913-14 is still a series record. And he missed the fifth Test! The official reasons were hazy, but Barnes now explained: they wouldn't pay for his wife's accommodation. That marked the end of his erratic Test career: 189 wickets at 16.43 in 27 Tests. He was 40. Had he played as many Tests as Shane Warne (as yet unborn when we met), Barnes might have finished with around 1000, though covered pitches would have cut him back a little (my view, not his).

Like most old-timers, he had a distant look in his eyes as he recalled long-ago incidents and events: England's one-wicket victory which he pulled off with Arthur Fielder at the MCG in 1908, and his feigned injury when the fee offered for playing in the Lord's centenary match in 1914 was reckoned inadequate. Money drove him beyond most other considerations.

He went from league club to league club because the pay in county cricket fell short. He had as little respect for committees as for opposing batsmen. This theme saturated his reminiscences. Years later the great South African offspinner Hugh Tayfield passed on to me some extreme advice that Barnes had given him: "Don't take any notice of anything anybody ever tells you!"

It was slightly demanding as well as pleasurable to be in Barnes's company. A nonagenarian he might have been, yet his brooding countenance gave a vivid taste of what it must have been like to be an opposing batsman. He wasn't all malevolence: as I was leaving, he relented and signed my book.

This article was first published in the August issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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David Frith, author and historian, was the founder editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly