Sunday, 27 January 2013


He is, famously, the only man ever to be picked for England while not playing first-class cricket – that is, while only playing Minor Counties and league cricket. Indeed, despite an astonishing Test record – 189 wickets in 27 matches at an average of 16.43, with no fewer than 24 five-wicket hauls in the 50 innings in which he bowled (9 for 103 being his best analysis), and 7 ten-wicket matches (a best of 17 for 159), including a world-record 49 wickets in a series against South Africa (at the age of 40, despite pulling out of the fifth game due, typically, to a dispute over disbursements) – Sydney Francis Barnes played relatively little first-class cricket. Only 133 games, in fact, over a 36-year span (intermittent, of course), in which he bagged the small matter of 719 wickets at 17.09. 

The relatively scarce appearances in county cricket (just 44 games) were more the product of his own economic hard-headedness and prevailing market forces than any lack of opportunity. Warwickshire had been reluctant to offer him a contract despite impressive results in the Birmingham League as a teenager, so, in an era of dilettantish amateurism, this son of a Black Country metal-beater decided he would become a professional bowler, wherever the highest bid took him. A living had to be earned; all other rewards would come or go as they may. And for all that the alluring tug of nostalgia causes us to see the past as some sort of innocent cricketing Arcadia (where in fact there was a game run as much for the sake of gambling as the playing), so it is that Barnes was the epitome of a deeply un-romantic view of the game – just as were the likes of WG Grace and William Clarke before him, and are various T20 mercenaries today – a man with a keen sense of his own value as cricketer and commercial attraction. If you paid, he bowled. And he sure did some bowling, playing league cricket up and down the country – in his native Staffordshire (Smethwick, Porthill Park), the Bradford League (Saltaire, Keighley) and the Lancashire Leagues (Rishton, Burnley, Church, Rawtenstall, Rochdale, Castleton Moor) – while of course enjoying a long career for Staffordshire, for whom he took the small matter of 1441 wickets at 8.10 each, on the way bagging 26 of the 30 best innings analyses for the county. Sydney finally hung up his boots in 1940, aged 67, after a season spent with Stone in the North Staffordshire Wartime League.

As for the man, he was, by all accounts, a remote and cussed soul off the field and temperamental on it, where he was remorselessly and near-monomaniacally driven in the pursuit of wickets and sharp-tongued toward captains who placed unnecessary obstacles in the way. Cardus said that “a chill wind of antagonism blew from him even on the sunniest day,” and his slightly pitted eyes, prominent brow, and cheekbones like onions no doubt added to his severe, forbidding aura. Yet beyond his lack of affability and general disdain for social niceties, what was it that made him such a fearsome proposition, so good that he not only made Cricinfo’s all-time England XI* but also Richie Benaud’s Greatest XI**?

Standing an inch over six feet and with long arms, Arlott noted that his “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”. In addition, his large hands and spidery fingers gave him the purchase on the ball that, in conjunction with his industrial accuracy, often made facing him a question of when, not if… Most intriguingly, his style of bowling has been described, variously, as cutters, medium-pace, fast-medium, fast spin, even leg-spin. Consensus is that it was all of this, with the leg-cutter his stock ball, mixed with fast off-breaks, in-and out-swingers and constant, subtle changes of pace. 

Want to judge for yourself? Well, if you have never seen the great man bowl then fire up your imagination and draw what you can from this short clip.

It is moot just how effective he’d have been on covered pitches; certainly, one imagines he’d have been a revelation in limited overs cricket, with batters having to attack him, like a turbo-charged hybrid of CZ Harris, Ajantha Mendis and latter-era SM Pollock. And whatever it was he bowled, exactly, there is no doubting he was a genius, a freakishly consistent wicket machine whose final balance sheet showed no fewer than 6225 wickets in all forms of cricket at the puny average of 8.31.

* Hobbs, Hutton, Hammond, Barrington, Pietersen, Botham, Knott, Truman, Barnes, Larwood, Underwood.
** Hobbs, Gavaskar, Bradman, IVA Richards, Tendulkar, Sobers, Gilchrist, Imran Khan, Lillee, Warne, Barnes.


1 comment:

54321 said...

That is an awesome find! Do you by any chance have a source for the clip? it must've come from a documentary or something