Bob Barber: The Professional Amateur

Published: 2015
Pages: 229
Author: Shindler, Colin
Publisher: Max Books
Rating: 4.5 stars


Most of us have our weaknesses, be it for individual players, teams or eras. As an adopted Lancastrian I have always enjoyed reading about the county I feel part of, and as the years have passed the dramatic internal upheavals of the late 1950s and early 1960s have become a particular source of fascination. It is an aspect of the county’s history that in the past I found tricky to understand due to the paucity of writing on the subject, until in recent years Max Books involved themselves in the publication of David Green’s A Handful of Confetti and Colin Evans’ Mods and Blockers.

Bob Barber was right in the middle of the controversies, and it was a particularly happy day for me when, having emailed him out of the blue more in hope than expectation, I discovered he was one of the most friendly, patient and interesting men I have ever encountered. His biography, in which he clearly had much personal involvement, is a superb read. It should have been written years ago, although if it had I would probably have never plucked up the courage to write to him, so I’m not complaining.

Why would I have held back? Simply because this was a man who was most definitely no pushover. He famously put Geoffrey Boycott in his place, although perhaps that was not so tricky given Boycs was a few years younger. But it takes courage to deliberately wind up Charlie Griffith, and to take a young Peter Pollock to task over bowling beamers. The comparisons with another Lancastrian, Michael Atherton, can be overdone, but it is clear that ‘sledging’ Barber would have been as ineffective as doing so with Atherton. So I wouldn’t have predicted any sort of willingness to answer questions on a regular basis from a mere enthusiast.

Barber made a name for himself as a cricketer at school, and went up to Cambridge in 1954. He had made a debut for Lancashire at 18 in May of 1954 and played for the county in the long vacations throughout his time at Cambridge. Lancashire was an old-fashioned county and craved an amateur captain so Barber’s name was pencilled in at an early stage. Shindler rightly dwells on this period of Barber’s life as it is an interesting piece of social as well as sporting history. The club was quite appallingly managed and the success the county enjoyed in the first of Barber’s two seasons in charge was certainly in spite of those who ran it rather than because of them. It is easy to understand why Barber moved to Warwickshire when he did, and why he found his time at Edgbaston so much more rewarding than his years at Old Trafford.

In terms of the way he played the game Barber remains the most successful leg spinner to play for England since Doug Wright, whose career was interrupted by World War Two. That achievement, very sadly for those of us who are passionate about the dark art, is no sort of measure of greatness in itself. But Barber’s bowling was the second string to his bow – in addition, in an era when batsmen and especially openers tended to be dour and workmanlike, he was a breath of fresh air at the top of the order. There was only ever one Test century, but it was a very special one indeed. At the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1965 Barber stormed out of the blocks and blasted an innings of 185 that set the tone for a resounding England win.

The value of Bob Barber in 2015 is that although he will be 80 later this year there is not the slightest hint of arrogance about him, nor does he wear rose tinted spectacles. He is a successful and very intelligent man, as well as an accurate and eloquent historian. He tells the odd tale against himself, and is generous in his praise of those he admired. He doesn’t hold back from being critical in places either. He seems, perhaps surprisingly, not to have got on particularly well with Ted Dexter, and was no fan of Colin Cowdrey’s captaincy.

The best measure of the quality of a biography is the extent to which its reader feels at the end of the book that he has got to understand the subject and that certainly applies here. It is one of the best and most rounded sporting biographies I have ever read. In terms of what it sets out to do the book cannot be faulted. There are however a couple of slight frustrations, although they in no way relate to the cricketing content of the book.

Before the War a university education was only available to a privileged few. In 1944 the Education Act opened things up so much so that by the late 1970s I had the benefit of an essentially state funded three years in higher education. Of course I know exactly what it was like then, and because my two sons occasionally talk to me I know how different the system is in the second decade of the 21st century. The glimpses that Barber provides into how things worked a generation before my time left me wanting to know a great deal more about his day to day life at Cambridge, and whether student life changed as much between his time and mine as it did between mine and my sons.

At the other end of Barber’s cricket career is his time in business. There is a chapter on the subject but again I would have liked to know much more about his life outside the game. The company he turned round itself is of no great interest, as no manufacturer of toiletries could be. But exactly how Barber identified its problems, reinvigorated it and then after completing that task went on to build another career in finance, is something I would have liked to more fully understand.

In conclusion however all I can say is that Bob Barber: The Professional Amateur is a superb book and one I unhesitatingly recommend, and not just to Red Rose tragics. It is also beautifully produced and is available as a leather bound multi-signed limited edition of 75 as well in a standard hard backed edition. Either way it contains what is possibly the best photograph I have ever seen in a cricket book – it was taken in South Africa in 1964/65 and features Barber, Jim Parks, Boycott and a large snake – Boycott’s reaction is priceless and, as the saying goes, well worth the admission money on its own.

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