SF Barnes – The Legendary Cricket Genius

Published: 2018
Pages: 292
Author: Nicholls, Jeff
Publisher: UK Book Publishing
Rating: 3.5 stars

There have been three previous biographies of Sydney Barnes. The first of those, a slim booklet by Wilfrid White, was published in the 62 year old’s last season in the Minor Counties Championship. Thirty two years later he was approaching the end of his innings when Leslie Duckworth’s considerably bulkier SF Barnes – Master Bowler appeared. Then in 1997 Andrew Searle published SF Barnes – His Life and Times. White’s sub-title was The Greatest Bowler Of All Time. The dust jackets of both Duckworth and Searle both feature the word legendary, as of course does Nicholls’ sub-title.

Everyone with any knowledge of the history of cricket knows of Barnes’ remarkable record, and his deeds on the field are well chronicled. The reason rather less of Barnes’ wickets than might have been were taken on the international stage or otherwise at First Class level is also well known. To say Barnes could be difficult to handle would be an understatement, and if he couldn’t get what he thought he was worth he always walked away.

So is there any point to another book about Barnes? Each generation has had one, and the agenda is much the same, to demonstrate that Barnes was the greatest bowler to have played the game, and most who pick up a book about Barnes are likely to be sympathetic to that notion to start with. Nicholls is no less convincing on that one than those who have gone before him, although much less conventional in the way he sets out his case.

In fact the presentation of SF Barnes – The Legendary Cricket Genius is downright odd, sections of narrative about Barnes often containing short and pithy interjections in a different font, not always directly relevant to anything that has gone on before (but always entertaining). There are plenty of scorecards too, not always of the obvious matches, and a decent selection of photographs. In addition Nicholls hasn’t been afraid to quote extensively from the work of others, and such digressions (all well chosen) can take up several pages.

Does the unusual approach work? I have to say it does although the fact that I greatly enjoyed the book might, I suppose, be in spite of that approach rather than because of it. Nonetheless if nothing else Nicholls deserves great credit for writing as concise an explanation of what Barnes actually did with a cricket ball as anyone else has, and for not merely revisiting history as we already know it and discovering some interesting new material about Barnes’ life and times.

What helps Nicholls’ book stand out is the assistance of his subject’s grandson, who adds much of interest. There is nothing that tells us anything new about the age old stories of Barnes’ personality, and all the well worn anecdotes are here, but the input from Peter Barnes certainly demonstrates that, for the benefit of his family if no one else, there was another side to his grandfather.

The book is self-published and, unusually in that situation, a nicely produced hardback, although a bit more proof reading wouldn’t have gone amiss. One England wicketkeeper creeps into the text, and indeed the index, as Herbert Starstruck. Another England colleague of Barnes, Len Braund, becomes Bround, and also appears as such in the index. In one of the scorecards Lancashire’s Jack Ikin becomes Akin. There is also a bit of repetition, the brief summary of Barnes’ time at Lytham St Annes Cricket Club appearing first on page 122, and then being repeated on page 183, that misdemeanour compounded by Barnes’ quoted ages on the two pages differing.

In conclusion as a work of literature SF Barnes – The Legendary Cricket Genius leaves a little to be desired, but the author’s enthusiasm for his subject shines through, and it is certainly as entertaining a book about the life of a cricketer from the past as I have read in a long time. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay is to express the view that until someone invents a time machine, Jeff Nicholls’ book is the best portrait of the greatest bowler who ever lived that we are going to get.



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