More on how SF Barnes spun his leg break
I have long been mystified by the legendary success of SF Barnes, and have (so far) failed to find any definitive description of his bowling methods.
But from the scattered clues I now believe that Barnes stock delivery, the medium paced leg-break, was spun from the front of the hand (palm facing the batter) by using the ring finger of his right hand to flick the ball off his index finger.
In a description I read in 100 greatest bowlers by Phil Edmonds and Scyld Berry it was said that Barnes held the ball with his index, middle and ring fingers along and touching the seam, and that he could bowl off breaks and leg breaks without much change of action - but that the leg-break was his usual and most devastating delivery.
It seems clear from pictures and written accounts that Barnes bowled from the front of his hand (palm facing the batter) so that a conventional leg-spinner's bac-of-hand leg-break is not a possibility. And a front of hand delivery would usually imply that Barnes bowled leg-cutters - a delivery in which spin is imparted by cutting the fingers across the left hand side of the ball as it is released. However this is not probable, because leg -cutters have never been very much use except as surprise variations, and anyway Barnes denied in interviews that he bowled leg-cutters - he said that he spun the ball.
To spin the ball implies that the ball is gripped with the fingers when spin is imparted - not that (as with a leg cutter) the fingers are scraped down the edge of the ball at the moment of release.
But if Barnes actually spun a leg-break from the front of his hand, then this would generate very little spin, due to the normal anatomical restrictions on movement in that direction. Technically, the wrist rotation depends on forearn rotation - and the action of supination from the starting position of having the middle finger pointing upwards, the forearm rotation which generates off spin has a much larger range of movement (about 180 degrees) than the action of pronation which generates leg spin (probably less than 90 degrees).
So Barnes must have flicked the ball with his fingers. Specifically, from this (and other) photographs it looks as if Barnes has his ring finger curled along the seam so as to flick a leg break off his index finger:
Sydney Barnes | England Cricket | Cricket Players and Officials | ESPN Cricinfo
This is a different kind of finger flick from that used by Jack Iverson or Ajantha Mendis - since Iverson and Mendis use the middle finger to flick the ball off the thumb.
Because the middle finger is longer and stronger than the ring finger, I assume that Iverson and Mendis were able to impart more rapid rotations on the ball than Barnes. However, in order to flick a leg break off the thumb, the bowler must rotate the wrist so that the thumb faces towards first slip (roughly). This means that the ball is delivered almost from the side of the hand, which reduces its pace.
Barnes method enabled him to deliver the ball with the palm almost facing the batter, so enabling him to bowl at a brisk medium pace (and open the bowling). Together with Barnes supreme accuracy and the bounce due to his height and upright action, the moderate leg spin was devastating.
I presume that Barnes off break was delivered in an almost conventional fashion, except that the ball was gripped between index and ring fingers, instead of the usual grip between index and middle fingers.
Alternatively, it is possible Barnes could have rotated his wrist and flicked an off break/ googly from the back of his hand using his ring finger - but I would guess that this would have been easy for the batter to pick since the googly would have been visibly delivered from the back of the hand, and also much slower.
If it is correct that Barnes flicked his leg breaks off his index finger using the ring finger then this might explain why apparently nobody has been able to copy his action (except, according to his own account, Ian Peebles, early in his career - although Peebles did not explain the nature of his action, merely that he used the same method as Barnes).
It is remarkable that Barnes ring finger, a finger which is usually weaker and harder to control than other fingers, could generate sufficient power and exert sufficient control to yield the kind of results Barnes achieved; and that the finger joints could stand up to the strain of so much bowling for so many years.
The Doosra: More on how SF Barnes spun his leg break