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Ralph Barker

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Ralph Barker was born in 1917. His first job was in journalism as he joined the staff of the Sporting Life at age 17, although he did not stay there, and moved into banking, he continued to write and before the war some of his sketches were performed at the renowned Windmill Theatre in London.

In 1941 Barker joined the RAF. He became a wireless operator and air gunner and, after initially being based in Scotland, was posted to Malta where, as a crew member on Beaufort bombers, he was engaged in the hazardous task of bombing enemy shipping. Fortunate to survive an incident in which his pilot and navigator were killed Barker was eventually transferred back to Britain and left the RAF in 1946.

After being demobbed Barker returned to banking but remained only two years before rejoining the RAF as a public relations officer. He continued in that position until 1961 when he retired to pursue a full-time writing career. He had already by then published two books on the subject of flying, the RAF and war in the air and over the rest of his life would author a total of fifteen books on various aspects of aviation. He also wrote the story of a climbing disaster, two books about passenger vessels sunk by German U-Boats in World War Two as well as biographies of Frederick Spencer Chapman and Bill Lancaster. The former was an Army Officer who made a name for himself in the war against Japan as a result of his success behind enemy lines in Malaya. Lancaster was a pioneer aviator, once charged with and found not guilty of the murder of a love rival.

Cricket was always an interest of Barker’s and whilst he never aspired to First Class level he was a good cricketer and played all through his service days for RAF teams and also captained the West Surrey club. His first book on cricket, and his fifth altogether, appeared in 1964. The book’s title was Ten Great Innings, and it must have caused some trepidation for the author when he learnt that it was to be reviewed by the acerbic Rowland Bowen in the Cricket Quarterly. If he was concerned he need not have worried, the Major was impressed;

We understand that this is the author’s first book on cricket, although he has written several others on widely different topics. We hope it may be the first of many for the author shows clearly he has the stuff of cricket in him, and he can write. Cardus, in a trenchant foreword (in which he castigates much modern cricket writing) commends Barker both for his style and for his ability to keep his eye on the ball. We can only concur in this judgement.

The innings selected are all undoubtedly deserving of the description ‘great’, and all are wonderful stories of famous matches. The book begins with Jack Hobbs’ famous innings that set England on course to reclaiming the Ashes in 1926. Other famous Ashes innings featured are Stan McCabe’s withering attack on the ‘Bodyline’ of Harold Larwood and Bill Voce at the SCG in 1932/33, Denis Compton’s not dissimilar solo effort against Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller in 1948 and Cyril Washbrook’s remarkable comeback in 1956. Len Hutton’s 364 in 1938 also features.

A lesser known Test innings recorded is that of Russell Endean for South Africa against Australia at the MCG in 1952, and there is a chapter on Bill Edrich’s effort in ‘the timeless Test’ at Kingsmead in 1939. At a lesser level Middlesex are involved in two matches. The first of their appearances is the one man show that Learie Constantine put on at Lord’s in 1928, and the second when the county were on the wrong end of a big Don Bradman hundred in 1934. My personal pick however will always be Barker’s account of Harold Gimblett’s famous debut century for Somerset against Essex at Frome in 1935. More than thirty years after I first read it that remains high amongst my favourite pieces of cricket writing.

Three years later, in 1967, Barker’s second cricket book was in many ways a companion volume, Ten Great Bowlers. Bowen was even more impressed with this one which he described as; one of the contenders for the best book of year. It is something that every cricket enthusiast, indeed every cricketer, should have, for all will find it interesting and absorbing, whilst cricketers cannot fail to profit from it. The book is excellently written and there is much original research in it, and Ralph Barker must henceforth rank as one of the best writers cricket that we have.

The approach of Ten Great Bowlers is slightly different to its predecessor in that it is more concerned with biographical sketches than accounts of individual matches. The stand out chapters for me are those on the American Bart King, and on Sydney Barnes. Also featured are Maurice Tate, George Lohmann, Hedley Verity and the Surrey pair of Tom Richardson and Bill Lockwood. Three Australians also feature; Clarrie Grimmett, ‘Tiger’ O’Reilly and Fred Spofforth. The original research to which Bowen made reference is in relation to Richardson who, contrary to popular belief at the time, Barker established did not take his own life.

Clearly by now much valued by Bowen at the end of 1967 the maverick editor played Barker a great compliment by inviting him to provide a foreword for volume five of his Cricket Quarterly. Barker’s choice of subject matter says a great deal about him. The setting he selected was the second day of a County Championship match between Middlesex and Yorkshire at Lord’s in 1966. It is perhaps, for the sake of younger readers, worth pointing out that exciting cricket was rarely seen at that time and, in an effort to combat that, a rule had been introduced for some matches in which the sides’ first innings were limited to 65 overs. This was one such contest.

On the first day Middlesex scored 191 all out in their allocation, and at the close Yorkshire were 70-2 after 32 overs. In the end on the second morning they were all out for 175 so a lead of 15 for Middlesex. The serious business of the game now began as the hosts, with the best part of two days to go, needed to set Yorkshire a target. In two sessions Middlesex compiled a painstaking 130-5.

Barker describes the match as among the most absorbing I have seen. He wrote in glowing terms of the off breaks of Ray Illingworth and the manner in which he kept the Middlesex batsman in a straitjacket. At the same time he commented on the dissatisfaction shown by many of the spectators present and in doing so made his point, highlighting the age-old dichotomy in cricket between the cerebral and attritional struggle when the bowling is of the highest calibre that is valued so highly by the diehard, and the demand for instant entertainment put forward by many others.

In 1969 Test Cricket: England v Australia appeared. An expensive book, more than four times the price of a standard hardback, it is probably Barker’s least noteworthy contribution to the literature of the game. For the book Barker produced an account of each Test in around 500 words. Irving Rosenwater, nominally co-author, in fact dealt solely with the statistics, which comprised in excess of 100 tables.

As we know Bowen certainly admired Barker’s work, but at the same time he and Rosenwater had long since fallen out. It is no surprise therefore that Bowen did not like the pair’s book, although he did at least give it a review that spread over three pages. He was deeply critical of the price and he gave Rosenwater’s statistics a lukewarm reception. Bowen also felt Barker’s contributions lacked detail, but he certainly sugar coated that one; Barker is a good writer and his talents are wasted in this kind of affair ……… if most of them (the matches) had been given at least 2,000 words each……we believe Barker could have produced a very fine volume indeed.

At the time Test Cricket: England v Australia was published Rosenwater was on the staff of The Cricketer, so the one place for a truly impartial review to appear was in Wisden, courtesy of John Arlott. It would be fair to say that Arlott was much more enthusiastic than Bowen but the book seems not to have sold well. For all his antipathy towards Rosenwater Bowen, it seems likely, was spot on with his observations on the book’s price tag.

It would be another seven years before Barker wrote another cricket book and this time it was again in the nature of a collected biography, albeit the men concerned were all from the same family. The Cricketing Family Edrich took a long look at the careers of Bill and John and gave shorter accounts of the ives of Bill’s three less illustrious brothers, Geoffrey, Eric and Brian. Once again Rosenwater provided some excellent statistics. Subsequently there has been one more biography of Bill (by Alan Hill) but, perhaps surprisingly, no full biography of John has never appeared. The family story is an excellent one and, as always, is well told by Barker.

Innings of a Lifetime was Barker’s next book and, as it turned out, his penultimate one. It appeared in 1982 so after Bowen’s death and long after the demise of the Cricket Quarterly. It was a return to the same formula that served Barker so well in Ten Great Innings, albeit with a slightly different emphasis. On this occasion Barker chose to tell the stories of fine knocks in careers rather less celebrated than those of the men who had featured in his earlier book.

The book begins with the century scored by a 21 year old Colin Cowdrey at the MCG on the last day of 1954, before moving on to Peter Burge’s innings at Headingley in 1964. The Ashes feature again with Bob Barber’s only Test century, scored at the SCG in 1965/66. Bristling with aggression Barber’s was the sort of knock that would not be seen again from an opening batsmen for many years.

There are more overseas players this time round. One double chapter was devoted to Garry Sobers and David Holford, whose batting heroics took the second test in 1966 away from England. Graeme Pollock’s famous 125 at Trent Bridge in 1965 features too, as does Asif Iqbal’s spirited 146 from number nine at the Oval in 1967. It was an innings which may have done no more than delay an English victory, but it certainly won the Pakistani a legion of admirers. New Zealander Glenn Turner gets a place for the innings that led his country to victory over Australia in Christchurch in 1974

It is back to two Englishmen to close the book with chapters devoted to Dennis Amiss’ double century against Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel in 1976 and, a year later, that wonderful innings from Derek Randall that, for a time, looked like it might give England victory in the centenary Test after their desultory first innings of 95. The reviewer in The Cricketer came out with a rather nice line about Innings of a Lifetime that applies to all of Barker’s work when he observed that the best of the accounts are almost like mini novels in their dramatic intensity.

Finally, seven years later in 1989, at which point Barker was 72, he produced his final cricket book. Purple Patches is another variation on the theme examining 11 men who at one time or another managed to display exceptional runs of form.

The Englishmen here begin with Mickey Stewart, who held 77 catches in 1957. Next is David Steele, whose showing of a broad bat to Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson made all England supporters happy in 1975. Frank Tyson gets a place for his remarkable contribution to the 1954/55 Ashes victory and Jim Laker for his prolific wicket taking effort that followed in the 1956 return. The final Englishman is Yorkshire slow left-arm bowler Arthur Booth who, in 1946 and 43 years of age, showed his county what might have been had it not been for the presence of Hedley Verity through the 1930s.

Five of those featured in Purple Patches are Australians. The first is Bill Ponsford and his remarkable early career scoring record. He is followed by Bill Alley’s Indian summer with Somerset in 1961 when he became the last man to score 3,000 runs in an English season. That pair are joined by Bob Massie, whose prodigious swing bowling in the 1972 Ashes encounter mesmerised all who saw it, and the run of form that saw a 21 year old David Hookes given a Test debut in the centenary Test. Finally, and a slightly tongue in cheek one, is the achievement of left arm fast medium bowler Bill Johnston who, in 1953, went through a tour of England with a batting average of 102. The final man featured is the South African wicketkeeper Denis ‘Sporty’ Lindsay, who scored more than 606 runs in seven innings against the 1966/67 Australians.

Although there were no more contributions to cricket literature from Barker his last book, an aviation one, appeared as late as 2005. Ralph Barker must have been made of strong stuff as he reached the grand old age of 93 before departing this mortal coil in May 2011.

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