Sydney Barnes – The Bradman of Bowling?Martin Chandler |
Sydney Barnes took 189 wickets in 27 Tests at an average of 16.43. Between his first and last Tests he was not selected for as many as 31 so, playing around with figures as cricket fans are wont to do, had he played in all 58 for which he could have been selected he would, had he carried on at 7 wickets per match, have taken 406 wickets over his Test career, and to this day would remain England’s leading wicket taker. Ian Botham’s 383 in 102 matches would be a very poor second indeed, and Barnes’ record would be set fair to celebrate its 100th birthday in less than two years time.
But is Barnes the greatest bowler the game has seen, or are his remarkable figures simply testament to a top-class bowler from a bygone age, whose skills cannot be compared with the greats who have followed him? After all a number of men have better averages, George Lohmann in particular with 112 wickets at the ludicrous average of 10.75, but also the Australian JJ Ferris, and Englishmen Billy Bates and Billy Barnes. Lohmann’s figures include 35 South African wickets at less than 6 runs apiece, and Ferris managed 13 at similar cost in his one Test (played for England) against the same opponents. But the real difference is that all three of them, and another four of the ten* other men to enjoy career averages of less than 20, plied their trade almost entirely before the fabled “Golden Age” began in the mid to late 1890s.
There can be no doubt that before 1895 the balance between bat and ball was very much in favour of the latter. But the Golden Age was all about batting, and the ease with which a new generation could perform in the light of huge improvements in the preparation of pitches and the coming into use of the heavy roller. Flat wickets with even bounce changed the game and of the other leading bowlers of Barnes’ time, Australians Hugh Trumble and Monty Noble, and Englishmen Colin Blythe and Wilfred Rhodes, only Blythe, at 18.63, averaged less than 20. None of them came close to matching Barnes’ total haul of wickets, or his remarkable average of 7 wickets per match.
There are other factors which should not be ignored when looking at Barnes’ record. For a start he played in just 10 home Tests. Of the remainder 13 were played in Australia and the other 4 in South Africa. It should also be pointed out that Barnes was, in all the Tests he played, England’s main spearhead. Not for him a tally of wickets rich in tailenders. His most frequent victims in Tests, the twin Australian giants of the Golden Age, Victor Trumper and Clem Hill, fell to Barnes on 13 and 11 occasions respectively. Barnes had some great battles with South Africa’s first master batsman, Herb Taylor, in the 7 Tests in which they opposed each other, but despite some saying that Taylor had the measure of Barnes, he still claimed his wicket 8 times.
Whether, as some claim, Barnes is the Bradman of bowling, or just a notable exponent of the art is a matter that will doubtless be debated for as long as the game is played, but what is beyond doubt is that the at times truculent, and always combative Barnes is one of the more interesting characters to have played the game.
Sydney Francis Barnes was born in 1873. In his early days he was a fast bowler and in 1894, the year in which the county acquired First Class status, he made his debut for Warwickshire. They offered him a contract but Barnes, a man with as acute an understanding of his own worth as any cricketer in history, thought the terms derisory and signed for Rishton in the Lancashire League instead. His successes at Rishton brought him three more offers to play for the County but he was ignored by his teammates, envious of his earnings at Rishton, and when a further invitation was withdrawn at the last minute to allow an amateur to play, he vowed never to play for Warwickshire again. Having claimed just three wickets in his four matches at a cost of 66 runs each the West Midland county would not, at that stage, have been unduly concerned.
Barnes was the scourge of the Lancashire League’s batsmen and with him Rishton enjoyed a richly successful five years and in 1899 Lancashire came knocking and Barnes was able to play in a couple of matches in August. He did better than he had for Warwickshire, but four wickets at more than 40 runs each was still no indication of what was to follow.
After 1899 Barnes left Rishton and moved to Burnley and it was while helping them to the Lancashire League in 1901 that he was able to accept an invitation to play in Lancashire’s final game of the season. Leicestershire were not one of the leading counties by any means, but they had a reasonable batting line-up, and Barnes whipped out the first four with just 31 on the board before the East Midland county recovered somewhat to 140 all out, Barnes finishing with 6-70. Lancashire skipper Archie MacLaren enforced the follow-on, but rain spoiled what would have been an interesting final day.
What sort of a bowler was Barnes at this stage? Gone was the “tearaway” aspect of his early career and in its place was a fast-medium bowler. Barnes was tall and slim with a smooth run up that began slowly before he accelerated and lengthened his stride finally leaping into his delivery. Much of his pace came from the long swing of an exceptionally high arm. He had not at this stage quite perfected the leg break that was to cement his reputation but it was in development and he was able to swing the ball as well as bowl an off-break at pace.
There is an oft-repeated story, undoubtedly apocryphal, that following that performance against Leicestershire MacLaren took a net with Barnes who struck the England and Lancashire captain several times about the body, causing Barnes to apologise for his temerity. This, so the story goes, prompted MacLaren to words to the effect of “Don’t be sorry Barnes, you’re coming to Australia with me”. The fact is that a man of 28, with a career total of just 7 First Class matches spread over as many years, in which he had taken just 13 wickets at 37.38 did tour Australia that winter, although the reason why is not so romantic.
The 1901/02 tour to Australia was the last to take place other than under the auspices of the MCC. MacLaren had been invited to captain the side and it was therefore for him to select it. He wanted to take George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes, and who wouldn’t after they had, between them, taken more than 400 wickets at less than 16 as Yorkshire won the County Championship by a huge margin. But Yorkshire was the fiefdom of Lord Hawke, and he and MacLaren did not see eye to eye, and he refused to release his leading bowlers. Had the MCC taken over one tour earlier, or someone other than MacLaren been captain of England, then the legend that is Sydney Barnes might never have been. As it was the captain of Lancashire, the only one in the Championship familiar with Barnes’s abilities, and never a man to ignore a hunch, decided to take a punt on the bowler who wrecked the Leicestershire batting on that August afternoon.
Before the party left Tilbury Barnes told reporters that how he would bowl in Australia would depend on what the wickets were like, but that it would be somewhere between medium and fast. After seeing how hard the pitches were Barnes decided that speed, while retaining control, should be his priority, and while he was not to be genuinely fast, he certainly had sufficient pace to be able to bump the ball disconcertingly at the Australian batsmen when he chose to do so.
England unexpectedly won the first Test by an innings. Barnes’ 5-65, Trumper and Hill included, being a major factor in the victory. He did even better in the second Test, taking 13-163 in the match, but England lost, and Barnes workload was too heavy. He bowled unchanged through the Australian first innings, and then as many as 64 overs in the second. As a result of those exertions Barnes knee let him down in the third Test, and after sending down just seven overs his tour was over.
The after effects of Barnes’ knee injury lingered in 1902, his first season in Championship cricket, and the slow wet wickets did not help his cause and 95 wickets at 21.56 was disappointing after his displays over the winter. There was an Australian series that summer too of course, one of the most famous of all, but Barnes played only in the third Test, the only one Sheffield has ever hosted. Although Australia won Barnes threw off his season’s shackles to take 6-49 in the tourists’ first innings, so why he was not selected for the final two Tests is not entirely clear. But if he had been picked Test cricket would probably have been robbed of Australia’s three run victory courtesy of Fred Tate’s famous blunder at Old Trafford, and England’s one wicket victory that was brought about by Hirst and Rhodes’ “we’ll get ‘em in singles” partnership at the Oval.
The pitches in 1903 were not much drier for Barnes, but his knee was fully restored and his second and final summer as a full-time First Class cricketer brought him 131 wickets at 17.85. He was Lancashire’s leading bowler by a distance. In those days Lancashire’s policy was to give all professionals one year contracts and a wage of GBP3 per week during the season and winter pay of GBP1 per week. Barnes was 30 and he wanted some security in a trade which, if he didn’t already know it, his knee injury would have confirmed to him was an uncertain one. Church in the Lancashire League offered him GBP8 per week, a two year contract, and a cricketing workload of, generally, one day a week. Barnes invited Lancashire to match the offer. They declined and the County Championship never saw Barnes again, and the First Class game had to wait until 1907 for him to reappear briefly, with no great success, for an invitational XI that played the touring South Africans.
Something else had happened in 1903. Barnes had finally perfected the leg break, a delivery that swung into the right handed batsman at pace before pitching and cutting away whilst rising sharply. No other bowler had mastered it before and none has been able to do so with any consistency since. Quite how he did it remains unclear although one theory goes that there was something freakish about the muscles in the fingers and wrist of his bowling hand. Certainly a number of his contemporaries commented that they were able to hear the snap of his fingers from mid-on or mid-off as he produced his most venomous deliveries. Neville Cardus christened the delivery the Barnes ball, but it appeared for some years that only club cricketers, minor county players and league professionals would be exposed to it.
There was no invitation to Barnes to tour Australia in 1903/04 with Pelham Warner’s side nor did the selectors turn to him in 1905 for that Ashes series, nor the Tests against South Africa in 1907. That summer Barnes turned 34 and despite his 112 wickets for Portshill Park in the North Staffordshire League costing him less than four runs each, and 79 in the Minor Counties Championship costing just over six runs apiece, no one expected him to get the call to tour Australia the following winter. True to form he was not selected but, after four players refused to accept the terms offered, including Hirst again, Barnes was approached and persuaded to accept the last place in the party. An understrength England lost the series 4-1. The Australians were well aware of the main danger to them, Noble describing Barnes as the best bowler in the world at the present day. Barnes played in all five Tests, taking 24 wickets at 26.08. Kent paceman Arthur Fielder and Surrey all-rounder Jack Crawford, household names neither then nor now, actually fared slightly better than Barnes, but the records of all three were similar.
Barnes had an attack of whooping cough in spring 1909 although it seems more likely, given that his prolific wicket-taking for Porthill Park and Staffordshire continued as before, that there were other reasons for his omission from the first two Tests of that summer’s Ashes series. His presence in the final three Tests could not bring England victory, but despite missing those two matches he still bowled more overs than anyone else on either side, and his 17 wickets cost just 20 runs each.
It may be that the 1909 selection debacle owed much to the old stand off between the captain and Chairman of Selectors. The latter was none other than Lord Hawke who, surprisingly in all the circumstances, seemed to bow to public opinion in what was to prove a disastrous reappointment of a by now 38 year old MacLaren to the captaincy. It was doubtless also contributed to by Barnes own personality and actions over the years. The gentlemen amateurs who ran the game from their committee rooms were not used to dealing with professionals who tried to negotiate with them, and who in doing so tended to be taciturn, stubborn, unyielding and, worst of all, generally in the right. His snub to Warwickshire, his attitude to Lancashire, and the occasion of his first appearance for the Players against the Gentlemen at Lord’s in 1903, then the season’s showpiece, were all held against him. In that match Barnes, after collecting his fee, bowled just one over before leaving the game due to injury. The fact that he bowled 30 overs for Lancashire just two days later was looked up by his many detractors as evidence of his shirking his responsibilities.
Barnes lacked the personal charm that might have enabled his less attractive character traits to be overlooked, but the reality was that when treated with respect he would reciprocate and, just as importantly, repaid that respect with loyalty and hard work. Perhaps as he aged Barnes also mellowed a little, but attitudes seem to have changed by the time the 1911/12 party for Australia was selected, when the 38 year old Barnes was one of the first names confirmed.
England’s captain in 1911/12 was Warner, although due to illness he played in none of the Tests and his vice-captain, Johnny Douglas, led England onto the field in each of the five matches. Douglas was an all-rounder, a durable batsman, appropriately nicknamed “Johnny Won’t Hit Today”, he was also a decent fast-medium bowler and in the first Test he opened the bowling himself with the mercurial Frank Foster. England lost by 146 runs and Barnes, first change and livid about it, could take only 4 wickets for 179.
Warner had not even been at the ground for the first Test so it may well be that he disagreed with Douglas’ decision to open the bowling himself. He was present for the second Test where Barnes opened the bowling with Foster. After 10 overs the match was effectively over. Australia were 11-4 and Barnes had taken all four. It seems likely that the crucial decision to open with Barnes had been made before the match begun but it might just be that Barnes himself took the decision away from his captain. Many years later the England wicketkeeper, Tiger Smith, told his biographer that at the end of Foster’s opening over he had thrown the ball to Barnes without thinking, and that from there Barnes had run straight back to his mark where, for rather longer than might have been expected, he stood in hushed and earnest conversation with Douglas. Could it be that Douglas demanded the ball from Barnes who refused the request? Probably not, but it is a nice idea, and one that given what we know of Barnes’ character cannot be ruled out completely.
England went on to win each of the last four Tests to recover the Ashes decisively. Barnes used the new ball wisely and his match hauls were remarkably consistent, 8 wickets in each of the second and third Tests, and 7 in each of the last two. Overall he took 34 wickets in the series at a cost of 22.88. By now Barnes had perfected his full range of variations and he employed his versatility to the full. As he always did in Australia he bowled at top speed to take advantage of the bounce in the wickets, but that his pace was, at nearly 39, rather down on past years is evident from the fact that Smith stood back to county colleague Foster’s left arm fast-medium, while standing up to Barnes.
An automatic choice for the Triangular Tournament in 1912 Barnes took just 5 more wickets in the three rain-ruined Tests against Australia, but at a cost of just 24.40. In the three matches against South Africa he was all but unplayable, taking 34 wickets at 8.29. The last act of his Test career came in the 1913/14 series in South africa, where he followed that performance up with an astonishing 49 wickets at 10.93. Without the redoubtable Taylor, who averaged over 50 despite his teammates travails, and had he not had to miss the final Test through injury, who knows what Barnes might have achieved.
With the Great War First Class and Test cricket closed down until 1919 but Barnes played on, leaving Porthill Park after nine seasons to take up an offer from Saltaire in the Bradford League, for whom he played for another nine seasons. His haul of wickets for Porthill Park was 893 at 5.28. At Saltaire it was to be 904 at 5.26, so despite celebrating his fiftieth birthday in his final season at Saltaire there had been no diminishing of Barnes’ skills.
Despite being 48 at the time Barnes was invited to tour Australia again with the 1920/21 side who were defeated 5-0, but he declined the offer. He was happy to go, and content with the remuneration offered, but he believed that he would be able to give of his best only if he were joined on tour by his wife and child. The selectors refused what at the time must have been considered a preposterous request and, inevitably, Barnes in turn dug his heels in.
Logic would suggest that with that particular contretemps the prospect of seeing Barnes in a First Class match again had gone but, almost ten years after the end of the War, he reappeared for Wales in matches against the MCC and the touring New Zealanders in 1927. At 54 his results were steady rather than spectacular, but he repeated the exercise the following year when, courtesy of 12-118 against the West Indies and 8-85 against Lancashire, the County Champions, he became the oldest man ever to head the First Class averages, a record he will doubtless retain as long as the game is played.
In the following summer of 1929 Barnes renewed his battle with Taylor as he opened the bowling for the Minor Counties against the touring South Africans. His 8-41 helped the home side dismiss their visitors for just 139. Taylor top scored with 28 before succumbing to Barnes but sadly the game was spoiled by the weather and had to be left drawn when interestingly poised. Jack Meyer, who played as an amateur for Somerset for many years, but who is perhaps best known as the founder of Millfield School, played in the match and later said Barnes bowled the kind of stuff I had not dreamed could exist outside dreamland. The old man’s run up was still the same 15 to 18 yards, the action as high as ever and, according to Meyer, his pace was a little quicker than Alec Bedser. A few weeks later, just to show the Minor Counties performance was no fluke, Barnes appeared against the South Africans again, this time for Wales. It was 6-28 in the South African first innings, and 10 for the match as the tourists squeaked home by 10 runs.
Syd Barnes was 57 when he turned out for Wales in the final First Class match of his career in 1930. Between the ages of 54 and 57 he had played in 11 First Class matches and taken 60 wickets at a cost 16.68 runs each. He carried on as a professional for a few years more though, as late as 1940 accepting an offer from Stone in the North Staffordshire and South Cheshire League. That role was mainly a coaching one, but he turned out in 17 games. He was by no means a regular bowler, but 28 wickets at 8.28 showed that even at 67 he knew a thing or two about bowling.
Despite no longer playing professionally after 1940 Barnes, who lived on into his 94th year, was still bowling at 80, and although I have never seen it there is film of him bowling at that age. Apparently it is included on a compilation video issued many years ago under the sponsorship of tobacco giant Benson and Hedges. Hopefully Robelinda will be able to do the decent thing and we will all be able to see the footage on youtube soon. As to my opening question it is my view that the absence of a gaping chasm between him and the next man stops Barnes being properly described as the Bradman of Bowling, but those who are less effusive, and simply describe him as the greatest bowler ever are, it seems to me, on rather firmer ground. Barnes to The Don would certainly have been an interesting contest, even in 1930 when Barnes would have been 57. For his part Barnes believed that The Barnes Ball would have got its man, and no-one can gainsay that, but I suspect he was being optimistic. That said the Barnes of the 1910s would have been a different proposition altogether, and that confrontation might have gone either way.