Sydney Barnes was a genius with the ball. Taking wickets was just like a cakewalk for the man. By many, he is still considered as the bowler of the century.
Before there was a ‘Ball of the Century’, there was the ‘Bowler of the Century’. And unlike Shane Warne, he did not merely impart revolution to the ball like Warne did with such panache, but was spectacularly adept at using the seam of the new ball and mix up swing subtly with spin such that most batsmen could not distinguish the two.
In a first-class career spanning over a staggering 36-years, Sydney Francis Barnes would take 719 wickets at an average of 17.09. This would include a spectacularly productive 27 Test career where he bagged 189 victims at 16.43 runs per dismissal. It is not for nothing that he would be accepted by his England teammates, opponents, contemporary followers and fans of the game alike, as the ‘Bowler of the Century’.
Neville Cardus would make him immortal with the words: “He was relentless, a chill wind of antagonism blew from him on the sunniest day.”
Spectacular start to a career
Barnes was a 28-year old playing in the Lancashire league in 1901 when rumors of his skill filtered through to Archie MacLaren who was about to lead an English team to Australia that winter. Barnes had not been a regular on the county circuit as his status as a professional showed, he needed to play the Sunday Leagues to make ends meet. MacLaren invited Barnes to nets at Old Trafford and Neville Cardus’ version of what happened next (as attributed to MacLaren) is as follows:
“He thumped me on the left thigh. He hit my gloves from a length. He actually said, `Sorry, sir!’ and I said, `Don’t be sorry, Barnes. You’re coming to Australia with me.”
Regardless of whether it actually happened as recounted or is a Cardusian addition to cricketing folklore, it does make a good story.
In the first Test of that series, Barnes took five for 65 in 35.1 overs, and one for 74 in 16 overs. In the second Test, he took six for 42 and seven for 121 bowling 80 six-ball overs in that game against an Australian attack consisting of Victor Trumper, Joe Darling, Clem Hill, and Monty Noble. In the third Test, he developed a leg strain from the heavy workload and could bowl no more on the tour. Having won the first Test, England lost the next four. But the foundation of Barnes’ reputation had been laid.
Clem Hill, one of the most famous Australian batsmen of the time would say after that tour: “on a perfect wicket Barnes could swing the new ball in and out “very late”, could spin from the ground, pitch on the leg stump and miss the off.”
A few months later when Australia visited the British Isles, Barnes only played in the third Test at Sheffield where he picked up 6 for 49 in the Australian first innings helping bowl them out for 194 and followed up with a sole wicket in the second. Australia won the Test as rain and a wet pitch on day 2 and 3 helped the visitors prevail.
A piece of trivia worth recounting at this point is that this would be the first and only Test match to be ever played at Sheffield, as all further Tests hosted by Yorkshire were to be at Leeds. The ground would continue to be used regularly for cricket until 1973 when the then owners, Sheffield United, voted to redevelop the ground as a football-only stadium. The last first-class game to be staged was between Yorkshire and Lancashire in August of that year. Areas of turf from the square were sold off for 20p a yard. Geoffrey Boycott, who said it was his favorite ground, reportedly bought 20 yards.
Barnes was a quirky character and found it hard to get along with his fellow players, but the quality of bowling somewhat made up for this shortcoming. In fact, even on the 1901 tour, Barnes had already earned the ire of his captain MacLaren on the voyage down under with his difficult ways. So much so that, MacLaren, during a stretch of particularly rough weather when the ship seemed unsteady, was said to have remarked: “If we go down, at least that bugger Barnes will go down with us.”
Barnes was also very clear on his need to earn a living, and only league cricket could provide him with that as a professional. So not only would he shy away from county cricket regularly, but declined to go on two tours of Australia, with Plum Warner’s team in 1903-04 and the 1905 Ashes series.
Only in 1907, five years after his last Test appearance at Sheffield would Sydney Barnes once again appear on a Test match roster.
1907 – 1912: The Peak Years
In December 1907 Sydney Barnes returned to lead the English attack in Australia. England lost the series 1-4 but Barnes left an indelible mark picking up 24 wickets including the wicket of Victor Trumper at Sydney, bowled without scoring. At Melbourne, he picked up 5 for 82 then scored an unbeaten 38 to take England to her only Test victory on the tour, by a solitary wicket.
In 1909 playing Australia, this time at home, Barnes picked up 17 wickets in 3 Test matches. Back in Australia in 1911 for a series that is credited with planting the first germ of the Bodyline idea led by Frank Foster’s line of bowling and field setting, Barnes took 34 first-class wickets to Foster’s 32. Remarkably, for the length of this tour, the now 38-year old Barnes bowled through bouts of rheumatism. A reading of the match reports of the time seems to suggest a precursor to reverse swing. The ball would swing into the leg stump and then spin away from the pitch, something that Barnes said he affected by turning the ball through finger twist.
Wilfred Rhodes, his friend, and one of the great all-rounders in cricket, would say about Barnes: “Barnes was a very fine medium-paced bowler, the best I ever played with. He had a lovely run-up to the wicket, carrying the ball in his left hand until he was only two paces from the crease and then transferring it to his right. He kept a perfect length and direction and, if you wanted to field close to the wicket say, at short leg, you could stand up to the batsman without any fear.”
In the experimental Triangular Test series between England, Australia and South Africa that followed the 1911 tour, Barnes was in his elements picking up 39 wickets at an incredible 10.35 runs per dismissal. He was particularly deadly against South Africa and in the 3 Tests against them, he took 34 wickets at 8.29.
The Final Test series and end of the Barnes career
In December 1913 Sydney Barnes travelled to South Africa for what would turn out to be his final Test series. He would only play in the first four Tests, declining to travel to Johannesburg for the final match because the authorities would not pay for his wife’s accommodation, and Barnes would not compromise on such issues.
The four Tests that Barnes played would turn out to be the most productive Test series ever for a bowler in the history of Test cricket. In a feat that Rob Steen writing in ESPN Cricinfo years later would compare with Jim Laker’s 19 wickets in a Test and Bradman’s career average of 99.94 as feats that are unlikely to be matched, Sydney Barnes would capture a staggering 49 wickets at 10.93 runs apiece. In the 4 Tests, he took 10 or more wickets thrice and 5 wickets in an innings seven times.
Barnes finished his final innings in Tests with seven for 88 from 32 overs. Jack Hobbs and Wilfred Rhodes, both on the field that day, agreed they had never seen Barnes bowl better. Clem Hill later spoke about his dismissal (in a spell where Barnes took 4 wickets for 1 run): “The ball pitched outside my leg-stump, safe to the push off my pads, I thought. Before I could pick up my bat, my off-stump was knocked silly.”
Less than four months later the First World War would break out with Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, signalling the end of Barnes’ Test career, given he was already 41-years old.
He would continue to play all other forms of cricket including the first-class for the next 16-years, appearing for his last first-class match at the age of 57. He was last seen on a Test ground at the age of 94 walking in holding the hands and leading around a now blind Wilfred Rhodes. He would pass on the following year on Boxing Day 1967.
Sydney Barnes’ genius is perhaps best captured not in quotes about him or descriptions of his bowling but in his staggering jaw-dropping numbers. Leslie Duckworth, in S. F. Barnes — Master Bowler, provided the break-up of his wickets in all forms of the game covering Tests, County, other first class, Staffordshire and League and Club encounters. The final count was 6229 at an average of 8.33.