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Ashes Anniversaries: 6229 wickets at 8.33 - happy 150th to the 'finest bowler there ever was'

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Roar Guru
13th April, 2023
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“He was relentless, a chill wind of antagonism blew from him on the sunniest day.” Neville Cardus

Sydney Francis Barnes was born 150 years ago this week, on 19 April 1873. It’s timely for him to again be acknowledged as the greatest bowler ever.

Unfortunately we can’t directly compare him with modern greats such as Wasim Akram, Dennis Lillee, Malcolm Marshall and Shane Warne. Instead we must rely on statistics, and on those who having seen Barnes, then watched cricket right through to the 1970s.

The recognition 

In 2013, Wisden named him Barnes in an all-time World XI that marked 150 years of its Cricketers’ Almanack. In 2009, he was an inaugural member of the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame. When the “ICC Best-Ever Test Championship Ratings” were published in 2008, Barnes’s 932 in 1914 was the highest achieved.

As no-one alive now ever saw Barnes, peers’ opinions must suffice. Here are some, years later-

“The best of ‘em today is half as good as ‘Barnie.’” England great Wilfred Rhodes in 1973

“He was the finest bowler there ever was.” England ex-captain Arthur Gilligan in 1967

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“If Barnes wasn’t the greatest bowler ever born, he was so close to it that it doesn’t matter.” Historian and ex-Australian player Johnny Moyes in 1950

Cricketer Syd Barnes, who is reckoned by many observers and cricketers as the best bowler ever in the game of cricket. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

Cricketer Syd Barnes, who is reckoned by many observers and cricketers as the best bowler ever in the game of cricket. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

The statistics

In 27 Tests, Barnes took 189 wickets at 16.43. His combination of average, strike-rate and workload will never be matched.

His aggregate was a record until Clarrie Grimmett passed it in 1936, after delivering 13,500 balls to Barnes’ 7,873. Only George Lohmann has 100 wickets at a lower average. Barnes’ team-mates’ collective average in the same games was almost double at 29.59.

Barnes’ seven wickets per match is unsurpassed. The closest are the 1890s’ Tom Richardson (88 wickets at 6.29 per game) and Lohmann (112 at 6.22), and Muttiah Muralitharan (800 at 6.02). He also claimed a wicket every 41 deliveries. Only Kagiso Rabada has more at a better strike-rate.

In Australia he claimed 77 wickets from 13 games. Only Curtly Ambrose, with 78 from 14, has a higher tally among tourists. In 1911/12 alone he claimed 34 wickets. Maurice Tate, with 38 wickets in 1924/25, is the only visitor to have done better.

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Barnes took 49 wickets in South Africa in 1913/14, from four games. The next best is Jim Laker’s 46 against Australia in 1956. Barnes’ figures included 17/159 in Johannesburg, a record until Laker’s 19/90.

He averaged 292 balls per match. The only non-spinners with higher workloads have been Tate, Alec Bedser and Max Walker. And Barnes’ era hustled through 21 overs per hour, compared to the current 14.

The calibre of Barnes’ victims was high, the most frequent being Victor Trumper (13 times) and Clem Hill (11). Both fell more often to Barnes, than to any other bowler.

The performance

Barnes’ greatest performance took place in Australia in 1911/12, when England regained the Ashes 4-1. He claimed 34 wickets at 22.88, in generally perfect batting conditions and against a very strong top-order.

At the MCG, a ‘flu-stricken Barnes produced a first-morning spell matched only by that of Stuart Broad at Trent Bridge in 2015. Here are three accounts-

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“Barnes was magnificent. When the first six Australian wickets were down, his bowling showed: Overs, 11; maidens, 7; runs, 6; wickets, 5. This on a perfect wicket, and I look back on it as the finest bowling that I have ever witnessed.” Jack Hobbs

“I played three different balls. Three balls to play in a split second- a straight ‘un, an in-swinger and a break back ! Then along came one which was straight half-way, not more than medium pace. Then it swerved to my legs, perfect for tickling around the corner for a single. But the ruddy thing again broke across after pitching, quick off the ground and took my off stump !” Clem Hill

“There had never been a more astounding piece of bowling than this on a perfect piece of turf. His control was superb. Though conditions favoured the batsman, this man could get five of them in eleven overs for 6 runs.” Johnny Moyes

The skills

Barnes was six feet one inch tall, with unusually long arms. By using his full height and reach he extracted maximum bounce from a pitch. He was muscular, broad-shouldered and superbly fit. He also had large hands and long, strong fingers.

Like Warne and Bill O’Reilly he intimidated without bowling fast. He instead combined well-concealed drift, drop, turn and changes of pace, with relentless accuracy.

Barnes insisted that he spun the ball rather than swinging, seaming or cutting it. Fieldsmen described hearing his fingers snap as he released it. His strength and unique grips enabled him to turn the ball so much that it would swerve late, as it did for Warne.

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He benefitted from mastering new deliveries. They pre-dated Bernard Bosanquet’s googly, Grimmett’s flipper, Jack Iverson’s carrom ball, Sarfraz Nawaz’s reverse-swing and Saqlain Mushtaq’s doosra.

Barnes’ biggest weapon was termed the “Barnes ball.” It swerved into batsmen, dipped late in flight, and after pitching moved away. He also possessed one that did the opposite, swerving away before moving back in. And by spinning the ball from the front of the hand, he could conceal its movement in a way that a wrist-spinner could not.

When conditions warranted he reduced his pace to medium-fast, from an approach of 15 yards. He was slow enough that a good wicketkeeper could stand up to the stumps, while sufficiently fast that a batsman couldn’t advance down the pitch.

Here are some descriptions by leading contemporaries-

“On his great Australian tour he clean-bowled Victor Trumper at the height of his powers, a ball swerving from the leg stump to the off and then breaking back to hit the leg. It was the sort of ball, that a man might see when he was tight. I was at the other end, I should know.” Charlie Macartney

“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.” Clem Hill

“He had the advantage of being tall and used his great height to bringing the ball well over. He could bowl both the leg and the off spinner, and he kept a perfect length, with clever and subtle variations of pace and flight.” Jack Hobbs

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“He relied on disguised changes of pace and of break, which he never overdid. His best ball was one, very nearly fast, which pitched on the leg-stump to hit the top of the off, sometimes even on a good wicket.” CB Fry

“In bringing his arm high over his head, his powerful fingers could spin the ball either way on any wicket. Fast-medium in pace, he could bowl with the old ball as well as with the new.” Johnny Moyes

“Most deadly of all was the ball which he would deliver from rather wide on the crease, move in with a late swerve the width of the wicket, and then straighten back off the ground to hit the off stump. The secret of his mastery, though, was strictly and supremely physical- the supple steel of his fingers and hand.” Harry Altham

The pathway

Barnes saw cricket as a job. If you paid, he bowled. He put club before country, a century before Twenty20 freelancers such as Chris Gayle and Andre Russell.

As a result he appeared in a mere seven county games across nine seasons, before making his Test debut aged 28. And his 38-year first-class career included just 89 such matches in England, with only two full county seasons. He instead plied his trade in Saturday leagues, midweek Minor Counties games, tour and Gentlemen v Players fixtures, and for his country.

Barnes’ stance was prompted by the refusal of Warwickshire and Lancashire to find him off-season work. He calculated that he could quadruple his earnings by instead combining an office job with playing only on Saturdays, as a league club “pro.”

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He duly played first-class cricket occasionally until he was 57, and league cricket until 67. He also worked until his death at 94. Only 12 Test cricketers have lived longer.

The longevity

James Anderson was recently judged the world’s number-one bowler, at age 40. Barnes’ Test career was ended at the same age by WWI’s onset. However he kept playing professionally and between ages 54 and 57, in his final 11 first-class matches, claimed 60 wickets at 16.68.

When aged 55, he took 7/51 and 5/67 for Wales against the West Indies, who rated him the best bowler they faced during their tour. He then claimed 6/58 and 2/29 against county champions Lancashire.

When aged 56, he twice dominated the touring South Africans. For Minor Counties he took 8/41 from 32 consecutive overs and 1/19, and for Wales he claimed 6/28 and 4/62. The performances helped earn him fifth position in that season’s averages.

For Staffordshire until the age of 62, he took 1,441 wickets at 8.15, mostly against first-class counties’ Second XIs. And as a club pro until the age of 67, he took 4,069 wickets at 6.08.

His tally from Tests down to leagues was a phenomenal 6,229 wickets at 8.33.

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What might have been

In different circumstances his Test haul would have exceeded 400 wickets, and stood as a record until overtaken by Richard Hadlee in 1990. After debuting late at age 28, he then did not appear between 30 and 34. Consequently he participated in just 27 of England’s last 59 games before WWI.

Barnes often feuded with administrators, selectors, captains or team-mates. Books and articles describe him as taciturn, stubborn, combative, intimidating, misunderstood and demanding. When questioned about the best captain he had played under, he responded “There’s only one captain of a side when I’m bowling, and that’s me.”

Archie Maclaren made Barnes a “captain’s pick” for the 1901/02 tour to Australia, on the basis of a Second XI game and a net session. The league cricketer quickly riled team-mates. When storms endangered their ship, Maclaren comforted players with “If we go down, at least that bugger Barnes will go down with us.”

In 1902 he was selected just once against Australia. And only then because Maclaren, after inspecting the pitch on the match’s first morning, summonsed him by telephone from Manchester to Sheffield. He arrived late and took 6/49 and 1/50.

Of Barnes’ phenomenal performance at the MCG in 1911/12, journalist Ralph Barker wrote, “His meticulous, fussy field-placing irritated the crowd and they shouted at him to get on with it, so he threw the ball down, folded his arms, and refused to bowl until the noise had subsided.”

Having taken 49 wickets in South Africa in 1913/14, he refused to play in the series’ final match when organisers refused to cover his family’s travel. He withdrew from England’s first post-war tour to Australia for the same reason, at age 47.

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Finally, it’s noteworthy that he moved between 13 different clubs in eight different leagues. Staffordshire team-mate and famed writer Bernard Hollowood famously wrote that “I was frankly afraid… of his scowling displeasure, his ferocious glare, his crippling silences and his humiliating verbal scorn.”

Happy birthday, Barnie. You would be a champion now, just as you were 120 years ago.

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