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In terms of sheer statistics Sydney Barnes was indisputably the best of all bowlers

By Harsh Thakor 
Late Sydney Barnes just reached the milestone of 150. Born at Smethwick, Staffordshire, April 19, 1873. Died at Chadsmoor, Staffordshire, and December 26, 1967. Sydney Francis Barnes was the second son of five children of Richard Barnes who spent nearly all his life in Staffordshire and worked for a Birmingham firm for 63 years. The father played only a little cricket and Sydney Barnes pledged that he never had more than three hours' coaching. Billy Ward of Warwickshire gave him the tutelage in his cultivating the off break from which he developed a leg break.Barnes was a gaunt faced man with wide eyes and an austere expression.

Action and Style

With a bouncy run up his long strong fingers could spin, swerve and seam a cricket ball in the air at medium pace, a but a stock speed well above medium..He bowled with his middle finger over the seam with the first and third spread on either side. His full circular swing enabled him to produce a smooth, coordinated delivery, without almost any bending of the back. Leg and off breaks were a very frequent part of his repertoire.
I can’t recollect any bowler who blended swing with spin, bar Gary Sobers. Barnes was virtually unplayable when he made a ball swerve through the air after pitching. Barnes took creativity to heights not transcended morally pioneering use of the seam of a new ball and blend swing so subtly with spin that few batsmen could detect the difference. Simply gave bowling art or biomechanics a new definition.
The key factor was the sharpness with which he could spin a ball; with his big fingers. Barnes asserted “I never bowled at the wickets. I bowled at the stroke, then I tried to beat it. I spun the skin of my fingers with blood smearing the ball.”
A key to his strength and success was his phenomenal stamina; Barnes was equally effective with a new or old ball.
Few bowlers were ever as accurate or relentless as Barnes,or possessed a more lethal leg-cutter. Very similar to Curtly Ambrose he utilised his full height in his delivery. For his time it was almost inconceivable imagining a bowler deriving movement away from pitch at such speed. Barnes was the first medium pace bowler to master the ball that veered from leg to off.
Most cricketers and students of the game belonging to the period in which S.F. Barnes played unanimously agreed that he was the bowler of the century. Australians as well as English voted him unanimously the greatest. Clem Hill, the famous Australian left-handed batsman, who in successive Test innings scored 99, 98, 97, v. A.C. MacLaren's England team of 1901-02, stated that 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. At Melbourne, in December 1911, Barnes in five overs overwhelmed Kelleway, Bardsley, Hill and Armstrong for a single.
The key factor was the sharpness with which he could spin a ball; with his big fingers. Barnes asserted “I never bowled at the wickets. I bowled at the stroke, and then I tried to beat it. I spun the skin of my fingers with blood smearing the ball.”
A key to his strength and success was his phenomenal stamina; Barnes was equally effective with a new or old ball.
Hill was clean bowled by him. "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.


He made a name before a new ball was available to an attack every so many runs or overs. He entered first-class cricket at a time when one ball had to suffice for the whole duration of the batting side's innings.
He was professional in the Lancashire League when A.C. MacLaren, hearing of his skill, invited him to the nets at Old Trafford. "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.'"
MacLaren on the strength of a net practice with Barnes chose him for his England team in Australia of 1901-02. In the first Test of that rubber, 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 and he bowled 80 six-ball overs in this game.
He broke down, leg strain, in the third Test and could bowl no more for MacLaren, who winning the first Test, lost the next four of the rubber.
Barnes bowled regularly for Lancashire in 1902, taking more than a hundred wickets in the season, averaging around 20. Wisden actually found fault with his attack this year, stating that he needed to cultivate an "off-break". In the late nineties he had appeared almost anonymously in the Warwickshire XI.
At Melbourne in 1911-1912 Barnes produced on of cricket’s most electrifying spells, on the flattest of pitches., capturing four wickets for a mere three runs. He simply tamed the likes of Clem Hil,Warren Bardsley, and Warwick Armstrong. In that edition of the Ashse he captured 34 wickets at an average of 22, and thus was an architect of England’s 4-1 triumph.
He didn't go to Australia as one of P.F. Warner's team of 1903-04 and took no part of the 1905 England v. Australia rubber. The future historian of cricket may well question why, in the crucial Test of 1902, Barnes didn't play for England at Manchester, where the rubber went to Australia by three runs only.
Barnes had bowled for England at Sheffield in the third and previous Test, taking six for 49 and one for 50. It is as likely as conjecture about cricket ever can be likely that had Barnes taken part in the famous Manchester Test of 1902 England wouldn't have lost the rubber by a hair's breadth.
Against Australia he took 106 wickets, average 21.58. Only Trumble and Peel have improved on these figures in Tests between England and Australia (I won't count Turner's 101 wickets at 16.53 because he bowled in conditions not known to Barnes and Trumble).
Barnes had no opportunities to pick up easy victims. He played only against Australia and South Africa and, in all Test matches; his haul was 189 at 16.43 each.
At the ripe age of 38 Barnes conserved energy for arguably the most phenomenal or spectacular. bowling display in the annals of cricket. Cricketing skill penetrated regions rarely transcended, when Barnes captured 39 wickets in triangular tournament in 2012 and later 49 wickets in South Africa. Never has a bowler been as unplayable on matted wickets.
On matting in South Africa when South Africa's batsmanship, at its greatest, was represented by H.W. Taylor, A.D. Nourse, L.J. Tancred, J.W. Zulch, in 1913-14, he was virtually unplayable, with 49 wickets in four Tests at 10.93 each. It was assumed he refused to play in the fifth match because he contended the South Africans had not carried out their promise of special reward if he took part in the tour.
In the second Test at Johannesburg, Barnes took 17 wickets for 159, a record which stood until 1956 when Laker laid low Australia at Old Trafford with his unique figures of 19 for 90.
It was truly amazing that against Barnes's phenomenal swing, bounce, late-turn attack on that 1913-14 tour, Herbie Taylor scored 508 runs, average 50.80, perhaps the most skilful of all Test performances by a batsman.
Barnes was a man of character. At Sydney on the 1911-12 tour, J.W.H.T. Douglas opened the England attack using the new ball with Frank Foster. Barnes was furious. He sulked as he sent down 35 overs for three wickets and 107 runs (in the match he took only four for 179). England lost by 146 runs.
At Melbourne, Australia batted first and Barnes this time had the new ball. The havoc unleashed by Barnes, and on all his great days, was mainly by the ball which, bowled from a splendid height, appeared to swing in to the leg stump then spin away from the pitch, threatening the off-stump. Barnes actually turned the ball by finger twist.
The incredible aspect of his career is that he took 77 of his 106 Australian Test wickets on the wickets of Australia which were virtual pancakes offering not a single respite to all ordinarily good bowlers. He clean bowled Victor Trumper for 0 at Sydney in the 1907-08 rubber; then Fielder and J.N. Crawford in the following Test dismissed Trumper for a pair, so Trumper was out for 0 in three successive Test innings.
Barnes remained a deadly bowler long after his exit from first-class cricket. So calculatedly did he conserve his energy that in 1928 when he was in his mid-fifties, the West Indies team of that year faced him in a club match and unanimously agreed he was the most lethal they had encountered in the season.
For Staffordshire, in his fifty-sixth year, he took 76 wickets at 8.21 each. Round about this period a young player, later to become famous in international company, was one of the Lancashire Second XI playing against Staffordshire.

Assessment as cricketer

In terms of sheer statistics Barnes is indisputably the best of all bowlers, equivalent of a Bradman to bowling. No bowler has in terms of figures come within hare’s breadth of Barnes, in terms of wickets per test and average. In 27 tests Barnes took 189 scalps at an average of 16.49.No bowler ever was equally ahead of his peers.
Cricket writers like Cristopher Martin Jenkins, John Woodcock and Geoff Armstrong rank Sydney Barnes amongst the top 10 cricketers of all time. Woodcock, unlike Jenkins and Armstrong, rates Barnes the very best bowler, ahead of Warne ,Jenkins rates Barnes above Marshall,unlike Armstrong.David Gower places Barnes at 13th place ,behind Warne and Marshall, amongst bowlers.
With a gun on my head I would rank Barnes amongst the top 6 cricketers ever and greatest bowler ever. I would place him only behind WG Grace, Gary Sobers, Jack Hobbs Don Bradman or arguably Sachin Tendulkar. amongst great cricketers. Respecting mere figures Barnes would rank 2nd only to Bradman. No bowler ever was equally ahead of his peers, in the history of the game, statistically or in terms of pure skill. In terms of pure unplayability he could well have been at the very top of the pedestal.
Barnes took bowling art to regions never penetrated, and was almost as unreadable as the likes of Wasim Akram in modern times. Impossible to conceive a bowler in modern times making a concoction of spin with swing like Barnes, or producing such an electrifying effect with sheer swerve. Barnes also captured wickets on batting pitches, equivalent of batsmen playing on wet or uncovered pitches. Barnes set the track or sowed the seeds for the evolution later of a Marshall or Wasim Akram.Possibly no bowler was ever equally successful on wickets unhelpful to bowlers, like Barnes.
Still he may not comprise my all-time test Word XI, when one considers evolution in bowling style, speed, movement and transformation in conditions or pitches. I doubt Barnes would have equalled the versatility or creativity of Wasim Akram ,the completeness of Lillee ,the lethality of Marshall or the accuracy or control of Mcgrath or Ambrose .Barnes could not create reverse swing at top speed like Wasim Akram or produce skidding bounce of Malcolm Marshall.
Overall unfair to compare with modern greats, as they belonged to completely different eras. Almost impossible to mathematically contrive what effect Barnes would give in the game in later periods or modern era. Equivalent of scaling Olympic Athletes timings in accordance to era.


Possibly he did no give proper respect to the Gentlemanly aspect of cricket, reminiscent of modern stars like Dennis Lillee or Ian Chappell. Throughout his career he remained mysteriously aloof, appearing in the full sky of first-class cricket like a meteor -- declaring the death of the princeliest of batsmen! Fighting with administrators was frequent feature of his career, with constant duels with the Lancashire and English Cricket boards. He was in those days a very difficult man to handle on the field of play.
He remained hard core professional to the core. He didn't play cricket out of any green field starry-eyed idealism. He was convinced that his talents should be duly rewarded in cash values. Barnes was offered 300 pounds to tour Australia and 100 pounds to play for Lancashire. Barnes hardly played first class cricket, preferring to play in the leagues, where he could reap better financial awards.
Hasrh Thakor is a freelance journalist who has done considerable research on cricket history. Thanking information from top100 cricketer’s to Cristopher Martin Jenkins and David Gower’s 50 greatest cricketers



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