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Sydney Barnes – Cricket’s original freelancer

Warwickshire and Lancashire cricketer Sydney Barnes (1873 - 1967) demonstrates his bowling action, circa 1910.
Krish Sripada

A lot of purists are expressing consternation over the popularity of a certain breed of cricketers – the T20 freelancers. Freelancing in cricket was prevalent long before Chris Gayle and Keiron Pollard became globetrotters playing in different continents, under different captains and wearing jerseys of varying colours bearing different crests. It isn’t a pursuit, by any stretch of imagination, solely of the modern cricketer with the riches of T20 beckoning them. No way should it be misconstrued that it is the advent of T20 that has raised questions on players’ commitments towards their country. If preferring country over remuneration was a genuine yardstick to measure a cricketer’s standing at the world stage, there wouldn’t have been so many websites, books and articles dedicated to one Sydney Francis Barnes, one of cricket’s original, maverick freelancers who believed in placing a value over his skills. That value was dearer to him, as many would testify; many who witnessed his cynical approach to participation in county cricket, esoterically blended with genius with the leather ball. Incredibly, Sydney Barnes, in spite of his obvious preferences and certain shades of eccentricity mingling with a sharp, nonchalant tongue, has never been left out of an England All Time XI, not even by the great Richie Benaud, one of the original voices of cricket commentary.

Warwickshire and Lancashire cricketer Sydney Barnes (1873 – 1967) demonstrates his bowling action, circa 1910.

Long before Shane Warne bowled his ‘ball of the century’ that pitched outside leg, bamboozled the great Mike Gatting and pegged his off-stump back, Sydney Barnes had been there and done that. Long before cricket lovers understood the nuances of ball movement, swing, seam or spin, Sydney Barnes mastered the art of making the ball talk. And talk it did, as fluently and charmingly as Michael Holding in the commentary box. He was a man far ahead of his generation. Thus, it is no wonder that he continued picking wickets at a miserly average even after his 60s, a time when most modern cricketers would be ill-advised to even pick their own grandchildren up.

The magical career

Sydney Barnes was a blue blood professional in entirety. He was delivering a service where no one could match him and he valued it. Till date, in England’s long cricketing history, he remains the only player who regularly played for his country without playing regular county cricket. He represented minor counties and league cricket instead for the security they offered compared to county cricket, where players were offered just 5 pounds per match, sometimes leading them to take care of their own expenses. Probably there lie the seeds of cricket freelancing that we now see from the likes of Christopher Gayle or Keiron Pollard. But if you had to associate Barnes with one team, it would be Staffordshire for which he claimed 1441 wickets at a superhuman average of 8.15. In fact, single-digit averages were no big deal for the master tormentor, who only ever found Victor Trumper difficult to bowl at amongst all the hundreds of batsmen he dished out monster deliveries to. One of the very few exceptions made by Barnes was his appearance for Warwickshire in county cricket. He also represented Lancashire when it was skippered by England’s captain to tour Australia – Archie MacLaren. Barnes, thanks to his reputation, got a chance to bowl to his captain, rapped him in the knuckles and received a surprising gift as a response to his friendly apology – a ticket to Australia. The rest, as they say, is history. Barnes was just 15 when he started playing for Smethwick. Amongst the many other clubs that he represented are Rishton, Church, Burnley and Castleton Moor. Had county cricket taken his demands for proper remuneration seriously, there wouldn’t have been a bowling record that Barnes didn’t own. He played competitive league cricket until the age of 61.

The magical numbers

Sydney Barnes wasn’t just a trendsetter when it came to freelancing. He was a trendsetter in everything he did. In spite of claiming he hardly coached for more than 3 hours a day, Barnes was known for his strong work ethic and bowled hundreds of balls a day to master everything it did or could do. Long before fancy names like ‘doosra’ or ‘carrom ball’ were conjured, Barnes made the ball move in even stranger ways than what live footage of modern cricket can throw up. His numbers reflected his skill, with single-digit averages for league and club matches. In county cricket, he took 226 wickets at 19.71 apiece. In Test matches, he consumed 189 wickets at just 16.43 apiece – a scarcely believable number that has the Bradmanesque aura of invincibility around it. Barnes took 7 wickets per Test. If you want to put that into perspective, the numbers can be compared with Test cricket’s most prolific wicket taker, Muttiah Muralitharan, and contemporary cricket’s demolition man, Dale Steyn. Steyn has 332 wickets in 65 matches at just over 5 per match. Muralitharan has 800 from 133 at 6 per Test match.

Before Jim Laker’s single-handed demolition act that gave him surreal bowling figures of 19-90, it was Sydney Barnes who held the record, breaching the 15-wicket mark for the first time in cricketing history with figures of 17-159 against South Africa at Johannesburg. Barnes still holds the record for most wickets in a series, which he notched in the same series against South Africa – an astounding 49 wickets in 4 Tests at 10.93 apiece. He skipped the fifth Test, with some speculation of South Africans going back on their promise to hand him a special reward for participation. The greatness of a competitor is often measured by the respect his greatest adversaries have for him. The Australians’ unhindered admiration coerced by the sheer weight of his performances probably explains why he is, almost unanimously, considered to be the greatest bowler of the century.

The magical deliveries

To understand the genius of an bowler like Sydney Barnes, one has to look at more than just the numbers, in spite of the fact that the numbers are as good as they get. His genius lies not in being able to pick wickets, which he did anyway with alarming consistency, but in making the ball do things that weren’t heard of back then and still mesmerise batsmen and viewers a century later. The 6′ 1″ bowler persuaded awkward bounce from the wicket much the same way Kumble did. But if one were to really categorize him, he was Kumble, Muralitharan, Mendis, Narine, Warne, Afridi and Ajmal put together. He had every variation that the above bowlers had. Now comes the mind-boggling surprise – he bowled those variations at 70 – 80 mph or 115 – 125 kph, which, combined with the bounce he generated, made him a dreaded bowler. He swung it both ways like Akram did, and spun it both ways like Warne did.

S E Barnes

Long before the carrom ball was discovered and made famous by Mendis and Ashwin, we have file pictures that show Sydney Barnes do something similar – the ring finger and little finger under the ball and the index or sometimes the ring finger flicking it at the time of delivery. He would have been devastating in this modern era of fast-paced cricket, considering he got batsmen out even when all they had to do was survive. What made him such a special bowler was his ability to use the swing of the ball in the air and then spin it off the deck. There is a subtle difference when it comes to understanding seam movement and spin. Seam movement moves the ball off the deck but a ball spins not just because of the seam, but also because of the revolutions imparted to it. With his big palms and long fingers, Barnes could impart a lot of revs on the ball. As he himself pointed out, he actually spun the ball, which is different from the traditional cutters. What got him that enormous spin off any surface was the flicking action rather than finger or wrist work that most spinners put in their deliveries. He delivered the leg and off-breaks mostly with the palm facing the batsman, a rarity in modern day cricket.

The swing was another aspect of his bowling, a dimension that made him unplayable. Technically 75 – 80 mph was just about the right pace for very late swing. What Barnes did was combine this pace with the revs. That meant that he bowled two lethal deliveries which aren’t seen in modern cricket due to the enormous skill level needed. One was the delivery that swung in late at about 125kph, pitched usually around middle and leg and then spun away from the batsman at pace. This was his stock delivery, referred to as ‘The Barnes Ball’. The other stock delivery did the opposite, swinging away late before spinning in prodigiously to gate-crash the defence and peg the stumps. Even a century later, there are still discussions over how to classify his bowling. In short, he was a bowling genius who could do everything with the ball. Many bowlers like Akram had the same skill, but Barnes could make the ball do several things in the same delivery. A great tribute to his devastating ability was the admission of opponent captains, who had as many as four batsmen padded up in the pavilion apart from the openers when Barnes was bowling. Even then, they would be in and out before the clock chimed an hour. His bowling could be summarized by quoting Jack Meyer who once said that Barnes bowled the kind of stuff he had not dreamed could exist outside dreamland.

The magical tributes

The England cricket team that regained the Ashes in the triangular Test series, circa August 1912. Back row (left-right): W.Brearley, F.Woolley, S. Barnes, W. Rhodes, and E.Humphreys. Middle row: F.R.Foster, G.Jessop, C.B.Fry, Pelham Warner, R.H.Spooner. Seated on ground: E.J.Smith, Jack Hobbs and H.Dean.

The England cricket team that regained the Ashes in the triangular Test series, circa August 1912. Back row (left-right): W.Brearley, F.Woolley, S. Barnes, W. Rhodes, and E.Humphreys. Middle row: F.R.Foster, G.Jessop, C.B.Fry, Pelham Warner, R.H.Spooner. Seated on ground: E.J.Smith, Jack Hobbs and H.Dean.

A temperamentally detached person with a certain degree of effrontery and lack of polite affability, Sydney Barnes was still a bowler respected everywhere he went. One can find some wonderful tales about him from Leslie Duckworth’s S F Barnes – Master Bowler, a wonderful biography which offers plenty of insight into Barnes’ abilities as well as his demeanour and psyche. Barnes passed away at the age of 94 and was inducted into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame 32 years later. However, Barnes, during his lifetime, would have relished the occasion of being named as one of the Six Giants of the Century in the 100th edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack alongside W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Tom Richardson, Victor Trumper and Don Bradman. This was Sir Neville Cardus’ judgment, who offered a wonderful Clem Hill quote to justify including Barnes in the Top 6. Clem Hill summarised the genius of Barnes when he pointed out that the wonderful bowler, with upright action and a certain tenderness in holding the ball ‘on a perfect wicket, could swing the new ball in and out very late, could spin from the ground, pitch on the leg stump and miss the off. Therefore, it comes as no wonder that the colossus of 20th century cricket would always walk into any England XI picked by any cricket expert from any part of the world. He was a bowler who comes once in a century. The 21st century still waits for his ilk.


Edited by Staff Editor

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