Sydney Barnes was by common consent the greatest bowler to appear before the First World War. Many good judges long after that still maintained there had never been better, and it is not hard to see why. Barnes’s record is extremely astonishing. He also won his reputation despite being a cussed so-and-so who made it hard for people to like him. Sydney Francis Barnes was born on April 19, 1873, in Smethwick Staffordshire.
The right-hand lanky medium-fast bowler often applied spin-off to the leg and played from 1894 to 1930 for England, Lancashire, Wales, and Warwickshire. His father Richard Barnes played very little cricket but his second son of five children create several records in cricket history still the lowest bowling average ever achieved. Maybe they didn’t much like him, but they certainly admired and respected him.
Not that being contrary and cussed are rare traits among great bowlers. It is by nurturing an inner flame of hostility that some of them can rise to such heights. But Barnes really didn’t like batsmen, and he especially didn’t like those administrators and captains who expected him to kowtow to them.
If he’d liked administrators more, he would certainly have played more Test matches and finished with an even better record than he did. Asked the best captain he played under, he said, ‘Me. When I have been bowling, I have been a captain.’ Perhaps the surprise was that Barnes played as many Test matches as he did – 27 of them across 13 years.
Because he took part in very little county championship cricket, preferring to take his services to the leagues where the money was better and the demands less onerous, and to turn out for Staffordshire in the Minor Counties championship. This set him at odds with the committee at Lancashire and made it easier for England captains and selectors to overlook his qualities.
Having been picked on a hunch by Archie MacLaren for a tour of Australia in 1901–02 and done well before breaking down injured, Barnes was chosen for only one home Test in the next six years. The penny finally dropped after he returned to Australia in 1907–08 and proved himself, in the eyes of the Australians at least, the best bowler in the world.
Thereafter he became a near regular in the England side up to the outbreak of war in 1914 and might have continued Test cricket afterward had he not declined to go back to Australia once more in 1920–21 – at the age of 47 – because the MCC refused to allow his wife to join him (a privilege they extended to the captain Johnny Douglas).
Sydney Barnes finest hour was probably the 1911–12 tour of Australia when he and Frank Foster, the young Warwickshire all-rounder, spearheaded England to a 4– 1 series triumph. Barnes produced one of the great spells of Test match bowling on a perfect pitch on the first morning of the second Test at Melbourne, when he bowled a spell of nine overs, including six maidens and taking four wickets for just three runs.
This exemplified his ability to tame the best batsmen in even the most favorable batting conditions. His victims were Warren Bardsley, Clem Hill, Charles Kelleway, and Warwick Armstrong. He dismissed Hill and Victor Trumper, the two finest Australian batsmen of the time, 13 times and 11 times respectively, and Herbie Taylor, the leading South African, eight times.
Only ten individual hundreds were scored against England in the 27 Tests Barnes played. Not the least of his strengths was his amazing stamina which allowed him to bowl for hours on end if need be. This was often the case in Australia where pitches offered little help and Barnes. Who could bowl as well with the new or old ball, and was consistently the most likely wicket-taker?
During that 1911–12 tour, he got through an astonishing 297 overs in the five Tests, taking 34 wickets. Which remains the second-best haul by an England bowler in Australia. In the second Test of the 1901–02 tour, he bowled 80.1 overs, a workload that probably contributed to the injury that prevented him from bowling in much of the next game.
Therefore, setting aside that game and a rain-ruined contest in 1912, Barnes averaged 313 balls per match in the other 25 Tests he took part in, which is the kind of burden even most spinners would balk at (Muttiah Muralitharan averaged more balls than this, but not Shane Warne).
It was not just throughout whole matches and whole tours that he remained durable; his career was immense in its length. He played professionally from the age of 21 until he was 67 and during that time showed few signs of deterioration. In all competitive matches, he took a staggering 6,229 wickets at an average of just 8.33!
In 1928, when Sydney Barnes was 55 years old, he played for Wales against the touring West Indians and returned match figures of 12 for 118 (they said he was the best bowler they faced all tour). A month later, he faced his former county Lancashire, who were in their third straight year as champions, and took eight for 87 from 49 overs.
In the following year, representing Minor Counties against the South Africans, his first-innings analysis was 32-11-41-8. Standing 6ft 1in, Barnes bowled brisk medium-pace with high action. He was immensely accurate and could cut and swing the ball both ways, although his stock delivery was delivered wide of the crease and broke back from his leg.
If he got the ball to swerve through the air before pitching – as he often did – he became virtually unplayable. The key was how sharply he could spin the ball with his big fingers. ‘I spun the skin off my fingers,’ he once said. ‘I bowled with blood smearing the ball.’ As for his tactics, his assessment was this: ‘I never bowled at the wickets: I bowled at the stroke.
I intended the batsman to make a stroke, then I tried to beat it.’ Even though his Test career was not long even by the standards of the day, Barnes’s haul of 189 wickets was easily the best of the pre-First World War period and in fact, remained the world Test record until 1935 when it was overtaken by Australia’s Clarrie Grimmett.
Although conditions favored bowlers more during his England career than they did later, his statistics were impressive in many ways. Of the top 20 wicket-takers of the pre-1914 era, for example, only George Lohmann (with 112 wickets at 10.75) had a better average than Barnes.
However, Lohmann’s figures were boosted by some easy pickings against South Africa in matches that were not at the time even regarded as official Tests. Barnes’s average of 16.43 and strike rate of 41.65 are both unmatched by any post-1900 bowler with 100 Test wickets.
What turned out to be his final Test series was statistically the most extraordinary. Touring South Africa in 1913–14 for a series played on coir matting pitches. He was then common in South Africa, Barnes claimed a match haul of 17 for 159 in the second Test in Johannesburg and overall 49 wickets in the series. That is still a record for most wickets in a series.
The 17-wicket haul remained the best in any Test match until beaten by Jim Laker’s famous 19 for 90 against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956, while no one has ever matched 49 wickets in a series. Astonishingly, Barnes only took part in four of the five matches: in characteristic fashion.
Sydney Barnes refused to play in the final contest after the local authorities (in his view) reneged on an agreement to have a collection for him. In 1903, Sydney Barnes married Alice Taylor, from which they had one son Leslie. After a few years, he divorced her.
In 1910, Sydney Barnes was declared Wisden Cricketer of the Year. In his first-class career, he appeared in 133 matches, scored 1,573 runs, and took 719 wickets at just 17.09 with a career-best of 9 for 103, including 68 times five-wicket hauls, and 18 times ten wickets in a match. These records clearly show how was he immaculate in his bowling.
In 2009, Sydney Barnes was the first member of the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame. In the same year, when ICC published the Best-Ever Test Championship rating, his 932 ratings were the highest ever achieved at the end of the 1913-14 season. Sydney Barnes died on December 26, 1967, at the of 94 in Cannock, England.