Sydney Barnes took 189 wickets in 27 Tests at an average of 16.43. Between his first and last Tests he was not selected for as many as 31 tests, playing around with figures as cricket fans are known to do, had he played in all 58 for which he could have been selected he would, had he carried on at 7 wickets per match, have taken 406 wickets
over his Test career, and for a long time would remain England’s leading wicket taker.
He played in his first first-class match-for Warwickshire in 1895; his last, for Wales, in 1930, when he was 57. Yet in that entire period of thirty-five years, he played only two full seasons and six odd games, in the County Championship -44 matches altogether: he made more appearances than that for English touring teams in Australia and South Africa.
But perhaps the most surprising comparison is that a man who played only 44 Championship games, played in 27 Tests.
The 1901/02 tour to Australia was the last to take place other than under the auspices of the MCC. MacLaren had been invited to captain the side and it was therefore for him to select it. He wanted to take George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes, and who wouldn’t after they had, between them, taken more than 400 wickets at less than 16 as Yorkshire won the County Championship by a huge margin. But Yorkshire was the fiefdom of Lord Hawke, and he and MacLaren did not see eye to eye, and he refused to release his leading bowlers. Had the MCC taken over one tour earlier, or someone other than MacLaren been captain of England, then the legend that is Sydney Barnes might never
have been. As it was the captain of Lancashire, the only one in the Championship familiar with Barnes’s abilities, and never a man to ignore a hunch, decided to take a punt on the bowler who wrecked the Leicestershire batting on that August afternoon.
England unexpectedly won the first Test by an innings. Barnes’ 5-65, Trumper and Hill included, being a major factor in the victory. He did even better in the second Test, taking 13-163 in the match, but England lost, and Barnes workload was too heavy. He bowled unchanged through the Australian first innings, and then as many as 64 overs in the second. As a result of those exertions Barnes knee let him down in the third Test, and after sending down just seven overs his tour was over. Barnes was selected only once in England’s home series against Australia in 1902. This was for the third Test, at Bramall Lane in Sheffield, which Australia won by 143 runs.
Barnes took six for 49 and one for 50, but Monty Noble with 11 wickets was Australia’s matchwinner.
Inexplicably, there was no invitation to Barnes to tour Australia in 1903/04 with Pelham Warner’s side nor did the selectors turn to him in 1905 for that Ashes series, nor theTests against South Africa in 1907. England’s captain in 1911/12 was Sir Pelham Warner, although due to illness he played in none of the Tests and his vice-captain, Johnny Douglas, led England onto the field in each of the five matches. Douglas was an all-rounder, a durable batsman, appropriately nicknamed “Johnny Won’t Hit Today”, he was also a decent fast-medium bowler and in the first Test he opened the bowling himself with the mercurial Frank Foster. England lost by 146 runs and Barnes, first change and livid about it, could take only 4 wickets for 179. Warner had not even been at the ground for the first Test so it may well be that he disagreed with Douglas’ decision to open the bowling himself. He was present for the
second Test where Barnes opened the bowling with Foster. After 10 overs the match was effectively over.
Australia were 11-4 and Barnes had taken all four. A bottle of Whisky helped. It seems likely that the crucial decision to open with Barnes had been made before the match begun but it might just be that Barnes himself took the decision away from his captain. Many years later the England wicketkeeper, Tiger Smith, told his biographer
that at the end of Foster’s opening over he had thrown the ball to Barnes without thinking, and that from there Barnes had run straight back to his mark where, for rather longer than might have been expected, he stood in hushed and earnest conversation with Douglas. Could it be that Douglas demanded the ball from Barnes who refused the
request? Probably not, but it is a nice idea, and one that given what we know of Barnes’ character cannot be ruled out completely. England went on to win each of the last four Tests to recover the Ashes decisively.
Barnes used the new ball wisely and his match hauls were remarkably consistent, 8 wickets in each of the second and third Tests, and 7 in each of the last two. Overall, he took 34 wickets in the series at a cost of 22.88. By now Barnes had perfected his full range of variations and he employed his versatility to the full. As he always did in
Australia he bowled at top speed to take advantage of the bounce in the wickets, but that his pace was, at nearly 39, rather down on past years is evident from the fact that Smith stood back to county colleague Foster’s left arm fast-medium, while standing up to Barnes.
An automatic choice for the Triangular Tournament in 1912 Barnes took just 5 more wickets in the three rain-ruined Tests against Australia, but at a cost of just 24.40. In the three matches against South Africa he was all but unplayable, taking 34 wickets at 8.29. The last act of his Test career came in the 1913/14 series in South Africa where he followed that performance up with an astonishing 49 wickets at 10.93.
In his career Barnes achieved the bowling figures any bowler would envy, even today.
Stay tuned for more on the series-Ashes Heroes.