Bob Barber had to switch counties to realise his potential, but after a productive summer for Warwickshire in 1966 he was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.
Lancashire coaches are not given to overstatement. It was high praise indeed when Stan Worthington, the Lancashire coach, first saw a tall, powerfully built young left-hander at the Old Trafford nets and told his Yorkshire-born father, “That one needs no help from me.”
His assessment of the player concerned, Robert William Barber, who was born in Manchester on September 26, 1935, was to prove remarkably accurate. As a batsman he remains to this day virtually uncoached. Even as a bowler he had only an hour or two in the hands of that Australian back-of-the-hand specialist, George Tribe, whose maxim was “Spin first, length afterwards. Don’t worry about the odd bad ball. They get wickets, too.”
Barber, now the supreme individualist, scorns the orthodox routine that is so much a part of the contemporary game, and is one of the few English batsmen who can still draw the Australian crowds. Worthington could have had only one real regret. All Barber’s best cricket came after he had switched allegiance to Warwickshire.
Even when at school at Ruthin, where he did the double, there were already signs that Barber could achieve heights far beyond the reach of the usual promising youngster and, in fact, he played for Lancashire while still a schoolboy. The coaching in leg-break bowling was arranged by his father, himself a very useful cricketer with Huddersfield League experience. Next came Cambridge, with a Blue for the javelin in addition to cricket.
The stormy passage of the Lancashire captaincy followed the University years. Lancashire were already showing signs of becoming a county of divided loyalties, according to some sound judges through their tendency to rule through committee rather than captain. But when they asked Barber to lead a side which was beginning to look a little thin in terms of seasoned professionals, the not inconsiderable honour was naturally accepted.
It is easy to be wise after the event. There were no doubt errors of judgement on both sides. Like his predecessors, Barber found it impossible to please everyone. He was criticised frequently for not bowling enough himself, but a young captain was understandably reluctant to play too prominent a role in this direction when he already had a specialist leg-spinner in the side.
There was, in fact, a considerable measure of success in his first year as captain. Yorkshire eventually won the Championship after Lancashire’s first successful double against their old rivals for more than 60 years. The eventual margin at the top of the table was exaggerated by the weather. The season proceeded amid controversial rulings on discipline on and off the field, many of which undoubtedly received publicity completely out of their true perspective.
In the following season, with more younger players in the side, Lancashire found it hard to finish matches on good pitches at Old Trafford. Again they decided on a change at the helm, ruling against the possibility of giving Barber any further opportunity to learn from whatever mistakes he may have made.
In the light of subsequent administrative upheavals at Old Trafford there is no point in discussing the rights and wrongs of the matter here, but the outcome was that Lancashire lost Barber, not only as captain but also as a player.
So far there had been little real chance for him to mature. That came with his arrival at Edgbaston in 1963, where he quickly settled down once initial tension had eased. The real transition followed Warwickshire’s decision to ask him to resume his role as an opening batsman, a bold step which succeeded handsomely.
Here again there was a preliminary period of uncertainty, but the real Barber soon emerged and he began to give full rein to his dynamic power as a challenger of opening bowling. For his new county, he hit a brilliant hundred off the West Indies bowling that had humbled England in 1963. The following year he scored an even more spectacular century before lunch against the Australians. Often his cavalier tactics brought swift downfall, but whenever he survived there was cricket of breath-taking brilliance.
The advent of the Gillette Cup provided an ideal outlet for a player who always ignores playing-in preliminaries. Bowlers with reputations for keeping the game tight suddenly found themselves without an answer against a batsman ever ready to leave the crease. For a left-hander an unusually high proportion of his runs came from a glorious array of strokes through cover and he was utterly fearless against fast bowling.
It is worthy of mention that Barber has made something of a personal corner is knock-out cricket. He has scored more Gillette Cup runs than any other player in the country and has won no fewer than four man-of-the-match awards.
Those who watched Barber’s progress with Warwickshire were able to note increasing mental relaxation after the hangover from Old Trafford had vanished. At last he was enjoying his cricket. So did those who saw it.
England first tried him (as a bowler in one match) against South Africa at Edgbaston in 1960 and he toured India and Pakistan in 1961-62, and then they dropped him. Further Test recognition was inevitable and he showed first in South Africa three winters ago, where he had a Test average of 72.50, and in Australia that he was an even more devastating force on good pitches. He maintained the happiest of relationships under the leadership of M.J.K. Smith, his own county captain, the pair between them constituting a leg-trap, the equal of any close-catching combination in the world.
In South Africa his activities were unfortunately curtailed by injury, but he was an automatic choice for Australia, reaching new heights with that memorable innings of 185 at Sydney. He was top scorer on this tour in Australia with 1,001 first-class runs for an average of 50.05, all scored with the same commanding approach which did so much to help restore the tarnished image of English Test cricket.
The crowds loved him as a player. The Australians respected him as an opponent. It was a thousand pities that the England selectors were not prepared to accept this form as evidence enough for a place at the start of the West Indies series.
By that time other factors had emerged. As an executive in the group of companies of which his father is a director, and by now a family man, Barber felt he could no longer devote six days a week to county cricket. Warwickshire tried hard to persuade him to change his mind and he compromised by making himself available for a limited number of county games and all the Gillette Cup matches, but the selectors were not satisfied.
Barber has never been a man to speak out of turn. Whatever his thoughts on the selectors’ ruling, he kept them strictly to himself; merely commenting that he had considered he was in better form on his return from Australia than he was a month later after half a dozen games on indifferent English wickets.
This is a topic on which Barber does have forthright views, frankly admitting that on under-prepared pitches he cannot maintain the standard he sets for personal performance. Belatedly chosen for the fourth Test against the West Indies at Headingley, he hit a second-innings fifty after bowling Sobers and he again dismissed that remarkable player at The Oval.
When cricket’s administrators finish their deliberations on possible changes in the structure of the game, one can only hope they evolve a pattern which will enable Barber and others like him to devote adequate time to business and domestic interests and still play regularly in a reduced programme of three- or four-day games. He is personally in favour of an extension of one-day matches.
The game has so few personalities that it can ill afford to lose a Barber. It will be a major tragedy if he is not available for the West Indies’ tour next winter.
Bob Barber played his final Test against Australia in 1968; he made 1,495 runs at 35.59 in 28 matches.