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Over a century before Trent Boult, there was Sydney Barnes

Sydney Barnes
by Abhishek Mukherjee 15 minute read

Abhishek Mukherjee explains why Trent Boult opting out of his New Zealand Cricket contract is no bolt from the blue; instead, he’s repeating what Sydney Barnes — arguably the greatest bowler of all time – did over a hundred years ago.

Trent Boult caused quite a stir in the cricket fraternity by opting out of the central contract by New Zealand Cricket. Of course, he will continue to play for New Zealand – but he will not be obliged to. Like almost any professional in their respective fields, he would like to spend more time with his family and plan ahead for ‘life after cricket’.

While practical, the move has caused plenty of debate and consternation. One can understand why: cricket, unlike football, still revolves around international matches. A move away from international cricket comes across as a shock, a departure from tradition. ‘Playing for money’ is still looked down upon by some – though not by as many as it used to be.

Yet, there is nothing new about a cricketer choosing to move away from cricket contests defined by geopolitical boundaries. Cricketers from Sri Lanka, West Indies, Australia, and England risked suspensions – in some cases, life bans – for a tour of South Africa in the 1980s. Before that, many were lured by Kerry Packer’s purse. One can also go player by player, but let us leave that aside for now.

Sydney Barnes was perhaps the greatest of these cricketers. For the uninitiated, Barnes continues to make it to some all-time Test XIs even today. Some consider him the greatest bowler of all time.

Barnes took 189 wickets from 27 Tests at 16.43 before the Wars. Even if one overlooks the average – he played over a century ago – seven wickets per match makes incredible reading. He still holds the record for most wickets (49) in a Test series – his last, just before the Great War. We shall return to that.

A tall fast-medium bowler, Barnes could bowl off breaks and even leg breaks without using his wrist: his power came entirely from his supremely strong fingers. His height enabled him to extract awkward bounce, his accuracy was legendary, and he could bowl the faster ball and slower ball without visible change of action.

Yet, Barnes’ career comes across as unusual. He did not play first-class cricket between 1914 and 1927, before playing 11 times – twice for Minor Counties, nine times for Wales. Three of these matches were against touring sides: he took 4-77 against New Zealanders, 12-118 against West Indians, and 10-90 against South Africans – the last one, at 56, his penultimate year in first-class cricket.

Barnes played only 133 first-class matches in 36 years, of which only 89 were in England. Even if one discounts the 13-year gap, the count is absurdly low. A sizeable 20.3 per cent of his first-class matches were Tests. Of all English cricketers with 25 Tests in the pre-War era, Warwickshire wicketkeeper Dick Lilley (35 Tests out of 416 – 8.4 per cent) comes closest.

This leads to two obvious questions. Why did Barnes play so little first-class cricket? And where did he hone his skills to become an all-time great? Both have the same answer.

Between 1894 and 1896, Barnes played only four times for Warwickshire. He preferred playing for Rishton in the Lancashire League, who provided a superior financial deal. Barnes did something very unconventional, for this was an era when the County Championship was an inevitable step if one wanted to play for England, or at least play professional cricket.

Barnes chose to continue at a level where the cricket was less frequent but the pay was high, even excluding a bonus for five-wicket hauls. Of course, the batters were inferior. In club and league cricket he picked up 4,069 wickets a ridiculous 6.03 (he played until 65, an age too high even for desk jobs), but it was certainly enough for him to retain his skills.

In fact, so good was Barnes that he was picked to tour Australia in 1901/02 – having played virtually no county cricket. He had impressed England captain Archie MacLaren in the nets. Barnes took 19 wickets at 17 apiece. He did play for Lancashire in 1902 and 1903, taking 226 wickets in all matches across the two seasons at 19.41.

Then he moved away to league cricket again, and one can see why. While Lancashire paid him £3 for a week’s cricket, Church offered him twice that amount for playing only on Saturdays. On the other days, he also played for Staffordshire in the Minor Counties Championship (1,441 wickets at 8.15).

This did not go down well with many in the establishment. As a professional, Barnes’ social status was inferior to the contemporary amateurs who used to call the shots in cricket. By saying no to county cricket – the competition where professionals were allowed to play alongside ‘professionals’ (but had to use separate dressing-rooms) – Barnes turned his back on the authorities. After a solitary outing in 1902, his next Test match came on the 1907/08 tour of Australia.

Sydney Pardon, editor of the Wisden Almanack, had once referred to league cricket as a “menace”. After Barnes took this unconventional decision, Pardon accused him of being “deficient” in temperament and of lack of “enthusiasm for the game.”

Not that it mattered to Barnes. He was making money. And he was so consistent in club cricket that he could not be ignored after a while. By the end of the first decade of the century, they could not leave him out of the Test squad. When England won the Ashes in Australia in 1911/12, Barnes took 34 wickets at 22.88. The following summer, in the Triangular Tournament at home, he added another 39, at an absurd 10.35.

Then came Barnes’ final tour, of South Africa in 1913/14. His figures in the four Test matches – 10-105, 17-159 (still the second-best match figures), 8-128, 14-144 – seem almost unreal.

Then Barnes asked the authorities to pay for his wife’s accommodation during the fifth Test match, in Port Elizabeth. When they refused, so did Barnes. They did not pick him to play for England again. One may argue that he was past 47 when Test cricket resumed after the War – but Barnes would trouble international sides even in his late fifties.

Barnes could have had a legend in the County Championship. He could have played more Test matches. He simply chose not to.

Lord Hawke once told Barnes, perhaps in exasperation: “We don’t understand you. You only play when you like.”

He would not have understood Boult either.

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