The standard route for an aspiring player to reach test cricket involves performing at a suitably impressive level for the local club team, from there selection in the state or provincial side, and then, with luck and impeccable timing, being chosen for the national team. It is almost inconceivable now that a player could be chosen for England without playing regularly for one of the established county teams, however it has occurred on occasions. One of the few that have managed it regularly was Sydney Barnes, an imposing figure who preferred to play professionally in League cricket than in the County Championship.
Sydney Barnes was born on the 19th of April, 1873 in Smethwick, Staffordshire. He was the second born of five children, three boys and two girls, all of whom were born and lived the majority of their lives in Staffordshire. Syd's father Richard was a typical working class individual, being employed by the same Birmingham firm for sixty three years. Syd did not play cricket regularly until the age of fifteen, when he first started to turn out for a local team in the Smethwick town competition. At that time, Smethwick's first XI played in the local Birmingham League, and they employed a professional called Billy Bird who was a Warwickshire representative. He provided coaching for the local players one night a week, and Syd was soon invited to participate in these sessions. Whilst Syd was initially a wicket-keeper, his bowling quickly took caught the attention of Bird. He took the time in the weekly net practice to assist Syd to learn the basics of spinning the ball, however even this training was very limited.
Syd's ability as a frontline bowler first became evident when chosen for the Smethwick First Eleven. Whilst he started off the innings keeping, the team captain Dick Thomas informed him soon after the start of play that he would bowl next. Bowling his medium paced spinners, Syd ran through the opposition batting, finishing with 7 for 19. Syd continued this form in follow-up games, and quickly made a name for himself throughout the Birmingham Leagues. By the age of nineteen, Syd had reached his final height of six foot one, with a muscular physique characterized by long arms and fingers. He only bowled off a short run, but could bowl at genuine medium pace. His stock ball was a leg break, but even at this early stage in his career he possessed the ability to also bowl a variety of different deliveries including off-breaks, top-spinners, as well as in and out swingers.
Syd's bowling ability had been spotted by the Warwickshire selectors, and he was chosen to play the last match of the 1893 season against Gloucestershire at Bristol. He was invited back the following year, and indeed played another handful of games for Warwickshire from 1894 through to 1896. A permanent contract was not offered to him however, and through the necessity of making a living, Syd became a professional cricketer. In 1895, he signed up for Rishton who played in the famous Lancashire League, for the grand sum of three pounds 10 shillings a week. In his first season for Rishton, Syd took a total of 71 wickets, and followed this with 85 wickets in the 1896 season and 87 in 1897. His 1898 season was even better, as he snared 97 wickets at an average of just 8.46. 1899 saw him take another 71 wickets, meaning that in his five years with Rishton he had taken 411 wickets at the modest average of 9.10.
Syd moved from Rishton to Burnley, playing there for two years in 1900 and 1901. It was here that Syd's chance to play test cricket came about. Syd's domination of the Lancashire Leagues had continued with Burnley as with Rishton, and his reputation spread far beyond the local leagues. A.C. MacLaren, the England captain, specifically selected him for play for Lancashire against Leicestershire late in the summer of 1901. This match was seen purely as a trial for the upcoming tour of Australia for Syd. He responded by taking 6 for 70 in this game and, despite the fact that he had only played six first class games for Warwickshire and Lancashire over the past seven years, MacLaren declared that Syd must go with his touring team. Part of the reason for Syd being selected related to a series of disputes between the counties and the MCC. Two of England's premier bowlers, George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes, were both refused a release for the tour by their county Yorkshire. This opened the door for Syd to make his move from league cricket to the test arena.
Syd's form in the early first class games in Australia was impressive enough to guarantee his debut in the First Test in Sydney on the 13th of December, 1901. Syd was quite a late debutante, being twenty eight years old. This delay is undoubtedly due to Syd's decision to play League cricket rather than in the County arena, however financially it had been the only option available to him at the time. In this first game, Syd started off with a surprising score of 26 not out in England's first innings. Whilst never totally inept with the bat, Syd simply did not see it as his role to score runs for the side. When he had his chance to bowl, he wrecked the strong Australian top order with 5 for 65 off 35.1 overs. Australia had a number of very good batsmen such as Syd Gregory, Victor Trumper, Clem Hill, Monty Noble and Joe Darling, however England finished up winning by an innings and 124 runs. Syd improved on this in the Second Test in Melbourne, taking 6 for 42 and 7 for 121, a total of 13 for 163. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury early in the Third Test in Adelaide, he only bowled seven wicketless overs in the match and didn't play again on the tour. Syd finished his first test series with nineteen wickets at an average of 17.00.
Syd was described by even his teammates as a difficult character. He was hard on himself, but he applied the same exacting standards to his fellow players and also the captains he played under. In league cricket he was king, and his captains let him set the fields he liked. This same temperamental attitude in county cricket and for England undoubtedly cost him matches. The selectors at the time were aware of his considerable talents, but his personality and unwillingness to tow the line meant that he was a risky proposition from an establishment's point of view. This meant that he only played one more test match between 1902 and 1907. This game was against Australia in the third test of the 1902 series. Syd took 6 for 49 and 1 for 50, but he then was not chosen again for England until selected to make the 1907/08 tour of Australia. In the intervening years, Syd continued to play as a professional, however he parted company with Lancashire in 1903. He had requested that Lancashire find him some form of winter employment that could lead to a career following his cricket days. Lancashire did not comply with this request, and so he moved from Burnley to the Church Cricket Club in his birthplace of Staffordshire. Lord Hawke tried to induce him to tour with the English team to South Africa, however Syd had obtained a good job with a Staffordshire iron works and he declined as it would have jeopardized his employment.
Syd was finally restored to the England team for the 1907/08 tour of Australia. He played all five tests on this tour, taking 24 wickets at an average of 26.08. His best bowling performance was 7 for 60 in the fifth test at Sydney, however the highlight of the tour for Syd occurred in the Second Test at Melbourne that started on the 1st of January, 1908. Australia batted first and scored 266, with Syd taking 0 for 30. England replied with 382, before Australia scored 397 in their second innings, with Syd's figures 5 for 72. He bowled tirelessly, sending down nearly thirty overs. This was a timeless test, and finally finished on the sixth day. Chasing 282 to win, England had sunk to 8 for 209 and the game appeared gone. Batting at no. 9, Syd managed his highest test score of 38 not out and guided his tail-end partners through to a stunning one wicket victory. The game finished in an almost farcical situation. With scores tied and the last pair having already added 39, Barnes hit the ball into the covers and ran. The other batsman, Arthur Fielder, did not respond immediately and then set off forlornly, certain to be run out with the game ending in the first ever tie. Unfortunately for the cover fielder Gervys Hazlitt, the pressure got to him, throwing the ball wildly over the wicket-keeper Hanson Carter's head and the game was won for England. Wisden's description of this game involved an analysis of Syd's batting, stating that his efforts were 'to the astonishment of everyone concerned'.
Syd had established himself not only as England's best, but also laid clear claims to being the foremost bowler in the world. In spite of this, the selectors were still reluctant to risk playing the headstrong Syd. He was picked to play his second test match at home in 1909 against Australia, in the third game of the series. Syd took 1 for 37 and 6 for 63 to again underline his sublime abilities, and he was then picked for the final two tests of the series. He finished with 17 wickets at an average of 20.00.
Syd was by now an established test player, with selectors prepared for the time being to overlook his obstinate ways and his desire to play away from the County Championship. He played consistently for England from this point until 1914 when he was forty one years old. Syd toured Australia for the third time in 1911/12, taking 34 wickets in the five match series at an average of 22.88. In the Second Test at Melbourne, he overcame a severe bout of the 'flu prior to the game by sweating it out under numerous blankets with a bottle of whiskey for company. Syd made an astonishing start to this test, taking 4 wickets for 3 before lunch, and soon afterwards Australia lurched to 6 for 38 with Syd improving his figures to 5 for 6. England ended up winning the game on the back of Syd's efforts by eight wickets. Syd followed these performances in Australia in the six match Tri-angular test series in England against both Australia and South Africa in 1912. Syd took 39 wickets in the six games at the impressive average of 10.35. His best performance was 8 for 29 against South Africa at The Oval.
Syd's final series for England was in 1913/14, when he toured South Africa. This was the setting for probably the greatest bowling performance by any bowler ever in a series, taking 49 wickets in only four games at an average of 10.93. In the first test at Durban, Syd took 5 for 57 and 5 for 48. He performed even more impressively at Johannesburg, taking 8 for 56 and 9 for 103, resulting in the then best ever match figures of 17 for 159. The third test was again at Johannesburg, and Syd took 3 for 26 and 5 for 102. The fourth test was to prove Syd's last game for England, however he went out in style. He took 7 for 56 and 7 for 88 at Durban. There was a fifth test scheduled, and Syd was heading towards being the first bowler to ever take fifty wickets in a series. However Syd's difficult personality intruded, and he withdrew from the game following a dispute with the authorities regarding match payments and accommodation for his wife.
Syd never played test cricket again. Even if he had not been blackballed by the selectors for the disagreement in South Africa, the breakout of the Second World War ensured that Syd's test career was over after twenty seven tests. He took 189 wickets in these games at the average of 16.43. This remains the best average of any player during the twentieth century, and his strike rate of 41.6 is likewise foremost amongst players from 1900 onwards. Syd continued playing in his beloved minor cricket however, and indeed played his last first class game at 57 for Wales in 1930. Interestingly, Syd played only forty four games in the County Championship from 1895 to 1930; his international career involved more matches than this including tests and games for English touring sides in Australia and South Africa. At the age of 55, he played one final game against an international opponent, the touring West Indies. Even in his mid-fifties, the West Indian batsman rated him the best bowler they faced on the entire tour. Syd continued playing as a professional very successfully until his final game with Bridgnorth in Staffordshire at the age of 65. In this final season, Syd lead the competition's bowling statistics, taking 126 wickets at an average of 6.94.
Syd played his final recorded game of cricket for Stone in the Wartime Staffordshire League in 1940. Aged 67, he still managed to take 6 for 32 and 4 for 12 in a game against Great Chell, 5 for 43 against Leek and 5 for 22 against Caverswall. In 1951 Syd was awarded an honorary membership of the MCC and a commissioned portrait of him hangs in the Long Room at Lords next to W.G. Grace. Syd lived in Staffordshire until his death at the age of 94 on 26th of December, 1967.
From 1901 until 1914, Syd played in 27 test matches. He took a total of 189 wickets at an average of 16.43, with a strike rate of a wicket every 41.6 balls. His best bowling figures were 9 for 103. He also scored 242 runs at an average of 8.06, with a highest score of 38 not out.
First Class Games
In his 133 first class games, Syd took 719 wickets at an average of 17.09. He took five wickets in an innings sixty eight times and eighteen times took ten wickets in the match. Syd also scored 1573 runs at an average of 12.78, with a highest score of 93.
Minor County Cricket and League Cricket
Syd spent the majority of his life as a professional cricketer in minor county and league cricket, taking 4069 wickets in total, with 1437 wickets coming for Staffordshire at an average of 8.10. Combining all of his cricket career statistics reveals a total of 6225 wickets at an average of 8.31.