When The Spin scours statistics to help rank our cricketers in end-of-the-decade lists or posthumous tributes, occasionally there are still records that make your tummy turn. Jimmy Anderson finished off South Africa’s first innings on Sunday to complete the 28th five-wicket haul of his career, in 151 Tests, and now stands alone among English bowlers at the leader in this particular feat after surpassing Ian Botham, who took 27 five-fers in 102 Tests.
Lying in third is Sydney F Barnes, who managed 24 five-wicket performances in only 27 Tests between 1901 and 1914. Let that sink in for a moment. A five-fer is not the defining accolade of a great bowler – plenty of nobodies have cleaned up a tail to find their way onto the honours’ board – but the achievement remains a brilliant indicator of just how prolific Barnes was.
Most cricket fans will know “Barney” as one of the giants of the game but few intimately know how war, injury and his dedication to his wife so nearly derailed his career. But the biggest barrier Barnes faced wasn’t the face of a bat but his working-class upbringing and, during the early 1890s, in a world in which amateur gentlemen ruled the sport, there wasn’t much room for a headstrong, self-taught Black Country boy that knew his worth and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.
Barnes saw cricket as a job before anything else, which led him to be branded by some as a brash mercenary. But this was born out of his upbringing, with his father working for the same metal-bashing company for 63 years in Birmingham, where he was given little pay or respect – so that is exactly what Sydney set out to fix, and in that order too.
Playing league cricket could be far more lucrative than playing at county level with the amateurs – wages at Burnley CC would be £8 a week (plus bonuses) for Saturdays only, but only £3 at Lancashire for three days’ work – so after brief spells at Old Trafford and Warwickshire, where he fell out with the establishment over winter pay and playing in the second XI, he returned in 1903 to league cricket and Staffordshire CC in the minor counties championship to much derision, with Wisden even calling it a “defection”. His withdrawal was also linked to a desertion of a different kind in 1902; an affair with Alice Taylor would cost him £300 (about £36,000 now) after a divorce action was brought forward by her husband. Barnes would later marry Alice and they remained together for 44 years before her death.
For all his issues off the pitch, his talent on it proved too much for England to ignore. Standing at six foot and with hands the size of frying pans, Barnes was the first ever bowler to seam the ball, adding spin and swing all in the same medium-fast delivery. The Barnes Ball, a fast leg-break that carried previously unseen zip and bounce, was unplayable, and led to some astounding figures: 4,069 wickets at an average of 6.08 runs in league cricket, 1,444 wickets at 8.15 a piece with Staffordshire. His 718 first-class wickets were captured at 17.09, with 189 of those coming for England at 16.43. No one has ever reached 150 Test wickets quicker than the 24 matches it took Barnes, with Waqar Younis and Yasir Shah next best on 27.
Barnes’s numbers are only a fraction of what could have been. A bad knee injury curtailed his first international series, the 1901-02 Ashes Tour in which he took 19 wickets in the first two Tests. Wage demands, a stubbornness to bend the knee to the authorities (and his insistence on placing fielders – sometimes physically – in exactly the correct spot) saw him ostracised from the England side until 1907. On the eve of the second Test of the 1911-12 Ashes, Barnes was badly ill and it was only the kindness of Australia’s Syd Gregory, who that night brought him a bottle of whisky and a few extra blankets to keep warm, that allowed him to take the field the next day. He took five for 44, as England romped to victory to square the series at 1-1. The Times of London would later report that “Australian mothers frighten children with the name of Sydney Barnes”.
Arguably his finest world record – one that stands to this day – is that for most wickets in a Test series: 49 in only four matches in the 1913-14 tour of South Africa. But even this could have been greater, with Barnes choosing not to play in the fifth Test due to the fact that the MCC had refused to pay for his wife’s accommodation.
It is worth remembering that Barnes was over 40 years of age at this stage, playing the best cricket of his life, and but for the outbreak of the first world war, for which Barnes was deemed too old to be conscripted, he would surely have greedily plundered hundreds more Test wickets. Instead Barnes would never play for England again, although he did turn down the call up for the 1920-21 Ashes series, again because the selection committee refused to pay for the then 47-year-old’s wife and child to accompany him. Instead Barnes returned to the minor leagues, in Yorkshire and Staffordshire, where he was able to resume his grotesque hauls of wickets on weekends. He would continue to open the bowling for Staffordshire until 1935 at the age of 62.
Barnes’s work ethic meant he never formally retired, using those giant yet nimble hands as a copperplate script calligrapher for Staffordshire County Council until his death aged 94 in 1967. Deliciously, his stubbornness and standards never wavered, once refusing an autograph for the founder of Wisden Cricket Monthly, David Frith (despite the fact that the publication had named him as one of the best five cricketers of the 20th century in 1963) because the journalist only had a ball-point pen on him.
The distinguished legacy of Anderson is still being written, but he owes a good deal of it to Barnes, who innovated on the field with seam, swing (and spin) and also framed the argument for proper pay off it, decades before professionals were given their due. Sir Jack Hobbs, Sir Learie Constantine and Wilfred Rhodes are all among those to proclaim Barnes as the greatest bowler that ever lived, and who is The Spin to say otherwise?
• This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.