The Syd Barnes-Herbie Taylor encounter proves that match accounts are not necessarily accurate © Getty Images
The Syd Barnes-Herbie Taylor encounter proves that match accounts are not necessarily accurate © Getty Images

Cricket is a game rich in anecdotes. Indeed, the opinions and voices of past cricketers determine much of the conception of the fans and followers, as do the accounts of reputed chroniclers. However, do they always remember correctly? Arunabha Sengupta looks at one particular match in South Africa and the conflicting accounts of Syd Barnes, Herbie Taylor and two historians, to underline that not everything we read or hear can be trusted.

Facts or Fables?

The trail of events is recorded in Wisden, in the prosaic numbers in which some chroniclers like yours truly have so much faith. However, the noble game comes alive because of its own assembly of characters, with their thrilling shades of colours, with the innumerable anecdotes that project their intriguing glitter and glow on the pages of scores and results. The balance sheet is garnished by the opinions and accounts by the past players who dressed up in flannels to ply their trade, and the chroniclers who were there to see it as the events unfolded.

However, how much can we believe the stories which survive to this day? Personally, yours truly depends on the scorecards, the same tables of numbers that Neville Cardus pompously dismissed as an ass. But, then, this writer has delved deep enough into the magical prose of Cardus to find out prone the great charlatan was to wave his wand of words and bring out figments of fancy out of his conjurer’s hat to augment, and even substitute, the truth. He recounted comments of players that were made under their breath inside the ground, recalled interviews that never took place, even concocted matches that were never played.

But Cardus was not quite alone in this regard. From John Nyren of the Hambledon days to the modern day scribes with cavalier attitude to facts and figures, we find the truth bent out of shape and the new form going down as the accepted gospel once too often.

However, what about the cricketers themselves? How much can we afford to trust the anecdotes and first hand accounts?

In the classic study They Saw a Game conducted  by Albert H Hastorf and Hadley Cantril, the spectators of an Ivy League football match between Dartmouth and Princeton were interviewed about one particular crunch event in the game. Everyone saw the same action taking place in front of their eyes, but the versions fluctuated wildly according to the allegiances to the different teams. This tells us a lot of the selective perception of any sport when it comes to the spectators.

But, as this engaging example will show us, the same holds true even in case of cricketers.

The Barnes-Taylor Rivalry

It was South Africa, 1913-14. During the final Test tour before the lights went out in the cricket world, to give way to half a decade of mayhem. READ ALSO: Syd Barnes rules the first ever Boxing Day Test

It was an extraordinarily strong England side that had travelled for the Tests. Jack Hobbs, Phil Mead, Wilfred Rhodes, Jack Hearne, Johnny Douglas, Frank Woolley were too good for the weak home side. However, head and shoulders above these great names was the spectre of perhaps the best bowler of all time, Syd Barnes in the prime of his days.

Through the tour, Barnes picked up 104 wickets at 10.74. He did not play the fifth Test because of issues with pay, but nevertheless captured 49 in the other four, at 10.93 apiece. He got 10 in the first Test, a mind-boggling 17 in the second, eight in the third and 14 in the fourth.

The South Africans had no answer to him and lost heavily, in four of the Tests and most of the side games. England remained undefeated in all but one of their 22 tour matches. And according to Herbert Strudwick, the England wicketkeeper, Barnes made all the batsmen look ordinary, except one. And that exceptional man was the young South African master Herbie Taylor.

“[Herbie] Taylor was very quick on his feet, and got to the ball either forward or stepping over the off-side to pull,” Strudwick recalled.

It was one of those duels that make cricket the game of romance. Tiger Smith, the other ’keeper, said that Barnes versus Taylor was always brain versus brain. Even if there were other bowlers who ultimately got Taylor out, it was always a Barnes-Taylor affair and the final result was a ripple effect of their severely clashing battle axes.

Taylor scored 824 runs against MCC during the encounters that season at an average of 68.67. In the Tests he made 508 runs at 50.80. Barnes got him on five occasions. It is fair to state that this 24-year-old was not tamed by the magnificent bowler.

However, here we come to the account of Louis Duffus, the sterling South African cricket writer with his lilting turn of phrase. He writes beautifully, and convincingly, and creates an anecdote that has lived on to this day among those who are interested in the pre-history of the game. And I say he ‘creates’ because in places he turns out to be as much of a clairvoyant as Cardus.

Taylor Taylor Taylor

It was the match against Natal, just before the fourth Test. At Durban. The only match MCC lost on the tour.

They were dismissed for 132 in the first innings, and Barnes with 5 for 32 kept the hosts down to 153. Taylor scored 91 of them, the second highest being 17 from a Mr Extras.

The second essay saw MCC score 235, leaving Natal 215 to win, a formidable task against Relf, Woolley, Douglas… and Barnes. Soon they were two down for 27. Taylor was joined at the wicket by Dave Nourse.

This is how the Duffus account runs in Cricketers of the Veld:

“As Dave Nourse walked out to the pitch, the younger man murmured to himself, ‘If one of us goes, it’s all over.’ And indeed the collapse seemed inevitable for, when Nourse faced Barnes, he was patently confused by the vicious spin, the unvarying length and devil of the English bowler’s attack. By good fortune Nourse survived. Walking up the pitch between overs he conferred anxiously with the colleague who was eleven years his junior.

“’I can’t get the hang of Barnes,’ he said. ‘He’ll get me.’ His partner set his mouth grimly, ‘All right,’ he replied. ‘I’ll play Barnes.’”

Having somehow managed to overhear the remarks made to oneself and the conversation between the two batsmen in the middle, Duffus continues to describe how Taylor shielded Nourse that day, against the greatest of bowlers. He stole short runs off the last balls of the previous overs, and Barnes, whenever he had the ball, always saw Taylor in front of him. At the other end Nourse hit Woolley for six, ‘an excess that brought a word of caution from his partner.’

Duffus continues, “For Barnes the position was tantalising beyond words. Here was a batsman ostensibly ripe for plucking and repeatedly being snatched out of reach. At the start of each new over, not Nourse but Taylor, with an air of aplomb, faced him at the other end of the pitch. Finally, in a fit of pique, Barnes threw the ball down on the ground and declined to bowl. ‘It’s Taylor Taylor Taylor all the time,’ he exclaimed. With a whoop of relief Nourse attempted to hit another six, he was caught on the boundary.”

Ultimately Taylor hit 100 and Natal won by four wickets.

The account of Duffus, obviously entertaining, tempts our gullibility. There is also a cartoon by Leyden that illustrates the incident in the book.

'Taylor Taylor Taylor!' - The frustration of Barnes - sketched by Leyden,  from 'Cricketers of the Veld' by Louis Duffus
‘Taylor Taylor Taylor!’ – The frustration of Barnes – sketched by Leyden, from ‘Cricketers of the Veld’ by Louis Duffus

Much more prosaic, and hence less recounted, is the version of Leslie Duckworth, the biographer of Barnes, the tireless chronicler of Warwickshire cricket.

According to Duckworth, Barnes says that Taylor was distinctly lucky because he was caught at the wicket more than once and the umpiring was hardly ideal. At one stage none of the English players would even appeal, they all sat down in protest.

On reading Duffus’s account, Duckworth wrote to Taylor for his recollections. In response he received a long letter from the South African maestro:

“We started our second innings about 12:30 on the last day. By lunch we had about 25 for two wickets. In came Dave Nourse. Barnes nearly bowled him out a few times during the brief 10 minutes before lunch. I said to Dave during the lunch interval that he would have to stay in with me, otherwise we were finished if he got out. He said, ‘I’ll never last out against Barnes. The old devil knows he can get me out. He bowls that leg-break to me a few times, and then he bowls that top-spinner with the same action which goes straight on and I can’t spot it. So it’s only a matter of time before he bowls me neck and crop.’ ‘In that case,’ I told him. ‘I’ll look after Barnes because I can see what he’s up to.’

“I don’t think Nourse had more than a dozen balls from Barnes. We ran tip and run if Nourse was unfortunate enough to face Barnes. We put on about 135 runs when the total was about 150. Barnes, about to bowl at me, suddenly changed his mind and asked the umpire for his cap and said he wasn’t going to bowl against me (in strong terms) any more, then walked off the field. Johnny Douglas ran across the field to stop him. He simply ignored him and walked off. Douglas came and apologised to me and said: ‘You know what an old devil he is, he simply won’t listen to me.’ I said I didn’t mind, but I couldn’t allow him to have another fielder. He said he wouldn’t ask.

“I don’t kind telling you I was pleased because old Dave needn’t worry any more. Barnes, I understand, calmly had a wash, changed his shirt, ordered a few drinks, had a quiet rest. After we had scored about another 15 runs, Dave tried to hit Wilfred Rhodes out of the ground and got caught on the boundary. I remonstrated at him afterwards and asked him, ‘What on earth made you suddenly start hitting?’ He said he saw Barnes on the veranda waiting to come out again and so he thought he might as well have a bash while the going was good.

“At this stage I had exactly hundred. Out came Barnes with the next batsman and Douglas put him on to bowl straight away, which happened to be against me. His firs ball was a shade short, just outside the off-stump. I tried to cut it past third-man, but edged and got caught in the slips. So he had his revenge but too late. Although things looked bad, because Barnes had his tail up and in no time had the next three batsmen out, we managed to survive and scrape hoe winners with three wickets to spare.”

It was obviously a superb gesture on Taylor’s part to give such a detailed account, but there are flaws in his story. Nourse was caught off Woolley and not Rhodes. The old Yorkshireman was playing as a batsman and did not bowl in the game. The scores recounted are also somewhat confused.

Taylor himself was caught in the slips, by Woolley, but not off Barnes but Hearne. If one’s memory plays enough tricks to make him forget such an incredibly vital detail considering the tale of the rivalry, how much of what he wrote was true? Barnes also did not get the next three batsmen, he got two of them. Duffus says that Nourse was out after Barnes went out of the ground and Taylor himself was still at the crease. Taylor implies the same, although he puts some minutes between Barnes’s departure and Nourse’s dismissal. In reality, Taylor was out first and Nourse had followed him after another 12 runs.

And finally the victory was achieved by four wickets, not three. Memory can be a very tricky thing.

Barnes himself left fewer opportunities for error when he responded to Duckworth’s queries about the Duffus report and Taylor’s letter. His answer was characteristically terse, “Rot. No such thing. It took Taylor all his time to protect himself and Nourse was too good a bat to need this.”

When asked, Rhodes, Woolley and Tiger Smith all confessed to having no recollection of Barnes throwing the ball down and walking off the field. The report in The Times also made no reference to Barnes displaying ill temper or leaving the field of play. All it says is, “Mr Douglas bowled well, but Barnes was not at his best and gave the batsmen far less trouble than Woolley. Mr Taylor’s batting was consistently good and he hit all round the wicket, but with his score at 46 he was badly missed by Smith. Very soon after this escape he hit three successive balls off Barnes to the boundary.”

Duckworth approached CO Medworth, the sports editor of Natal Mercury to do some research into the day’s play. He went through MW Luckin’s book about the history of South African cricket up to 1914, which included the tour, and found no reference to such an incident. In his newspaper files he found a three-column report of the match and read right through it without discovering any reference to Barnes’s alleged annoyance. The report, however, did say that during a spell of ten overs Barnes bowled just one ball to Nourse. Medworth concluded, “In face of this evidence it does seem as though the story grew with the years. It is a good story, but does not seem to be justified by facts.”

There are way too many such good stories in the annals of cricket. Stories which we love to believe.

The Barnes response

As a footnote, this winter I was in Epsom, Surrey, having lunch with the South African born cricket bookseller John McKenzie. A devoted collector of cricket books since his early youth, John had read Duffus and had been similarly intrigued by the story as a teenager.

Like Duckworth, John had sent a couple of letters, one addressed to Taylor, and another to Barnes, asking for their corroboration of the events as described by Duffus.

And he had received two responses.

The one from Taylor had been long, detailed, much like the letter he had sent to Duckworth.

Barnes, still engaged in copying legal documents for the Staffordshire County Council, sent his reply in his beautiful copperplate handwriting. It said:  “Rot.”

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)