Sid Barnes: Genius on the field, a character off it
Sid Barnes, the enigma of Australian cricket, was born on June 5, 1916 — though, the year is uncertain. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back one of an eccentric prodigy who could not live up to his immense talent.
When one thinks of Sid Barnes, the image of an eccentric genius with a decent career comes to mind. Barnes’ career, though, was far more spectacular than that. It is true that he played in only 13 Tests — but he had some phenomenal numbers to show in those 13 Tests.
Put a 10-Test restriction, and he is right up there, fourth on the list of averages after Don Bradman, Stewie Dempster and Cheteshwar Pujara. A total of 1,072 runs from 13 Tests with three hundreds at 63.05 is no joke. Add to the fact that he was not an opener to begin with, and had to adjust to his new role later in his career on Bradman’s request. Additionally, he could not play a single Test between ages of 22 and 30 due to World War II, which meant that some of his prime years had been taken away from him.
One may want to dismiss Barnes’s numbers as a small sample. It is to be noted that Barnes had scored 8,333 First-Class runs at 54.11 with 26 hundreds.
Eight of Barnes’ 13 Tests were spread over the two Ashes series of 1946-47 and 1948 (in which he was a part of The Invincibles). In these eight Tests he actually scored 772 runs from the 13 Tests at 77.20. Though Bradman had scored 926 runs in these Tests, Barnes’ average in these Tests is actually higher than Bradman’s 77.16. The others come nowhere close in comparison.
He crouched unusually low while batting — so low that his gloves almost came in front of his pads. He also held the bat very close to the blade, his heels were almost together, and the front foot pointed towards cover. Additionally, he also had a significantly high back-lift. He was a versatile batsman, with the rare ability to play all round the park — especially off the back-foot. He was also a good leg-break bowler relying mostly on top-spinners (57 First-Class wickets at 32.21), and an outstanding fielder who was never afraid of standing close to the batsman.
However, it is not the numbers that make Barnes stand out in the history of the sport. Barnes was, as Gideon Haigh has mentioned, ‘both a fine cricketer and a bizarre character’. Indeed, ‘bizarre’ is the word that describes Barnes best. With Barnes one would never know what was around the corner.
Controversy at birth
Everything about Barnes revolved around controversy. To begin with, all official records suggest that Barnes was born on June 5, 1916 at Annandale, a suburb of Sydney. In his autobiography It Isn’t Cricket, however, Barnes mentions that he was born in 1918 or 1919, that too in Charters Town, Queensland. Additionally, his military service record suggests that he was born on June 5, 1917.
Barnes was born posthumously months after his father Alfred passed away due to a bout of typhoid. Barnes’s mother, Hilda, was a natural when it came to business, and she soon made a fortune out of selling and renting out properties in Stanmore and Leichhardt in New South Wales.
School and grade cricket
Barnes got selected for his school team, and keeping true to his image, Barnes got suspended almost immediately for three weeks after challenging an umpiring decision. He came back strongly and soon made it to the New South Wales Schoolboys team. Owing to similar styles, Barnes was called Governor-General after Charlie Macartney.
The next step was grade cricket — where Barnes played for the Petersham Third XI. He soon made it to the first XI, and scored a hundred against Manly. When the great Bill O’Reilly congratulated the teenager on the innings, Barnes promptly responded with the words “Thanks very much, you didn’t bowl too badly yourself”. O’Reilly could not respond.
Barnes made his debut against Bradman’s South Australia, scored 31 and 44, and ran into another controversy. Victor Richardson was out of the crease after the umpire had called ‘over’, and Barnes threw the stumps down. The leg-umpire, who had not heard the ‘over’ call, declared Richardson out. Stan McCabe, the New South Wales captain (and a hero of Barnes) recalled a fuming Richardson to avoid further controversies.
Barnes almost reached his maiden First-Class hundred against the touring New Zealanders, where he scored made two scores of 97 in his first five First-Class matches. Three matches later, once again playing Victoria, Barnes was hit in the jaw by Ernie McCormick, had to retire hurt, and eventually reached his maiden First-Class hundred.
Barnes eventually scored 809 runs in that season at 50.56 and was selected as the youngest member of the Australia’s Ashes squad of 1938 under Bradman.
The 1938 tour
A fresh controversy struck before the ship reached English soil. In Barnes’ own words, “I had jog-trotted six times around the ship the morning we were due to land in Gibraltar and I started stretching exercises. I leapt to catch the steel rope running across the deck to hold up the sun awnings but the early morning mist had made the stanchion slippery and I couldn’t hold it. I slipped back and, in falling, threw out my left hand to break the fall. I fell with all my weight on the left hand.”
As Rick Smith writes in Cricket’s Enigma: The Sid Barnes Story, completes the tale: “A few hours later the pain increased and the hand started to swell. He said nothing just in case there was a ship in Gibraltar on its way back to Australia.” Barnes did not disclose the fracture till the ship crossed Gibraltar, and as a result could not play a single match till the Derbyshire fixture at Chesterfield in end-June.
A 94 against Kent at Canterbury got him a place in the fifth Test at The Oval. It was certainly not a dream debut — at least as far as the result was concerned. Len Hutton batted for 797 minutes to score a record-breaking 364, and England declared after setting a new world record of 903 for seven on the third afternoon.
With Bradman and Jack Fingleton out of action, England bowled out Australia for 201 and 123 (Barnes did not disappoint: he scored 41 and 33), and won the Test by an innings and 579 runs — still the biggest in history. Barnes finished the tour with 720 runs at 42.35. He would not play another Test in almost eight years.
The Second World War broke out shortly, and after playing a couple of domestic seasons (Barnes scored 1,050 runs at 75.00 with six hundreds in his last pre-war season in 1940-41), he got enlisted in the Second Australian Imperial Force. He drew attention immediately when the uniform assigned to him did not fit, and he had to get a new one tailor-made.
He got bored soon, and using his mother’s business acumen, Barnes appealed for a release along with the ace golfer Norman von Nida. The two of them then started a company that manufactured tanks.
When cricket resumed after war, Barnes, now captain of New South Wales, came back with 200 on his comeback innings against Queensland — scored out of a team total of 338. He ran into ominous form that season, scoring 200 and 14 against Queensland at Brisbane, 115 against South Australia at Adelaide, 146 and 34 against Victoria at Melbourne, 154 against Queensland at Sydney, and 102 against Australian Services — thereby scoring five hundreds in five matches. Barnes finished the season with 794 runs at 88.22.
Barnes finally played his second Test on the New Zealand tour at Wellington: he scored 54 and added 109 with Bill Brown — which turned out to be more than New Zealand’s match score, who were bowled out for 42 and 54 in front of O’Reilly, who picked up eight for 33 in the Test.
The Australian team was getting stronger, and Barnes realised that he had to make bigger scores in order to find a place in the squad. He cut down some of his risk-taking strokes, and concentrated on playing long innings instead. When Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) toured Australia the next season, Bradman asked Barnes to open the innings as a long-term prospect.
Barnes was a bit circumspect, but he accepted the challenge. One of the reasons he cited was “Much better, I thought, to get in before him [Bradman] than to come later, like flat beer after champagne”.
Barnes opened with Arthur Morris in the first Test at Brisbane, and after Barnes scored 31, Bradman and Lindsay Hassett both scored hundreds, and Keith Miller and Ernie Toshack took nine wickets in a big win.
Barnes made news, though: he obtained a massive block of ice and threw it on the roof of the English dressing-room during the match, causing a loud sound and a lot of commotion. It brought the entire English squad out, and in Barnes’ own words, “those English words certainly did stand out”.
It was after this Test that Bradman guided him about the role of the opener: “You batted very well in this game, but not quite as an opener. You were looking for runs all the time. I think what you want to watch as an opener is not getting out. What is needed from my openers, and is most important, is patience and plenty of it.” Barnes remembered the words, and later said, “I came to the Second Test in Sydney ready to drape myself in the gloomy colors of a Test opening batsman”.
The teams moved to Sydney for what would be the first home Test for Barnes. Ian Johnson took six for 42 to rout England for 255; Morris was dismissed the first evening, and once the night-watchman Johnson came out to bat, Barnes frustrated the English side with repeated calls for bad light — invoking barracks even from his home crowd and drawing a lot of controversy.
He had the team’s best interests in his mind though — to protect the injured Bradman, who was fighting an injured leg and a stomach bug, on a ‘sticky’: “We could have played on, but it was a Test match and we just had to win. I realised something drastic had to be done or three wickets might be lost. So I appealed after every second ball. I complained of the people moving about, the light, and, in fact, anything, in an effort to get the appeal upheld.”
Bradman, however, held himself back, and did not appear till the score had reached 159 for four. He was unwell, and so could not go past the small matter of a 396-ball 234, putting up 405 with Barnes — which still stands as a fifth-wicket partnership record in Test cricket, and was the second 400-plus partnership.
Barnes was on the same score — 234 (which would remain his First-Class best) — when Bradman departed. He hit out four balls later and fell after a 667-ball vigil. When asked whether he had got out intentionally, he responded: “Lots of people have asked me whether I deliberately threw my wicket away at 234. The answer is yes.” As a reason he said that “it wouldn’t be right for someone to make more runs than Sir Donald Bradman”. It remains the highest identical score by two batsmen in the same innings.
He scored 45 and 32 at Melbourne, missed the Adelaide Test through an injury, but came back to score 71 and 30 at Sydney. After six Tests and nine innings Barnes’ career tally stood at 571 at 63.44 with a lowest score of 30.
It was during the Melbourne Test, though, that the infamous ‘Turnstile Incident’ happened. Barnes had apparently left the ground to give the two complimentary tickets allotted to him to his friends, and was on his way back when a turnstile attendant stopped him. There was an argument, and eventually Barnes jumped the turnstile and resumed batting. When the a member of the New South Wales Board asked Barnes to apologise to the Chairman of the MCG, the batsman refused on the ground that the alternative scenario was absurd. The incident would come back to haunt him.
Sid Barnes’s batting stance
Making it to the Invincibles
Lack of form for New South Wales meant that Barnes had to sit out for the first two Tests against the Indians. Playing against Victoria at Melbourne, Barnes scored a painstaking hundred amidst a lot of crowd barracking. Bradman was impressed, though.
The innings, together with Bill Brown’s injury got him a chance in the third Test at Melbourne, where scored 12 and 15. Bradman persisted with him, and he promptly scored 112 at Adelaide and 33 at Melbourne. He had managed to make it to one of the most talked-about series in the history of the sport.
1948: the juggernaut sets rolling
The Australians went on crushing their opponents mercilessly, and Barnes was a crucial cog of the machinery. He started with 44 (Worcestershire), 78 (Leicestershire), 176 (Surrey), 79 (Essex), and 81 (MCC), and was an obvious choice for the first Test.
In the match against Leicestershire at Grace Road, Umpire Alec Skelding gave Barnes leg-before to what the batsman thought “wouldn’t have hit another set of stumps”. Skelding also turned down an appeal from Barnes (along with a few other Australian appeals) when the latter was bowling in the second innings.
Skelding was officiating in the match against Surrey at The Oval as well, and Barnes reacted in a way that only he could have. When a dog invaded the field and held up play for a few minutes, Barnes lured it with the ball and eventually caught it. In Haigh’s words, “[Sid] Barnes captured the animal and carried it to [Alec] Skelding with the caustic comment: ‘Now all you want is a white stick.’” Skelding naturally refused, but Barnes kept on persisting, which resulted in the umpire leaving the ground temporarily.
It was in the Essex match at Southend-on-Sea that Barnes began his practice of standing very close to the batsman as he came very close to Ray Smith off the bowling of Toshack. Smith hit one hard and narrowly missed Barnes’ head, but Barnes did not budge and held his position. Smith drove the next ball straight into Barnes’ boot and it raced to the boundary; Barnes did not wince. Smith pulled the next one hard into Barnes’ chest: the ball hit Barnes hard, but he caught it on the rebound to everyone’s astonishment.
Comic end at Trent Bridge
England collapsed to 165 at Trent Bridge, and after Barnes scored a defiant 62 as Australia amassed 509. Barnes was having a generally eventless Test other than scandalising Frank Chester with a casual “Eh, the light!” while making an appeal for bad light.
Denis Compton’s 184 helped England save an innings-defeat, but with a target of 98, Barnes set out confidently, taking 13 off the first over bowled by Alec Bedser. As Barnes and Hassett were about to pull off an eight-wicket victory, something hilarious happened.
With five runs left to be scored, Barnes glanced Bill Edrich, and as the ball rolled past the fine-leg boundary, Barnes collected the leg-stump and ran to the pavilion. Hassett, the fielders, and the umpires all left as the crowd yelled at them to get back. O’Reilly recollects in Cricket Conquest what followed: “[Sid] Barnes, who had disappeared into the dressing-room, seemed loath to re-enter the playing field. He finally appeared, preceded by the stump which he hurled out onto the field.”
The tale was not yet over. O’Reilly adds: “It fell to [Lindsay] Hassett to make the winning hit and [Sid] Barnes, running through to make the single, failed to souvenir a stump after all — much to his disgust”.
A hundred at Lord’s
Barnes placed a £8 bet at the odds of 15:1 that he would score a hundred at Lord’s. He fell for a duck (his first and only single-digit dismissed score) in the first innings, but Australia still managed to acquire a lead of 135. He added 122 with Morris and 174 with Bradman in the second innings, and scored 141 (including a massive six off Jim Laker that landed in the pavilion) to win his bet. Australia won by a mammoth 409 runs.
Hassett led Australia in the Gloucestershire match at Bristol, and Barnes was made to field at third-man or fine-leg instead of his favourite short-leg. A bored Barnes wandered vaguely along the boundary line, and Hassett, seeing the pointlessness of it all, did not bother.
The injury at Old Trafford
Things began well when the debutant George Emmett was caught by Barnes at short-leg off Ray Lindwall. After the catch, Barnes was hit twice on the chest — by the debutant Jack Crapp and by the captain Norman Yardley, both off Toshack— and he could not hold on to either.
When tail-ender Dick Pollard walked out, Barnes walked closer to him, and stood almost on the pitch. Pollard pulled one from Johnson, and the ball hit Barnes’ left ribs, in Chester’s words,’like a bullet’. Fingleton later wrote that Barnes ‘dropped like a fallen tree’ amidst loud cheer from the Manchester spectators who had barracked Barnes all day for his fielding position.
Barnes had to be carried out of the arena by four policemen, and had to be sent to the Manchester Royal Infirmary with his left side paralysed. In a sense of humour typical of Barnes, told Ken Mackay a few months later: “I had some Minties in my pocket when I got hit but I haven’t seen them since those policemen carried me off.”
He got out the next day, and resumed batting at the nets. He was in his usual spirits. Chester wrote in How’s That?: “During a trial at the nets he [Barnes] joked with the press photographers, but after a while grew so weak that he had to rest on the running-board of a car.”
Up against 363, Australia opened with Johnson in Barnes’ absence. Bradman had ordered Sam Loxton to bat above Barnes, but when Miller fell, Barnes defied the order and walked out to join Morris with the score on 135 for four. Chester describes the rest: “After a sympathetic reception from the crowd, and a somewhat theatrical handshake with Dick Pollard, he [Barnes] stayed at the wicket for nearly half an hour, then sank to the ground with a cry of pain. He took no further part in the game.” Bradman was among the cricketers to carry Barnes out of the ground.
Australia drew the Test. Ray Robinson describes how Barnes reacted when he watched the footage of the injury in his later days: “When the film showed him [Barnes] writhing on the ground in pain after [Dick] Pollard’s hit injured him, he commented drily ‘it would have killed any ordinary man.’”
The final Test at The Oval
Barnes missed the next Test at Headingley due to the injury, but was back for the next Test at The Oval. After Lindwall bowled out England for 52, Barnes and Morris added 117. For the first time in history did both openers outscore the opposition. Barnes was caught behind off Eric Hollies for 61, two balls before arguably the most famous dismissal in the history of the sport took place.
It was Bradman’s last Test — but little did anyone guess that it would be Barnes’ last Test as well.
Return to Australia
Barnes had signed several business deals on the England tour, and had acquired a lot of goods and cash. Having learnt that the customs officers were waiting for him at Sydney, he disembarked at Melbourne and reached Sydney by train. He ended up selling the cargo at an amount equivalent to his tour fee.
In Bradman’s testimonial match later that year, Barnes, playing for AL Hassett’s XI, scored 32 and 89. He had the Melbourne crowd in splits when he took out a miniature bat from his pocket and took guard during his innings.
He retired from First-Class cricket subsequently, but made an effort in 1951-52 with an effort to make a comeback to the Australian side that still lacked a quality opener to partner Morris. He was even selected to play the third Test against the touring West Indians.
Barnes, however, was accused by the Board on three grounds and had to be left out — the Turnstile Incident mentioned above, the fact that he had ‘abducted’ the twelfth man Toshack during the Northamptonshire match to play tennis, and taking pictures of the Royal Family of England at Lord’s, apparently without permission. He was also the only one to take his wife on the tour; and made a movie of the entire tour and showed it around Australia for charity.
Meanwhile, Jacob Raith, a reader, sent a letter that was published in Daily Mirror, suggesting that the Board was right to omit Barnes, mentioning that Barnes’ character was responsible for the decision. Barnes sought the help of Sydney’s ace barrister Jack Shand, sued Raith for libel.
During the case, Aubrey Oxlade, the Chairman of the Board, dismissed the accusations as ‘childish things’ and ‘not serious at all’. Frank Cush, a Board member, replied ‘none at all’ when asked whether Barnes had a reason to be left out. Selector Chappie Dwyer said “I have a very high opinion of him as a cricketer, and I have no objection to him as a man.” Barnes won the lawsuit easily, and was let off with a public apology.
The ’12th Man’ incident
Barnes still kept his hopes going in the next season. He scored 43 and 79 not out to guide New South Wales to a five-wicket victory against the tourists at Sydney. In the next match against a star-studded Victoria at Melbourne, Barnes top-scored with 152 as New South Wales won by an innings, and Barnes was still in the contention — but was not considered for the first Test.
Thereafter, he did something strange in the match against South Australia at Adelaide Oval. To provide an opportunity to the youngster Ray Flockton, Barnes opted out of the match and offered to act as the twelfth man. What he did was outrageous even by his standards, causing a roar of laughter among the 9,000-strong crowd.
Instead of taking field in proper cricket attire during the drinks break, Barnes entered the field dressed in a gray suit with ‘a carnation in his buttonhole’. He also sported dark glasses, had a towel folded over an arm, carried a portable radio, and was escorted by a uniformed steward. He went on to brush the players with a clothes’ brush; he combed Miller’s hair and held up a mirror in front of him; he sprayed the players’ and umpires’ armpits with deodorant (“this was to counter the blood and bone fertiliser that the council had used on the cricket pitch); he offered them chocolates and cigars (“I told them that they would have to pay for them”); and he handed them towels soaked in ice-water.
Barnes told in an interview to The Sunday Herald later that day: “The NSW team agreed that the super service I gave them made me the best twelfth man NSW has ever had, but they said that they had not expected a first-class international cricketer to stoop so low as to become a valet. It has been suggested today that I should join the waiters’ union. I plan to give the team even better service as twelfth man on Monday, as I shall have all day Sunday to think up something new”.
Phil Ridings, the South Australian captain, complained to NSWCA (New South Wales Cricket Association). Barnes was asked to apologise, but he did not bother — and NSWCA wrote an apology on his behalf instead.
He played just one more First-Class match before calling it quits — against the South Africans at Sydney. Despite an attack comprising of Lindwall, Miller, Alan Davidson, and Richie Benaud, Barnes emerged as the most successful bowler with figures of three for 24. He scored only 18 in his last innings.
The other side
Barnes’ generosity was legendary. Ron Saggers’ daughter was down with polio. She mentioned to Davidson about a “well-dressed man” coming to meet her and gifting her an expensive talking doll. “It had to be Sid”, Davidson told The Sydney Morning Herald.
Davidson had reasons to believe it was Barnes. He later told Sydney Morning Herald: “When I played in a game, I was sick but bowled for him and Sid said he wouldn’t forget it. When I was selected to tour England in 1953 he came to my house and said to me ‘I know you’ve only got pennies but you’ll need these for England’ and he gave me his bat and cabin trunk from 1948. He saw my wife Betty was expecting and when we went to pay the bill for the birth, it’d already been paid. He refused to take my money.”
Barnes took to journalism later that year, and wrote for Daily Express and The Daily Telegraph. His outrageous, often provocative tone often drew mixed reaction from the readers. His sense of humour remained intact, though.
During the 1950-51 Ashes Barnes had come across Neville Cardus, and suggested: “Look here, Neville [Cardus], I’ve got an idea. What about me slipping a carbon paper into my copy today for you and you can do the same for me tomorrow. We both write the same sort of stuff.” Fingleton, a witness to the incident, wrote: “I think it is true to say that that was the only time I have seen [Neville] Cardus stumped for a word.”
For a man with a lively sense of humour, Barnes suffered from depression in his later days. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and underwent rather intensive courses of treatment. He had earlier started his own businesses in partnership with von Nida and Miller, but grew suspicious of them as his bipolar disorder got the better of him with time.
Then, on December 16, 1973, “after several earlier attempts, he [Barnes] committed suicide with an overdose of barbiturates at his home in Collaroy. A cop announced to Keith Miller who did not live much far away… ‘Hey Nugget, your mate’s just knocked himself off’”— lamented David Frith in his Silence of the Heart.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)