The unexpected death of the popular Ken Barrington (above) came as a blow to the English team. Graham Gooch and Robin Jackman and Graham Dilley wept inconsolably. Captain Ian Botham informed Jackman that he would be bowling the first over of the day, the night after Barrington’s death. Jackman broke down, sending down the first over with tears streaming down his cheeks. Later he confessed that he had not been able to see the batsman © Getty Images
The unexpected death of the popular Ken Barrington came as a blow to the English team. Graham Gooch and Robin Jackman and Graham Dilley wept inconsolably. Captain Ian Botham informed Jackman that he would be bowling the first over of the day, the night after Barrington’s death. Jackman broke down, sending down the first over with tears streaming down his cheeks. Later he confessed that he had not been able to see the batsman © Getty Images

March 14, 1981. Ken Barrington, Assistant Manager of England cricket team, suddenly passed away in Barbados where the side was engaged in a Test against West Indies. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the events of the sad day that witnessed the demise one of the greatest batsmen to ever play the game, and the most loved of tour managers.

Ken Barrington, with his sunny smile and protuberant nose, had been the brightest spot on a difficult tour.

The English team, under young Ian Botham, had struggled against the might of West Indies. There was a reason why they had been desperate that Kenny Barrington accompanied them as assistant manager.

One of the best batsmen of his day, Barrington had retired from cricket after a heart attack at the age of 37. His tally in 82 Tests had been 6,806 runs at 58.67.

And as a manager he was a spot of joy, a soul of sunshine.

He went about waking the players up in the morning, bowling to them in the nets, following through with advice and hints to fine tune their respective techniques. He helped them lift their spirits and carry their kit on tough match days.

Once the players had been sitting inside the team bus, tense and apprehensive, with the future of the tour in jeopardy over the inclusion of Robin Jackman. The ancient vehicle had refused to start. Barrington had got off the bus, fallen back on his days as an apprentice in a garage, and had managed to get the engine roaring. He had come away with his face black with soot, breached in the middle by the dazzling white of his ever wide smile.

His remarks, lovably laced with malapropisms, raised chuckles from the gladdest depths of the heart. When a pitch seemed good for the English batsmen, he summed it up as an “innocuous” wicket. When the skies opened up, he described it as “it’s raining pea pods.” And when Jackman bowled an excellent spell against Barbados, he gushed, “It was a great performance in anyone’s cup of tea.” When someone pointed out the endearing errors, he exclaimed, “Well, you know what I bloomin’ mean, don’t you?”

On the second morning of the third Test at Bridgetown, Barrington had been full of spirits. Graham Dilley, Robin Jackman and, finally, Ian Botham had removed the West Indians for 265. “His nose crowded out the already jammed pavilion Long Room bar. His smile illuminated it,” wrote Frank Keating. He was beaming because his boys had bowled out the mighty Caribbean side for a low score.

It did not seem that low when England were shot out for 122. But, each batsman walking back had found the shelter of Barrington’s consoling arm around him.

The tragedy

That evening, Barrington went out to dinner with wife Ann and some friends. He was overjoyed that Ann had come to join him on the tour. The couple came back early enough, and went to their room while the band struck up a perky tune downstairs, livening up a dance and a barbecue.

Ann Barrington went into the bathroom. The assistant manager of the England team flopped down on the armchair, snatching a few minutes of rest away from the humdrum of a torrid tour. When Ann came out, Barrington was unconscious. She ran out frantically, shouting for physio Bernard Thomas. By the time Thomas came to the room, he could see that Barrington was dead. It had been another heart attack. He was just 50.

None of the players knew. They had retired early, with the Test to be continued on the following morning. Downstairs the band played on, as members of the press slowly got wind of the terrible news. No one could believe it.

At eight o’clock the next morning, manager Alan Smith took a deep breath and telephoned each room, saying, “Prepare yourself for a shock. Ken Barrington is dead. There will be a team meeting on the pier before breakfast.”

Graham Gooch wept inconsolably in bed. Robin Jackman, who had been the only one to hear the news on the previous night, did likewise. Ian Botham, shocked to his core, said it was like being smashed on the chest with a mallet.

Reverend David Sheppard, Bishop of Liverpool and former England cricketer, address the memorial service for Ken Barrington on April 28, 1981 © Getty Images
Reverend David Sheppard, Bishop of Liverpool and former England cricketer, address the memorial service for Ken Barrington on April 28, 1981 © Getty Images

At the meeting, the team looked shaken. Before the tour, the decision makers at Lord’s had been cutting costs. The team had come to know that for the first time in five English tours Barrington would not be there to accompany them. The outcry had been heard loud and clear, and the wise men had admitted their mistake and summoned the much loved man again.

Now, suddenly, he was not there anymore. This decision taken far above was not one that could be reversed.

The press and the players sat in stunned silence at breakfast. No one spoke in the team bus. The grown men playing for England openly heaved in untold grief as the bus made its way to the ground.

Ian Botham tried to remind the team that ‘Kenny would have expected them to do their duty for England’. It made Gooch, Dilley and a couple of others shake with sobs. A minute’s silence was observed before play began. Botham informed Jackman that he would be bowling the first over. And now Jackman broke down, sending down the first over with tears streaming down his cheeks. Later he confessed that he had not been able to see the batsman.

It was Geoffrey Boycott who made the team smile through the tears. Botham went in for some work on a split fingernail, signalling to Boycott to take over the team. Jackman was in the middle of an impressive spell. The acting captain strode from deep mid-off, halted Jackman as he was beginning a new over and asked for the ball. He proceeded to mark out his own run, turned his cap around, rolled his shoulders, swung his arms, and ran in. And then he stopped in his delivery stride, grinned and threw the ball back to Jackman.

It had the crowd roaring with laughter and lifted the spirit of the team somewhat from the depths of gloom.

Gooch went out in the second innings ‘to do my best and dedicate it to Kenny’. Barrington had spent days with him on his technique, working hard on his playing straighter. The opening batsman got 116 in a total of 224.

England lost again, by 298 runs. But at least Barrington’s boys, according to the inimitable Frank Keating, had “the faith that he will ‘sleep like a lark’ in eternal peace.”

(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)