Like many another small boy, Sydney Barnes wanted to bowl fast, like his hero Tom Richardson. At 15 he started playing for Smethwick in the Birmingham League. Their professional, Billy Bird of Warwickshire, thought he saw something in the lad and insisted in him joining his net for practice.
Billy bowled medium paced off-spin and the young tearaway who also batted and kept wicket was persuaded to give off-spin a go. The compromise was fast-medium off-breaks.
A tall fellow of 6 ft 1in, Barnes bowled with a high action – he later spoke of hooking up with the sky as he delivered – and brought the ball down from a considerable height.
He must also have soon developed a huge amount of action on the ball because those who faced him describe how he got the ball to move away from the right hander before breaking back into him and others describe how the ball dipped late on them so that they would misread its length. These are descriptions of the Magnus Effect at work.
He was not an instant success either at club level or later when playing for Warwickshire in three matches, but he was obviously difficult to get away even if he wasn’t taking wickets. Those wickets may well have fallen at the other end, as a result of the pressure he was putting on batsmen at his end.
After his selection by MacLaren to tour Australia in 01/02 he told the captain that, in the cricket he had played in the Lancashire League, he had had to get results on any kind of wicket. If the wicket took spin he did not bowl his heart out with fast stuff, but if the wicket was good and firm he did bowl faster.
Although successful in Australia, the experience of playing at Melbourne in the second Test after the wicket had dried out (with the help of the ground staff using blankets and rollers overnight) and two similar experiences trying to take wickets on a flat Oval track he started to work on a leg break – the ‘carrom’ of its day.
Apparently it took some time and work in the nets, but once he had gained the skill he found it easy to accomplish.
Again, with his long and strong figures he must have been able to impart considerable torque on the ball because opponents now spoke in awe of the in-swinging ball that pitched on or even outside leg stump but which broke across them to hit the top of the off-stump or find the end to the wicketkeeper or slip cordon. This is further evidence that there were enough revs on the ball to get the Magnus Effect to give the ball sideways momentum. (Is the Barnes fast leg-break prophetic of Bedser?)
The leg break was also bowled out of the front of the hand. The intriguing photograph below hints that the third and small finger of the right hand was held under the side of the ball and that the spin was imparted by these flicking upwards.
Backwatersman wonders whether these were breaks or cutters. Barnes is clear that they are breaks. Once asked whether Underwood’s cutters were similar to his bowling, SFB answered with disdain that he spun the ball.
Barnes also bowled a top spinner. This would have been the steep ‘dipper’ that, when batsmen endeavoured to drive, was never quite ‘there’ and led to catches by Hobbs at a specially placed short extra-cover. This delivery would have had knuckles facing the batsman.
The techniques re-discovered by Iverson, Gleeson and Mendis were practiced by Barnes one hundred years ago. But Barnes had a number of other factors going for him. He could bowl both the off break and the leg break with the same action at a pace of 70 or 80 mph with the Magnus Effect giving him extremely late away and in-swing and, a very tall man by the standards of his age, he could bring the ball down from a height of eight feet or more giving him the steep bounce of a Joel Garner or Curtly Ambrose.
Third Man is certain that we shall see his like again. The hothouse that is T20, the premium on variation and deception, means that right now there will be bowlers in the nets or on the streets discovering for themselves how to bowl like Sydney Barnes.
As Mendis understands, the method requires a certain pace to impart the spin from the front of the hand – the break that an orthodox leg and off-spinner gets from their wrist action not being available to them.
It will not be long before someone achieves the kinds of rotation levels required to set up the Magnus Effect from deliveries bowled from the front of the hand at 80 mph. Like Barnes, that player may decide to use those skills only in the T20 form of the game, forsaking not only county or state cricket but also Test Match cricket.
And like Lord Hawke, modern test selectors may say, “We don’t understand you. You only play when you like.”