Enigma Variations – The Deliveries of S.F. Barnes

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.

Today these positions are called 'the set up', 'the unfold' and 'the delivery'.

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.

In this grip, could the third finger be ready to impart leg spin?

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.”


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12 responses to “Enigma Variations – The Deliveries of S.F. Barnes

  1. backwatersman

    Fascinating stuff. I’m afraid you’re way ahead of me technically – about my only technique as a bowler was to rub one side of the ball in the dirt, shine-up the other side and pitch it up middle and off.

    I’m sure you’re right too that T20 in general is a hothouse for improvements in technique. My objection to it really is the effect that it has on the poor old county season, although I do wonder how Barnes, or anyone else, would have coped with some clogger equipped with a turbo-charged bat who knew that a 10 minute 30 would count as a reasonable innings. But that’s a bowler’s prejudice, and I really ought to pay more attention to T20.

  2. Dear BWM
    It is the vital life signs of Test Cricket that we must watch most carefully. So long as Test Cricket makes money, National Cricket Boards will subsidize the long form of the game.
    Have you seen a county Under 17 fixture? These will be heavily subsidized by the ECB/Sky money. Each County plays four others in both a one day match of 50 overs and a two day match. The two day match is slightly contrived by a bonus point system and although few matches are won or lost as four innings matches the real confrontation is on the first innings. Thus a side tries to bat through the day (of minimum 102 overs) and build a large score both to amass batting points and to win the points given to the side with a first innings lead.
    This is the nursery of the four and five day games. Big hundreds are scored by the batsmen, spin is alive and very well. (Quicks are restricted to 16 overs a day each, but spinners can bowl 25 which is helpful to a captain needing to find bowlers for 102 or more overs in a day.) The matches are played on good wickets at grounds that also host 2nd team cricket.
    For instance when Lancs played Leicester last year both sides scored close to 380 runs. 100 of the 200 overs were spin and at one stage it looked like one side would beat the other by a single point.
    To increase your gloom, TM thinks that the greater threat from T20 may come to club cricket. Imagine a Saturday or Sunday match of four 20 over innings, with all the noise, bouncy castles and razzmatazz.
    Hope the stuff is not boringly technical.
    There are few better balls than the away swinger.

    • backwatersman

      It’s not boring at all. Quite the opposite.

      I take your point about the longer forms all being dependant on the health of test cricket and the revenue it generates, though I can’t help thinking that one of the reasons that cricket isn’t more popular is that it doesn’t these days attract the same sort of fierce local loyalties as football.

      You may well be right about club cricket, although I suppose the counties do have a vested interest of sorts in ensuring that the leagues are played over 40 overs at least. Quite a few of the players on the staff at Leicestershire play in the Leicestershire league, and others have learnt their cricket there.

      • Good morning BWM,
        TM is working on a couple of pieces about Constantine and C.L.R. James’ opinions on the transformation of Constantine from a Test player who played in the Leagues to a League player who played Test cricket, which he hopes with take the field in a two day match starting on Tuesday.
        He is not sure so that the counties’ valuation of league cricket for their young players will survive in the form you identify. There seems to be a move by ECB to encourage counties to recruit earlier to their Academies, to isolate and control the development of those young people, even to take them out of their schools and into one local college of education. On top of this the dominant ‘mene’ at the moment is that there must be more time for practice, with scenarios and reflection on the experience of those scenarios, so that county academy staff wish their young charges to play less matches or to play those matches under their tutelage. More and more counties are seeking to play their academies as a team in their local premier league.
        They fear bust ups with the local clubs and so will go gently, but let TM put forward this thought: Greytown has a very promising fifteen year old who they have nursed and developed since he was nine and are hoping will help them win their league in a year or two. Loamshire want him and want to have total control over his development. They therefore use their weight of funds to negotiate a fee to the club for the player’s ‘release’.
        That may not be too far in the future.

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  5. Sam

    Hi there, I came across this page when I was researching about Sydney Barnes. Nice article, first time I heard about the dipper bowled by Barnes.

    Do you have any other pictures of Barnes holding the ball with his unique grip? Would be really nice. Thanks!

  6. Sydney Barnes was the greatest cricketer of all, ahead of Don Bradman by my reckoning. He would be my first pick. In his 1913 – 14 tour of South Africa, he took 49 wickets in only 4 test matches, that is 60 percent of all the wickets to fall!
    This to me is a greater achievement than Bradman’s phenomenal 964 runs in five tests in England in 1930.
    Incidentally, Herbie Taylors 508 runs at 50.08 in the same series is considered exceptional, but Barnes didn’t play in the fifth test in which Taylor scored 80 and 48 (I think). So his real record against Barnes is 380 in 8 innings for 48, still good but not exceptional.

    • It is nearly a year since Third Man posted this piece. It still receives a good number of ‘hits’ proving the continuing fascination this player has for those interested in cricket. Thanks for these convincing details, N.S.R..

  7. AB

    Brian Wilkins in his book “The Art of the Bowler” did a considerable amount of research into the bowling mechanics and variations of Syd Barnes. The upshot is that while you are correct that he was able to turn the ball both ways at a high pace, the idea that this was caused using the “carrom ball” gimmic is highly unlikely. Barnes himself demonstrated on numerous occasions how he bowled a leg break with an extended wrist. I also imagine that what you guess to be a topspinner was simply a slower delivery, since the necessary supination required to impart topspin is biomechanically impossible at 75-80 mph.

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