Sydney Francis Barnes was regarded by many as one of the greatest Test bowlers of all time. He was named a Cricketer of the Year in the 1910 Wisden Almanack. On his 150th birth anniversary, David Frith remembers Barnes’ brilliance in the 2023 Wisden Almanack.

“What do you want?” A tall, skeletal old man glared down at me from his doorstep. I mumbled that, in response to my letter, he had agreed to see me today. I had just driven 170 miles non-stop up to Cannock, Staffordshire. “You’d better come in.”

This was not a comfortable start, any more than encounters with S. F. Barnes had been for the long procession of padded victims he unseated around the turn of the 20th century: more than 6,300 at nine apiece in all matches over 43 years, including all ten on nine occasions, according to J. L. Nicholls’s biography. Barnes’s genius, backed by a reputation that petrified opponents, helped him to such figures as 8-8 for Saltaire against Bowling Old Lane in a Bradford League match one week, and 10-14 against Baildon Green the next. And he was often effective with the bat, most notably in the Second Test at Melbourne in January 1908, when he and Arthur Fielder stole 39 runs for the tenth wicket to level the Ashes.

Since a cricketer’s worth is inevitably judged by his Test statistics, Sydney Barnes’s record is frustrating: he played fewer Tests than he might have done had he been less money-conscious, and match fees were feeble back then. As it turned out, he gathered 189 wickets in his 27 games at 16. No one has more at a lower average.

In parallel, batsmen were judged by how they fared against Barnes, just as bowlers in the 1930s could be measured by their record against Don Bradman. South Africa’s ace Herby Taylor was one of the few whose class gleamed when battling it out against Barnes – though the home umpires seemed to assume a duty of care when Taylor was at the crease. Barnes reaped 49 wickets at under 11 in four Tests on England’s tour of South Africa in 1913/14, still a series record.

His 17-159 at the Old Wanderers ground in Johannesburg remain Test cricket’s second-best match figures, behind Jim Laker’s unimaginable 19-90. Then there is Barnes’s record against Victor Trumper, the supreme batsman of his time: in 17 Tests, he dismissed the Best Aussie Before Bradman on 13 occasions, eight before he had reached double figures. Those were match-swinging interventions.

Barnes was not a terrifying fast bowler, but he was a terrifying brisk bowler. He used to cut the ball, didn’t he? Serious mistake. “No!” Sustained glare. “I spun it!” Those long, bony fingers, which I had just touched, seemed capable of wreaking havoc, even now.

Selling his skill to the highest bidder brought him enviable contracts with assorted league clubs in the North, and plenty of seasons with Staffordshire. He was determined not to slog away in a factory for 63 years, like his father. Many a batsman was beaten before facing a ball, so overwhelming was his reputation, so intimidating his glare, so challenging his bag of tricks. It’s not unreasonable to believe he got wickets through theatrical posturing, on a par with Dennis Lillee, among others, though Barnes was a more disconcerting sight, sinister but no pantomime baddie. It is surprising to see him smiling in brief footage of the English cricketers on deck before sailing to South Africa. As for his repertoire, Bradman once observed to Neville Cardus (with mighty Bill O’Reilly in mind) that Barnes didn’t bowl a googly. “Didn’t need it,” replied Cardus, dryly.

Barnes’s self-restricted County Championship appearances were for Warwickshire (three matches in the 1890s) and Lancashire (44 between 1899 and 1903). For Staffordshire against Durham at South Shields in 1911, he scored a century from No. 3 and took 17 wickets. That summer, he claimed 14-29 against the All-India tourists (IPL franchises today would have scrapped like vultures for his signature). In his fifties, he played for Wales. It was not uncommon to see the first five or six batsmen all padded up as Barnes took the new ball.

He bowed to no man, not even the lofty MCC committee when they invited him to take part in the club’s centenary match at Lord’s in June 1914. When MCC refused to raise the playing fee, he announced he had an injury; being part of ceremonial history didn’t pay the rent. Some unwanted expenditure had arisen when he was cited in divorce proceedings in 1902: he and his wife-to-be, Alice, were sued by her first husband. She stated in the witness box that she loved Syd, a remark no batsman could have comprehended.

Having made it as far as the living-room, I assumed it was all right to sit down. After the draining drive north, this looked like being a short meeting. But it wasn’t. Satisfied that he had teased and tested my nerve long enough, he gruffly fielded my questions. He may even have enjoyed reliving past glories.

Would he care to talk me through his most famous spell: 11-7-6-5, either side of lunch, in the Second Test at Melbourne in 1911/12? Well, he’d come close to missing the match through illness. Who had helped by bringing a bottle of whisky to his hotel room the night before? None other than diminutive Syd Gregory, who was not in the Australian XI. Barnes grabbed the new ball next morning and flattened Australia: Warren Bardsley, Charles Kelleway, Clem Hill, Warwick Armstrong, Roy Minnett. That would show his skipper, J. W. H. T. Douglas, how misguided he had been to come on ahead of Barnes in the previous Test. At one point, Barnes flopped to the turf, refusing to bowl another ball until the raucous crowd calmed down.

His first Australian visit had come after Archie MacLaren, captain of England and Lancashire, decided during a net session at Old Trafford in 1901 that the relatively unknown Barnes was his man. One ball struck MacLaren’s glove. Completely out of character, Barnes said sorry. MacLaren told him not to apologise, but to be ready to pack his bags. He was to finish with 106 Australian wickets at 21, of which 77 came away from home, a remarkable achievement.

The First World War interrupted Test cricket for nearly five years. Barnes, too old for conscription, played for Saltaire in the Bradford League, and was unsurprisingly lethal. It was almost unheard of for him to be hit for six, though Jack Hobbs and Frank Woolley both did so in wartime matches. It can safely be assumed these blows were met by ferocious scowls.

With peace restored, England relaunched Test cricket with a tour of Australia in 1920/21, but there was no Barnes on board: financial terms inadequate, yet again. He continued to bowl in league cricket, however, always for the largest available purse. Even in 1953, aged 80, he could still bowl with a high arm, as revealed in a film clip of his ceremonial opening delivery of the Australians’ match against Minor Counties at Stoke-on-Trent (Ray Lindwall, then the world’s greatest fast bowler, took a career-best 7-20).

I had nearly forgotten to ask Barnes to sign a big book, already enhanced by the signatures of hundreds of cricketers, many of them old-timers. He disdainfully recoiled from the ball-point I held out: he was proud of his copperplate writing, delivered with a proper pen. A few years earlier, he had written on a scroll for presentation to the Queen to mark her visit to Stafford. But if I thought he was going to trudge all the way to the council office in Stafford, where he still worked part-time, just to fetch his pen, I could think again. Here we go: another wind-up. What an awkward old man he was, almost a Mr Nasty. Was it a lifetime act, a performance? It somehow seemed real. But he relented – and signed. It felt like a furtive single stolen off this greatest of bowlers.

It’s almost a surprise that such a man, fit, erect and wiry in his nineties, is not still with us today to celebrate his 150th birthday, probably with a dismissive sniff. He seemed indestructible.

He died on December 26, 1967, and his ashes were interred in the gateway at Edgbaston, with E. J. ‘Tiger’ Smith, his wicketkeeper on that 1911/12 tour, in attendance. Barnes was 94, and no doubt aware of the Queen’s traditional greetings to subjects who reach three figures. But what good was a message from the monarch without an accompanying cheque? It would probably have agitated him to discover that his elegant signature recently sold at auction for £100.

David Frith was founder of Wisden Cricket Monthly in 1979.