Charles Barnett’s initial six years on the first-class cricket scene gave little indication of the magnificence which was to give pleasure to thousands during the ‘thirties and immediately after the second world war; for after making his debut as an amateur against Cambridge University in 1927 – the only match he played in that year, five full seasons between 1928 and 1932 produced less than 4,000 runs in over 200 completed innings for an average of 19.00. His bowling during the same period brought him 87 wickets for 35 runs apiece.
Thus, when Barnett reported to the County Ground in 1933, he did so as a still promising young professional cricketer aged twenty two. His first full season had produced nearly 900 runs, but he failed to fulfil this promise the following year – his first as a professional. In 1930 he scored 1.000 runs for the first time, but 1931 witnessed another decline in his overall performance. Once again in 1932 he achieved 1,000 runs. Undoubtedly he was a young batsman of great potentiality. As a post-war cricket follower I never saw Barnett in action in the early ‘thirties, neither was it my privilege to witness his batting prowess at any time during his career; yet with the dawn of the 1933 cricket season I feel sure that nobody foresaw the potential greatness of this young man. Perhaps I am wrong, but whatever the wisdom of the scribes of the early ‘thirties, Barnett surpassed all expectations during this season. In May of 1933 he scored his maiden first-class century – 146 v Kent at Bristol – a score which was largely instrumental in gaining a narrow victory for his side. By the end of June he had surpassed his previous highest seasonal aggregate of 1,024 runs. Three more centuries were to be his before the season was out, the highest of which was 154 against Glamorgan at Pontypridd. At Worcester he helped Dacre to put on 196 for the first wicket before lunch on the fist day. This led to his selection to represent the Players at Lord’s. Another fine hundred against Somerset at Bristol in the August Bank Holiday encounter helped to win him a last-minute place in the England XI to oppose the West Indies in the third Test Match at the Oval. On this, his first appearance for England, he showed that he was no mere butcher of moderate bowling; going in No.8 he helped Nichols to put on 95 for the eighth wicket. Barnett himself scored a very good 52 before being brilliantly run out by G.C. Grant, the West Indies captain. Patience – a strange word to use in connection with this man – was thus rewarded, and Barnett had achieved every young cricketer’s ambition. His final aggregate of 2,280 runs for the summer of 1933 more than doubled his previous best, and won him a place in Lord Tennyson’s M.C.C. tour of India. Here he endorsed the performance of his English summer season, so that in the course of a single year he had turned from a promising youngster into the fine and fearless batsman that most Gloucestershire followers will remember. In that one year he had scored over 3,000 runs. What followed in the Barnett era will be stamped for ever on the thoughts of cricket-lovers of the ‘thirties and late ‘forties; for now an established star, Barnett quickly impressed his unforgettable cricketing personality on the county grounds of England.
1934 was another wonderful year for him. Against Somerset at Bath he was in tremendous form, hitting 194 out of a total of 286, and including eleven sixes and eighteen fours. Against Glamorgan at Bristol he scored a century before lunch on the first day – by 1.10 pm to be exact – and another big innings followed against Worcestershire at Dudley, where he cracked up 170 runs in quick time.
1935 was to witness yet another surprising decline in his performance. Some said that it was a result of the new l.b.w. law; others that he was suffering a reaction from an overdose of cricket in 1933 and ’34; but whatever the cause, the following season he dispelled all fears by topping the 2,000 runs mark for the third time in his career, and delighted his followers by being selected for the 1936-37 M.C.C. tour of Australia and New Zealand. In Australia his batting was even more successful than in England. The more consistently hard and fast pitches suited his style admirably and he proved one of the successes of the tour, playing in all five tests, and making the highest score of his career – 259 versus Queensland at Brisbane.
His success was now almost continuous up to the end of his career. Some said that, like Harold Gimblett of Somerset, he was too adventurous at the start of his innings for an opening batsman. No doubt many say the same of George Emmett today, but county cricket was and is played as much to the cricketing public as to the more statistically minded critics of the Selection Committees. The actor plays to his audience and by his performance draws people to watch him. Barnett undoubtedly possessed that magnetic quality as a cricketer. All famous actors do not interpret the part of Hamlet in the same way; neither did Barnett interpret the bowling he faced in the same manner as other batsmen. He was not to be confused with the defensive batting methods of the ‘thirties and ‘forties. A man of his time was more likely than he to hit the first ball of the day for four. He threw the boldest of bats at the best bowling in the world. He could hook and pull and glance with the best, and was a fine exponent of the cut; yet he was truest master of the off- and cover- drives. In the arc between cover-point and the bowler on the off-side lie the true graces of the game, and Barnett was consequently a more attractive performer to watch than any batsman now playing the game. That may sound a somewhat sweeping statement coming from one who has never watched a Barnett innings; but from what I have heard and read and pieced together in my mind’s eye, I sincerely believe it to be true.
One of his finest innings was played in the first Test Match against the Australians at Nottingham in 1938. Against an attack which included McCormick, O’Reilly and Fleetwood-Smith, he swept to 99 not out before lunch, driving and cutting the speed and guile of the tourist bowling with like majesty. No Englishman had ever scored a Test century before lunch on the first day – neither has on yet, for on this occasion Barnett just failed to add his name to the record books, although a century was his off the first ball bowled after lunch; but Barnett’s batting is not to be gauged in the light of record books, for his batting belonged to the realm of the heroic rather than the statistical.
Hitler deprived the English first-class cricket season six years of its existence, and us the sight of Charles Barnett in action; but when county and Test matches got under way again in 1946 he soon showed that he had lost none of his old touch. For three more years he continued in his role as the bowlers’ nightmare; 110 in the first match at Oxford showed at once that the old fire was already rekindled. More fine knocks were to follow in that year. In the final innings against Middlesex at Lord’s he hit 102 of the 177 runs required for victory, and a magnificent innings of 169 followed against Sussex at Bristol.
In both 1947 and 1948 he figured prominently in fine victories over Yorkshire at Bristol. The latter of these games, in particular, will never be forgotten by those lucky enough to see that last day’s play, neither will Barnett’s century. Set to score nearly 400 runs to win at the rate of over 90 an hour, Gloucestershire went for the runs. Barnett scored 141 in two hours and put his county so far ahead of the clock that they eventually won the match, easing up, with twenty minutes to spare, much to the chagrin of Yorkshire skipper Brian Sellers, who must have been pretty certain that if he could not beat Gloucestershire, at least he had set them an impossible task. But that was Barnett; no spasmodic run-getter, he was liable to get runs anywhere, any time and get them quickly too.
The previous year’s victory over Yorkshire at Bristol, though less spectacular, was equally gratifying from Barnett’s point of view, for 1947 was his benefit year, and this his Benefit match. Sam Cook took nine for 42 in Yorkshire’s first innings, and from then on, in a low scoring game, it was Barnett’s match, for, in addition to scoring 70 and 30 not out, he took four wickets for 47 runs.
Against Leicestershire at Gloucester, again in his Benefit year, all else was overshadowed by his magnificent batting. In carrying his bat through an innings of 363 for 228, he repeated the performances of both his father, C.S., and his uncle, the late E.P. Barnett, who accomplished this feat many years before – E.P. against Yorkshire at Bradford in 1905, and C.S. against Worcestershire at Cheltenham in 1913 – and it is worthy of note that on this day Barnett’s father was present at the Wagon Works ground to witness his son’s triumph.
I have scarcely alluded to his bowling, so humbled was it by his batting; yet, as figures show, he was no novice in this line. A medium-pace bowler with a high, easy action, with limited opportunity he secured a steady crop of wickets over the years. His prowess in this line, coupled with a fine ability as an outfielder, made him into a more than useful member of the side, even when the bat failed him.
When, at the end of the 1948 season, he announced his retirement, the West Country county was stunned at the thought of losing its No.1 attraction at the comparatively early age of 38 years. A century for a Commonwealth XI against the South Africans in 1952, and a successful tour with the Commonwealth XI in India and Pakistan during 1953-54, showed only too well how much this great batsman had to offer; yet who can blame one such as he when, finding that he could no longer consistently play the great innings in a grand manner, he left the game rather than be less than himself. What a sad sight would have been the gradual decay of batsmanship so overflowing with vitality. Better, that men should say, “Why is he retiring?” than wait until they ask, “Why doesn’t he retire?”