This morning was a special one for cricket followers – the first day of the Ashes in Australia.
Many people woke up and turned straight to the radio. How have England done?
Bleary-eyed and half-asleep they tried to ascertain the state of play by the first snippets of commentary.
Will they be welcomed to the day by good news....“And Cook turns that one down to long-leg for a single and moves to 103...” or bad...“Anderson takes guard – he was hoping for a day with his feet up when England won the toss this morning...”
For Warwickshire fans, there is the additional interest of how the Bears representatives are doing. What a sparkle it would add to their morning if Ian Bell had beaten up the Aussie bowlers again or Jonathan Trott had got stuck in.
And whenever England bat first in an Ashes Test, there is an eye-catching precedent for Bell and Trott to try to emulate. For the highest score ever posted by an England batsman on the opening day of an Ashes Test was made by one of their Bears predecessors – Bob Barber.
On January 7, 1966, the first two Tests of the series having been drawn, in the third, at Sydney, England captain Mike Smith won the toss and chose to bat. And in a glorious display of power and stroke-play Barber smashed his way to 185.
It was a stunning innings, one of the greatest in Ashes history, and all the more impressive as Barber had to deal with the twin threats of the Australia bowling attack and self-obsessed opening partner Geoffrey Boycott.
Barber, 29, was at his peak as a batsman having blossomed since moving from Lancashire to Warwickshire three years earlier. The former Cambridge blue had struggled at Old Trafford having had the captaincy foisted upon him at the age of only 24. His batting stagnated. He decided to move to reboot his career and the switch to Edgbaston did the trick.
Strokeless, at times, for Lancashire, he swiftly rediscovered form and confidence with the Bears. The Aussies first took note when they played Warwickshire in a tour match at Edgbaston in 1964. Barber’s 138 included a century before lunch.
When the Ashes tour of 1965/66 came around, Barber was part of an England party which, just like Alastair Cook’s team this winter, arrived in the Antipodes respected as cricketers but with a reputation for playing pragmatic, unadventurous cricket. From the very start of the tour, the Warwickshire opener got to work dismantling that theory.
In the opening match, against Western Australia at Perth, he scored 126 in 44 overs. In the next, also at Perth, against a Combined XI, he flayed 113 from 26 overs. Against a strong New South Wales attack in Sydney, he scored 90 from 85 balls.
In the first two Tests, both tedious stale-mate draws, at Brisbane and Melbourne, he was less productive, making five, 34, 48 and 0 not out. But then the action returned to Sydney – and Barber cut the Aussie attack to pieces in what remains the biggest innings by an Englishman on the opening day of a Test against the oldest cricket foe.
After Smith called correctly, Barber and Boycott opened and the latter soon enjoyed a reprieve. On 12 the Yorkshireman was dropped at backward short leg off Graeme McKenzie. It was a lapse the Aussies soon regretted as the score reached 93 without loss at lunch.
During the afternoon, Barber climbed into explosive attack. By the time Boycott fell, caught and bowled by leg-spinner Peter Philpott for 84, the Warwickshire player was already well past 100. When Barber was finally bowled by Neil Hawke, he had amassed 185 (255 balls, 19 fours) of the most handsome runs out of a total of 303. Even the partisan Sydney spectators rose to applaud him. Barber’s work (which was to remain his only Test ton) had set the foundation for an innings victory. It was, Wisden noted, “an innings of match-winning aggression.”
Not only had he had outplayed the Aussie bowlers, he had also negotiated the tricky business of partnering Boycott. These days, in his role as Head Lecturer for BBC radio’s cricket coverage, Boycott occasionally observes that cricketers should play for the team. Some irony might be detected there by the chaps who batted with him. Including R.W.Barber.
In its summary of that 65/66 tour, Wisden reflected: “Boycott was not really the right partner for Barber, the brilliant go-getter who should have been given as much of the bowling as possible. Instead, Boycott liked to take more than a half share, whether he was batting well or badly. In the fifth Test, when his form was emphatically bad, he played 60 of the first 80 balls bowled. He scored only 15 out of 33 of them, thus giving the innings a pottering start.
“Then in the following over he called for a ridiculous run off the last ball, which would have given him the bowling again, and ran out Barber.”
There’s one for the ‘TMS’ team to put to ‘Geoffrey’ at some point, perhaps...