Published: 12th January, 2019
Richard Spiller profiles Ken Barrington, one of his country and county’s greatest batsmen, who went on to coach his country before dying tragically early at the age of 50 while assistant manager of the England tour to West Indies in 1981.
The Ken Barrington Centre, the Kia Oval’s Indoor School, pays tribute to his work on and off the field.
No one who witnessed Alastair Cook’s Test farewell at the Kia Oval last summer is ever likely to forget it.
Yet the vast majority of departures are more prosaic, whether they are made willingly or because opportunities have dried up.
Ken Barrington deserved the acclamation of the crowd when his first-class career finished at the end of the 1968 season yet no one knew – not least the man himself – that scores of nought and eight in a rain-shortened draw against Hampshire at The Oval in early September would be his final first-class appearance.
It had not been a happy summer for Barrington, who missed two out of five Tests against Australia and averaged just 20 in the County Championship.
Playing alongside Colin Milburn the following month in the World Double-Wicket Championship in Melbourne, he suffered a heart attack. After a recuperative journey home on the SS Canberra with his wife Ann, Barrington was advised that he should retire from international cricket to cut down on stress but decided to give up the game altogether, informing Surrey and MCC before making the announcement in mid-January on the BBC midweek programme Sportsnight.
So ended a career which had yielded 31,374 first-class runs since his debut in 1953 – and 273 wickets with leg-spinners which many felt might have gained greater use, plus 514 catches – in a stellar Test career which included 82 matches, which saw Barrington score 6,806 runs at 58.
That latter figure underlined his greatness given only seven players have better averages, putting him in front of the likes of Wally Hammond, Sir Garry Sobers, Kumar Sangakkara and Sir Jack Hobbs.
Barrington often supplied the glue which held an innings together while the elegance of Ted Dexter, Colin Cowdrey, Tom Graveney and others drew the plaudits. His ability to dig in was never better exemplified than in making a career-best 256 against Australia at Old Trafford in 1964 as England replied to an Australian total of 656, built around Bobby Simpson’s 311.
It wasn’t that he didn’t have the shots, Barrington’s early career after breaking into the Surrey side in 1953 – the second season of their seven-year dominance of the County Championship title – seeing him marked out as one of the most exciting talents in the country.
Within two years he was a Test player, called up by the new England captain Peter May – his county colleague – but it was to prove an abortive launch, failing to make an impact in two games and then having to wait four years for another opportunity. In the meantime, Barrington had become a far more conservative player, limiting his game and cutting down on risks, determined that if the opportunity came again he would not let it slip.
It might not excite the crowds and at times he was criticised for being too cautious but one of the game’s great accumulators had discovered a method which was to prove invaluable for county and country, in an era where bowlers were often in the ascendency on helpful pitches.
So when England were rebuilding in 1959, having been unexpectedly crushed 4-0 in Australia the previous winter, Barrington’s 357 runs at 59 in a 5-0 whitewash of India made him the highest scorer in the series. An overall output of 2,499 first-class runs, his most prolific season, was ample reason to be nominated Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year.
His maiden century came the following winter, in the opening Test against West Indies at Kensington Oval, as he made 128 against the fiery Wes Hall, adding 121 in the following match at Port of Spain.
Injuries and the occasional peccadilloes of selectors were the only reason Barrington would be absent from England’s middle-order over the next eight years, his craggy feature a reassuring sight for colleagues and spectators alike, perhaps enhanced by the military bearing inherited from his soldier father.
A relish for batting in foreign climes saw him enjoy two highly successful tours to Australia and another to South Africa while his ability against spin saw him score four centuries in as many Tests in India in 1961-62.
Barrington was labelled termed a ‘stonewaller’ on occasions and much of that had to do with him being dropped for slow-scoring in 1965. Struggling for form, he made 137 in 437 minutes against a weak New Zealand at Edgbaston and, although England won the match with much of the final day to spare, he was left out of the following match at Lord’s in the interests of ‘brighter cricket’, the popular theme of the time.
The exile lasted only one match but was deeply hurtful to Barrington, not surprisingly. He marked his return at Headingley by striking a more urgent 163 but even that took second billing to a stand worth 369 with Surrey colleague John Edrich, who crashed 310no.
A year later Barrington was again at the centre of controversy, having been quoted in the press about his doubts about whether Charlie Griffiths – who was about to spearhead the West Indies attack that summer with Hall – had a legitimate action.
He was by no means alone in his attitude but the pressure became intense on a man who was described by team-mate Alec Bedser as a “conventional idealist”, adding that “politics were too devious for his uncomplicated honest nature and philosophy”.
A highest score of 30 in the opening two Tests was followed by dropping out of the third with mental exhaustion and, although he returned for a highly successful summer against India and Pakistan in 1967 followed by victory in the Caribbean by a single Test in early 1968, his time as an international player was nearly over.
Luckily for cricket, Barrington was not finished with the game. Having played in an era when players were poorly paid, he had a living to make and – having always had a love of cars – took over a business which became Ken Barrington Motors.
Coaching was also a passion, whether helping youngsters or at a higher level, and having delivered well-considered comments on Tests for the Daily Mail for several seasons, his involvement deepened when he became an England selector in 1975. That was extended 18 months later when he was manager of England’s tour to India, followed by another to Pakistan and New Zealand the following winter.
Although there was no full-time official coach, Barrington took on the role on an increasingly permanent basis, respected by the players for his technical knowhow and loved for his caring attitude towards his charges, who relished his regular malapropisms along the way.
He relished bowling leg-spinners in the nets, particularly useful given that type of bowling had virtually died out in English cricket in the 1970s. And he enjoyed the occasional outing on the pitch too, turning out in charity matches but still making sure no one took liberties with his wicket.
It was while he was in his role as mentor of a struggling England side against West Indies that his second and fatal heart attack struck, during the second Test of the 1981 series, shaking cricket around the world.
Barrington’s memorial service at Southwark Cathedral was attended by 700 mourners, the Lord’s Taverners rechristening their U13 competition the “Ken Barrington Trophy” and the indoor centre which carries his name at The Oval – opened by The Queen in 1991 – was an essential component in ensuring his county could continue to call The Oval their home.