IOL Sport Show: Vincent Barnes - A true servant of South African cricket

Vincent Barnes has served South African cricket with great distinction over the last 20 years. Picture: Cindy Waxa

Vincent Barnes has served South African cricket with great distinction over the last 20 years. Picture: Cindy Waxa

Published May 21, 2023


Cape Town - Re-watching the “438” game has become a jolly Christmas tradition for many Proteas cricket fans. A fond reminder of the day the Proteas put one over arch-rivals Australia.

For Vincent Barnes it's a nightmare. It takes him back to a day when he wanted to hide away in the Proteas dressing room.

“It was a horrible game for me,” said Barnes, who has recently retired after 20 years' service to Cricket SA. “Why was it a horrible game for me? People say ‘you won, you scored 438 runs!'

“I say … ‘Yeah … but my bowlers went for 434! How can it be a good game for me?' Roger (Telemachus) bowled eight no balls. I mean if there were free hits back then the score could have been 500.

“I remember sitting there during the break and (former Proteas coach) Mickey (Arthur) came in and put his arms over my shoulders, and I just said to him that you need to wake me up here from this nightmare.”

Fortunately for Barnes, the run-fest at the Wanderers back in 2006 was a rare off day for the Proteas bowling unit during his eight years with the national team.

In fact, under Barnes' wise, effervescent guidance the Proteas were able to piece together their most effective seam attack that blew hot, particularly with the red-ball, on various surfaces all around the world.

There were iconic series wins recorded at Edgbaston (England) and the MCG (Australia) in 2008, while the victory in Nagpur (2010) is also one for the scrapbook.

Test cricket's staple diet is the ability to formulate an attack that can snare 20 wickets.

The Proteas did not lose an away Test series for seven years from 2007. I'll let you do the maths on how this was achieved.

Barnes, 63, takes great pride in the fact that he helped shape the careers of Dale Steyn (439 Test wickets), Makhaya Ntini (390), Morne Morkel (309), Vernon Philander (224) and not to mention the number of young fast bowlers that have passed through during his next life as Cricket SA Head of High Performance - the role he occupied for the 12 years until his retirement at the end of last month.

Barnes is a combination of a man who can break down a bowler's action into the most minute parts, a bio-mechanist of sorts, but also one who recognises that flair must not be discouraged and that some seemingly bizarre actions are best for some.

He has also worked extensively on filming actions from a series of angles to try to find out what actions cause the most injuries, while also helping to remedy bowlers' actions that have run into complications with the authorities.

His most famous rehabilitation project was, of course, Johan Botha – the former Proteas ODI captain who was converted from medium-pacer to off-spinner – and his most recent Aaron Phangiso after the veteran left-arm spinner was called for an illegal action during the Betway SA20.

The significance of Barnes' contribution to South African cricket is even greater considering he forms part of the “Lost Boys” generation.

During his hey-day in the 1980's, Barnes was a mullet-waving, moustache-wearing tearaway fast bowler who terrorised batters in the non-racial South African Cricket Board's Howa Bowl playing for Western Province and Transvaal.

Barnes' numbers make for staggering reading: 323 first-class wickets at an average of 11.05. Strike-rate of 35.5. Twenty-four five wicket hauls.

Lesser mortals were prized away from SACB to play cricket “on the other side” under the auspices of the White-controlled South African Cricket Union.

But Barnes never relented. A fine footballer too, playing for Battswood FC in the Federation Professional League, he stayed true to his non-racial principles. He never flinched at the thought of playing “Normal Sport in Abnormal Society”.

“I think it had a lot to do with my schooling. I attended Livingstone High School in Claremont around 1976, which was of course a very politically emotive period in our country,” Barnes said.

“There were plenty of opportunities for me to ‘cross over'. A former Western Province player, playing at Newlands, at the time banked with my ex-wife, and constantly asked her to check with me … but she knew what the answer would be and made it clear that I wasn't interested.”

Unlike some of his contemporaries from that era Barnes claims he was never bitter about missing out on selection for the Proteas upon South Africa returning to international cricket in 1991.

He was in his early thirties by then already, and realised that his best days as a fast bowler were already behind him, even though he was still performing admirably for Western Province alongside the likes of Eric Simons, Craig Matthews, Meyrick Pringle and Adrian Kuiper in the popular Benson and Hedges Day-Night competition.

Instead, he had already made the mental switch that his future was in coaching, particularly after gaining the necessary qualifications during a stint in Scotland during the 1980s.

It was the beginning of a life-long journey that saw Barnes dedicate his career to equipping others to be ready for the opportunities that he was denied during his playing career.

It is this passion that drove him until his very last day in office at Cricket SA's High Performance Centre in Pretoria.

In a time when players and coaches are becoming increasingly self-indulgent, South African cricket has lost one of its great servants of the game. Hopefully not for good.