The perfect training for Le Mans


How do the works drivers prepare for the 24-hour slog-sprint – because that’s what it is nowadays – of Le Mans?

Their ‘journey’ will have started with a winter fitness camp at a flashy Alpine ski resort, followed by Willy Dungl-esque physical jerks, constant monitoring by a dietician and ice baths. Probably.

More than 80 years ago Captain Joel Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato (below), the strongman of the Bentley Boys and a hat-trick winner at La Sarthe from 1928, warmed up with a game of cricket: for Surrey 2nd XI.

Sport loomed large in his life, a privileged English education at Charterhouse public school and Trinity College Cambridge polishing the skein of competitive South African spirit that he had inherited, along with a vast fortune, from his diamond-and-goldmine ‘Randlord’ father ‘Barney’.

‘Babe’ boxed, shot and raced motorboats as well as cars. And in the summer he donned his whites, batted right and kept wicket despite his muscular heavyweight’s frame. His approach to such physical diversity was straightforward: be coached by the best and put in lots of practice.

In 1928, fewer than two weeks before his first Le Mans success, alongside Bernard Rubin in a 41/2, he played in a two-day match against Devon at The Oval. He was run out for 11 as Surrey racked a formidable 621, and then took two catches as his team fell a wicket short of forcing a victory.

Devon was again the opposition in 1929. This time Surrey won by 10 wickets, with Barnato making a duck and taking a catch.

In 1930 the fixture was against Kent 2nd XI. Barnato didn’t bat in Surrey’s 489/6 but completed a stumping before the game was drawn.

He played 17 matches at The Oval for Surrey’s 2nd XI between 1928 and 1931.

He turned out for the 1st XI too – six times in total, all in the immediate aftermath of a Le Mans victory.

His three-day first-class debut was against Oxford University at The Oval on 27 June 1928. He pouched two catches in each innings, one of his victims being centurion Aidan Crawley, a future chairman of London Weekend Television and president of the MCC. The match was drawn.

Barnato then travelled directly to Southampton for a match against Hampshire. In the home side’s first innings he took four catches off the bag-o’-tricks bowling of Percy Fender, arguably the best captain never to lead England. This effort included Fender’s 1300th wicket in first-class cricket and the dismissal of Lionel Tennyson, grandson of the Poet Laureate and a past England captain.

At the end of July Barnato was back at The Oval for his greatest cricket examination, a match against Lancashire. The Red Rose County won convincingly by an innings and nine runs. Barnato stumped future England all-rounder Len Hopwood, but twice was overwhelmed by the fast bowling of Lancashire’s resident Tasmanian devil, Ted McDonald.

Barnato’s remaining first-class matches were played against the Oxbridge universities in 1929 and Oxford only in 1930.

Unfortunately for him, Surrey’s master batsman Jack Hobbs – whose son accompanied Bill Boddy on his first visit to Brooklands – did not appear in any of these matches.

Hobbs scored a world record 61,760 runs at an average of 50.70 during a long and storied career. Barnato scored 23 at 3.28. This rather suggests that he was out of his depth at this level, even in age when a wicketkeeper who could bat was considered a bonus rather than a prerequisite.

Barnato’s work behind the stumps, however, was of a higher order. WO Bentley reckoned him the best of his Boys – fast, savvy, mistake-free and a great team player – and no doubt that same stamina and concentration stood him in good stead when crouched behind the timbers in the game’s busiest, most demanding position.

Nineteen catches and a stumping from six matches is an impressive first-class return, while his bye count – 92 allowed while 2957 runs were scored (3.11%) – is very acceptable without being exceptional. A close look at his figures suggests that he – or his wayward bowlers – had only one off day.

Surrey’s stalwart England stumper Herbert Strudwick had recently retired after 25 years’ service. His 1495 victims, the third-most of all time, came at a rate of 2.2 per match. Barnato’s rate was an impressive but hardly representative 3.33. There was never any suggestion that he might be Struddy’s successor. He was strictly a gentleman playing for fun.

So, Tom Kristensen (above), this is the standard that you have to achieve the next time that you play in the Goodwood Revival’s cricket match. Go on, Mr Nye, hand him the gloves.

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