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Long march for the Chinamen

Anant Gaundalkar

The opening Test between South Africa and Australia at the Wanderers in Johannesburg witnessed two 'Chinamen' operating for either side - the home team's Paul Adams and Michael Bevan for the visitors. Both, with their tantalizing deliveries mesmerised the opposition batsmen to a great degree, and in the process became the first ever pair to play against each other in the same Test, and also the first authentic Chinamen bowlers to be seen in action in the last 25 years.

Ellis Achong, a Trinidadian of Chinese decent, is widely regarded as the originator of the 'Chinaman' - the left-arm off-break to a right-handed batsman. The first time the delivery was seen was when Achong dismissed Patsy Hendren of the MCC at Port-of-Spain in 1930. The accolade for the first left-arm wrist spinner should go the South African C.B. Llewellyn, but the real mystery is why only twelve practitioners of the art have performed at first-class level prior to the recent emergence of Adams and Bevan.

Llewellyn was a medium-paced left-arm bowler and, as an outstanding all-rounder was chosen as Wisden's Cricketer of the Year 1911. However, like so many who came after him, his considerable achievements were followed by intense frustration and Hampshire were extremely disappointed at his loss of form over the next five seasons before he rediscovered his all-round skills, taking 133 wickets and scoring 1,110 runs in his final county season. He toured Australia with South Africa, and played in the 1912 Triangular tournament but achieved little as a bowler.

Ellis Achong developed mainly as an orthodox slow left-arm bowler and toured England in 1933, claiming 71 wickets in all matches. He played again in 1934-35 series against MCC, taking one for 65 in a couple of games by which time, with the dramatic emergence of Constantine and Martindale, the West Indies were developing their fast bowling tradition and reliance on pace attacks which was their main forte in the years to come.

There are ten other players in this category to have ruled the cricketing world. They are 'Chuck' Fleetwood-Smith, Jack Walsh and George Tribe of Australia; Johnny Wardle of England, Sir Garfield Sobers of the West Indies, England's Denis Compton, Australia's Lindsay Kline, Johnny Martin and David Sincock, and West Indies' Inshan Ali.

Of these, Fleetwood-Smith was the most successful left-arm wrist spinner with mastery of the googly. In the decade before the second World War, he was one of five Australian bowlers to take 200 wickets in Sheffield Shield cricket and achieved notable success at Test match level. He concealed his change of spin so well that wicket-keeper Bert Oldfield needed special practice to learn the secret. Wisden noted that when he was able to control length, his Chinaman was "well nigh unplayable".

Sobers, of course, bowled using three different styles. Picked originally for West Indies as an orthodox left-arm spinner, he first tried the Chinaman on the unresponsive pitches of India and Pakistan. In an attack dominated by Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith and Lance Gibbs, Sobers could provide whatever special skills more required in the conditions, but as his Test career developed he concentrated on medium-fast and slow left-arm and gave up wrist-spin in the mid-1960s.

Left-arm wrist spin has always been regarded as erratic and uneconomical, an expensive luxury, delightful to watch but too unpredictable and unreliable for serious-minded people intent on winning cricket matches. This could be true of all wrist-spinners, although recently Shane Warne, Abdul Qadir and Mushtaq Ahmed have developed skills comparable with the great attacking bowlers of all types in any era. The difference for left-arm wrist-spinners is that there have been so few of them and, with rare exceptions, they have made modest contributions at Test level. Notable initial success has attracted great interest and public attention followed by selectorial mistrust, restricted opportunities and, particularly since the increasing emphasis on one-day game, the predominance of medium-paced line and length bowling in all forms and at all levels.

The overriding problem has been to sustain consistent accuracy for long spells, and although this has been achieved by them all at some stages for some periods in their careers, with the notable exceptions of Fleetwood-Smith and Wardle, no Chinaman bowler has dominated Test matches and delivered a winning strike-rate. But besides the inherent difficulties of control and accuracy, opportunities for wrist-spinners have been restricted by selectors and captains who've discouraged the more unpredictable and risky from of attack.

Till, that is, Adams first, and Bevan more recently, came along and proved to be the key elements of the bowling attacks of their respective sides...