First published in Cape Argus, 15 March 2002.
John Young on South Africa’s test spinner.
Denys Hobson must have been smiling at Paul Adams’s return to test cricket last weekend.
Soon after the Proteas returned from the West Indies, with Adams again having been relegated to drinks carrier for most of the tour, the wrist spinner who turned so many games at Newlands said, “I have no doubt that Paul will be back.”
Hobson believes that “South Africans don’t understand spinners” and there’s far too much attention paid to economy rates ahead of strike rates.
“The press has always irritated me by nailing him. They always said he was chosen for his colour. It was not his colour,” said Hobson.
In a recent magazine interview, Ray Jennings called Adams’s West Indies trip “a nice paid holiday”. Jennings claimed that Adams “was struggling before he went on tour and got even worse”.
In reality, Adams was the stop spinner in domestic cricket when he won his place on the Caribbean tour and, in tandem with Claude Henderson, had helped Western Province to the top of the Supersport log.
Henderson kept up the good work to finish last season on 36 wickets at an average of 22.25. Adams’s average was 32.33 and he took only 18 wickets, but that was in almost exactly half the number of overs that Henderson bowled. Henderson also edged Adams on strike rate and economy rate last season.
This season, Henderson has taken 23 Supersport wickets to Adams’s 20, but Adams has bowled 68 fewer overs and his wickets cost 29.15 to Henderson’s 32.70. The economy rate of the two left-arm spinners is different by 0.02. Adams has thus taken a wicket for WP with every 68th ball bowled, Henderson with every 77th.
Australian batting legend Sir Donald Bradman thought it a nonsense to include maiden overs in a bowler’s analysis. Bradman argued that what really counted was the “penetrative rate” of a bowler, what we now call strike rate (or balls per wicket).
On this count, Adams is among the finest spin bowlers who have ever played. After the second test that ended at Newlands on Tuesday, Adams has a test strike rate of 67.64.
The wrist spinners selected by Bradman in his all-time team had strike rates of 69.61 (Bill O’Reilly) and 67.19 (Clarrie Grimmett). Pakistan leg-spinner Abdul Qadir took a wicket every 73 balls. Shane Warne’s rate of about 62 proves just what a great he is.
Adams’s strike rate
In 10 tests before his injury against England in January 2000, Adams’s stats place him among the greats on every count:
|Wickets||Ave||Economy rate||Strike rate|
|1st 10 tests||35||31.46||3.20||58.97|
|2nd 10 tests||27||35.70||2.55||83.77|
|3rd 10 tests||28||23.57||2.41||58.71|
NOTE added to article on 21 January 2020 by the author: At the end of his career, Paul Adams’s statistics still stacked up with the best in the game’s history:
|Paul Adams: 1995-2004||Wickets||Ave||Economy rate||Strike rate|
If Adams had bowled as many overs per test as O’Reilly used to, he would have been celebrating his 160th wicket in his 35th test, not his 100th.
It is true that O’Reilly’s phenomenal control allowed his captains the “luxury” of bowling him for really long spells but another of the myths about Adams is that he is expensive. Despite the pummelling he received from Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden at the weekend, his overall economy rate is still below three runs per over (2.84 at the time of writing, March 2002).
Among world spinners, only Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitheran has an average to compare with Adams’s efforts in tests and only Anil Kumble of India bowls as cheaply as Adams did in that period.
You have to go back a hundred years to South Africa’s Aubrey Faulkner (bowling on matting pitches) to find a strike rate under 60. Great players define themselves by performance over time so this is not to suggest that Adams is there yet. What the figures do show is that Adams was approaching very high levels of performance as he matured.
One would have expected South African cricket to do everything it could to get Adams back to the level he was before injury. And critics and observers to temper their scepticism by looking at the figures.
Instead, a below-par performance in his first series after injury against Sri Lanka pushed him down the pecking order. By contrast, Australia seems able to ignore Warne’s performances in India.
If Warne’s career was defined by performances against India, he would have no career at all.
In fairness to the selectors, coach and captain, Nicky Boje did well when called up in place of Adams, delivering match-winning performances with bat and all.
WP co-coach Vincent Barnes reports that within days of Adams’s return from the West Indies he was putting in overtime in the nets.
Barnes is another who was convinced that Adams would return to the big time. “He’s an unbelievably hard worker. We were doing pre-season training four times a week and Paul wanted to be part of every group. He took no break.”
All the hard work paid off spectacularly at Newlands. For months South Africans wondered where the next wicket (any wicket!) would come from. Adams provided the answer. [#]
Cricket has no name for Adams’s stock ball which turns away from the right-hander. Perhaps this ball should be the “Gogga”, in honour of the first left-arm wrist-spinner to take 100 test wickets? Not only did he land his stock ball with confidence and accuracy, he also unveiled a new, more deceptive variation.
In the past, Adams’s Chinaman (turning into the right-hander) has been easy to read because it was much flatter and faster than the “Gogga”. The Chinaman that shaved Ricky Ponting’s stumps and sensationally bowled Steve Waugh looked to the naked eye to be the same as the stock ball. Only slow-motion replays revealed the difference.
As a young man Gary Sobers bowled left-arm wrist-spin and last year identified variety as the key to Adams’s future success: “If he can turn the Chinaman, there won’t be many in the world that would play him.”
Sobers said that Adams’s lack of any “shoulder action” helped him deceive batsmen: “With a good Chinaman, he would be a tremendous player.”
Three years ago, Australian spin guru Terry Jenner worked with Adams. He was impressed: “He is not prepared to just accept what he has got, he is prepared to work.”
Jenner couldn’t understand the critics’ pessimism: “When I ask how Paul is going, most comments are generally followed by something sceptical.”
Perhaps the difference is the approach to spin in the two countries, something Hobson understands well. “South Africans have a safety-first approach,” says Hobson. “If you are going to develop spinners you need a brave captain and a coach who sets his mind to it and says he will bowl the spinner.”
Hobson’s advice to Adams is not to listen to any advice because it will just confuse him. On why so few spinners get selected, Hobson responds: “How many spinners have been on selection panels?” As to Adams’s future? “The selectors must not stuff it up again.”
At Newlands, the selectors got it right. By picking Adams, they went with Hobson’s choice.
[# The 2nd test between Australia and South Africa (8-12 March 2002) was won by four wickets by Australia. South Africa 239 and 473. Australia 382 (Adams 20-1-102-4) and 334-6 (Adams 21.1-0-104-2).]