Cricket: From a frog to a thoroughbred

Stephen Brenkley finds how Paul Adams has turned from freak show to serious act
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THERE is a mild contradiction about Paul Adams. He spends the significant bit of his working life with his head pointing to the ground, but his eyes are on the stars, which is the very place he may be headed. This is barely the half of it. Adams is probably the last top sportsman on the planet of whom it could be said that what you see is what you get.

What you see is a bowling action so bizarre that had a coach so much as suggested it in any manual on spin bowling he would not only have been stripped of his duties but committed for his own safety. It is a contorted, seemingly uncoordinated combination of arms and legs which, on the point of delivery, sees Adams twist his body and turn his face to the pitch.

What you get, or at least what you get mostly for the moment, is the left-arm wrist spinner's googly, turning away from the right-hand batsman, usually on line and fizzing through the air at various paces. There may be more where this comes from and, especially, there may be a Chinaman, the one that turns in.

Adams first played for South Africa when England toured his country three years ago. He was only 18 years and 340 days old and his method exercised spectators as much as his extreme youth. The "frog in a blender" description which was immediately attached will stay with him forever.

In those days it was all so weird that you would not have been altogether surprised to see him emerge from the action with a light bulb flashing in his mouth, but that is Uncle Fester from another Addams Family. It has not been a constant round of bewildering success for him since. Freakish he may be but so far his returns have been ordinary enough.

"I think I've just bowled the best I have in any Test I've played," he said last week of his 16th match, at Edgbaston. "I settled down earlier than I have before and got into a routine. I've learned to be much more patient, to wait and wait. It takes time to get the batsman to make mistakes. Maybe before I was rushing things, pushing the ball through too quickly, trying to make something happen."

It was clear from his spells in both innings at Edgbaston that he is ready to to try to pin down the opposition. He was marvellously controlled and clearly it does not matter where he is looking. His line of sight must still have taken the majority of the home audience unawares. Those who either have satellite sports channels or watched him in the low-key South Africa A tour to this country in 1996 may have been unfazed. The rest will have been stunned.

"I used to be a seamer when I was much younger but I've always bowled like this," he said. "I can bowl by standing upright but it doesn't feel as comfortable. This just suits me. I started spin bowling when I went to Plumstead School in Cape Town. I'm obviously fairly supple and I've never had a single injury through bowling. People ask me about whether I'll be able to keep on bowling like this, well I'll just go on while it lasts. But I don't feel any pain in my shoulder or wrist or back." This information is almost as astonishing as the action itself.

Adams knows that his stock ball will always be the googly but he is also aware of the importance of variety. He made progress on that part of his game on South Africa's tour to Australia last winter. He played in only one of the three Tests but used the spare time for plentiful practice, being advised by Ashley Mallett, the former Australia slow bowler. Mallett may have been a thoroughly orthodox right arm off-break bowler but Adams can hardly turn for guidance to previous purveyors of similar type.

"I'll bowl the one that turns away most of the time," he said. "But every few overs or so I'll put in something different just to surprise. You don't need to do it too often and I think my Chinaman is much better than it was. But pace is important, too, and the batsman are bound to have trouble picking it up."

Adams, surprise, surprise, is fiercely competitive like all the Proteas, but he has an instinctively mischievous white-toothed smile. He looks the part of a clown, too, in his baggy flannels, but this should not underestimate his feelings towards batsmen. He is excited and deadly serious about removing them.

At Edgbaston his match return of 5 for 119 from 54.1 overs included his 50th Test wicket (Mark Ramprakash) to which he soon added the 51st (Dominic Cork). When the Lord's Test begins on Thursday he will be 21 years and 149 days old. It would be nonsense to compare him with Shane Warne, the greatest spinner of the age, but that is a mere 18 days older than Warne was when he began his Test career.

1995: Roy Pienaar lbw b Adams 19

Century Park, November 1995, Northern Transvaal v Western Province.

Roy Pienaar, Northern Transvaal's captain and formerly of Kent, became Adams' first victim in first-class cricket. Pienaar takes a perverse delight in it these days.

"YUP, you could say, it was me who who set him on the road. We all struggled getting used to his action but we thought if we saw him off for a few overs we would deal with him. It was his accuracy that took the breath away because he just wasn't looking at the target. The ugliness of it is undeniable but there is no doubt he set me up nicely. It's not that easy to use your feet to him because he's quick for a spinner and if you're stuck in your crease and he hits the seam and gets one going straight on then there could be trouble. I was out; there's not much doubt. He could be a terrific bowler by the look of him."

1998: Ricky Ponting c and b Adams 62

Sydney, January 1998. Australia v South Africa.

Ricky Ponting, the shining hope of Australia's middle-order future was Adams' first - and so far only - victim in Tests in Australia. Ponting senses a formidable opponent.

"IT WAS the first time I had come across him because I had not been on Australia's tour to South Africa the year before. It is a funny action which for a few balls can completely baffle you. But then you have just got to watch the ball from his hand. I had got into the sixties when I hit one against the spin and got a leading edge back to him. I expect he can become a pretty good international bowler, but batsmen will get accustomed to his action. It is what actually comes out of the hand that matters and I tried to play him like I would any left-arm finger spinner. He fizzes it a bit, though, and no doubt I will see him again."

1998: Mark Butcher c Kallis b Adams 77

Edgbaston, June 1998, England v South Africa.

Mark Butcher had shared a first-wicket partnership of 179 with Michael Atherton when he swept to backward square-leg and provided Adams with his first Test wicket in England.

"FOR the first over or so it's quite difficult to adjust to because you have never seen anything like this before. After that it becomes easier. Most balls are turning away from you and the shot I played to get out wasn't really a good one. It's a mistake that I wouldn't believe I would make again but he does keep you watching. He is quite quick through the air and you have to watch him from the hand. He is only young, so he has obviously got time to become a fine bowler. But you don't think about his mode of delivery after a while, you just get on with playing it. He bowled accurately but I felt in good form and I didn't find it perplexing."