Athol Rowan: Obituary

by Trevor Chesterfield

Centurion (South Africa) - There are those who would tell you that South Africa's top spinner of the second half of the century was Athol Rowan and not Hugh Tayfield.

It is not an argument either that is based on ability as opposed to style as Tayfield was, until earlier this season, the country's leading Test wicket-taker; rather it is more to do with their contrasting styles along with an inherent match-winning ability.

And the critics of earlier generations do of course, have their reasons; none of it stems from dewy-eyed sentiment either, which comes with the news that Athol Matthew Burchell Rowan has died, quite suddenly at his home in Somerset West. He had turned 77 three weeks before when celebrating his birthday on February 7.

Statistics do not always give a clear picture of how great some players are or have become. Athol Rowan fitted into this category rather than a typecast cardboard cut out you come across all too often and whose figures flatter and deceive at the same time.

He was certainly one of the world's finest off-spin bowlers in the years immediately after World War 2 and in an era which gave us Jim Laker.

Like his elder brother the incorrigable and irrascible Eric, he played in a batsman's era in South Africa which was so often dominated by Natal's Dudley Nourse; yet he was totally the opposite in mood and temperment to the colourful Eric, the Transvaal batsman and South African vice-captain; they toured in harmony during the 1951 tour of England, which was Athol's last.

Born in Kensington, Johannesburg on February 7, 1921 Athol died on February 21 barely five years after Eric.

The tragedy for Athol was that in an age where off-spin bowling produced some of its greatest exponents he has long been overlooked a classic example of earning his greatness and respect in other countries. Known to have a quick eye for spotting a batsman's weakness, he earned acknowledgement for being an attacking bowler while Tayfield relied on flight and guile. Unfortunately his career was short: a war injury crippled him to the extent that he was often forced to bowl in great pain and wearing a special brace.

When he returned to South Africa after the 1951 tour he was only 30 but in agony from the war wound which ended his career. Anyone who in barely five years has the ability in what was then South Africa's short first-class programme to take 273 wickets was rather special.

So it does not surprise when Jackie McGlew, a teammate during the 1951 tour of England and later a Test captain, was quick to pay a tribute to the bowler.

"He was the equal of Hugh Tayfield, especially on a turning pitch where he could spin the ball sideways," McGlew commented. "He also gained incredible bounce. There were times when the ball would turn and kick so sharply at right angles that it was capable of lifting over the left shoulder of a right-hand batsman."

McGlew was not the only one who praised this gifted player who was a useful lower-order batsman and good enough to score a century. Roy McLean and the late Louis Duffus talked and wrote highly of his cunning and tenacity; even Denis Compton, in one of his autobiographies, wrote of his cut and thrust and how Australian-like he was as a bowler: forgetting how pleased the Aussies were when an injury, early during their 1949-50 tour ruled him out of that series.

Others who showed respect and classed him better than Tayfield were Lindsay Hassett, Compton of course, and that perceptive writer John Arlott. In a career that started in 1939 but was interupted by the war where he fought in the desert, he managed only five seasons taking 273 wickets (54 in Tests) at 23.47, although his Test record is much more expensive at 38.59. However most of his Test victims were top-order batsmen who had succumbed to his devastating turn and bite extracted from the most easy-paced surfaces. The great Sir Len Hutton fell 11 times to his bowling in 24 Test innings in matches against South Africa; tribute to his uncanny tight control and accuracy.

Hassett suggests his greatest triumph was at Ellis Park during the Australian tour of 1949-50 where he took nine for 19 and retuned impressive match figures of 15 for 68 only to injure his damaged left knee in the process. It was a serious blow to South Africa's chances of competing as equals in that series and he missed all five Tests.

Unlike his older brother Eric, Athol did not become involved in neither adminsitration nor selection, preferring the quiet life. Only there are those who have strong views that his expertise was not called on to help coach young spin bowlers. When courses were held it was more of the modern generation the administrators turned to than the wise counsel Athol Rown could provide if asked.

Yet Athol Rowan also managed to successfully hide the serious of the knee injury, the result of an accident during the war, during most of his playing career. Arlott, in a glowing tribute in his Book of Cricketers, his personal collection of favourites, the carefully worked style says he suffered "the heaviest physical hanndicap any Test player has carried but also a psychological check which he had to overcome every time he bowled a ball."

All his 15 Tests were against England while Hassett admitted had he played in 1949-50 series South Africa would have been a far bigger threat. And despite being forced to use a leg iron he played more first-class games in England than in South Africa. In 1947 he took 102 wickets at 24.997; in 1951 he was less successful (53 at 26.58) and had to be nursed. Tayfield was flown in as a reserve and performed modestly with Compton and Hutton both saying they "knew which one they would prefer to face".

His injury not only robbed South Africa but also the world game of a great bowler; a fit Rowan would have been a devstating foil to Tayfield Down Under in 1952-53. It might have meant the difference between winning and drawing the series. Australia's top batsmen had played him with fearful design at Ellis Park, in Australia he would have caused havoc such was his ability to spin the ball; his grip, with fingers resting along the seam instead of across it. His powerful fingers and wrist would work a few miracles if the occasion arose.

Now he is gone to where all those great spin bowlers sit and think and wonder about getting rid of a troublesome adversary; and there is perhaps a little unfinished business with Hutton . . .