January 3, 2011

Life after the blender

By 28, Paul Adams had gone from school kid to superstar to struggling bowler to has-been. Now, he's a commentator and spin coach

Paul Adams. That action. "Probably would be very messy," he says, admitting he has never seen frog in a blender."Arms and legs flying everywhere." Somersaults after he took wickets. That joy he brought for a brief while. Not just with that action, but also with the way he played his cricket. That's all we might remember in the final analysis. And not, for example, that at the age of 31 he had to make a choice between continuing to play and bringing "food to the table" for his family. Or the quick rise and the initial difficulty in handling it. Or the strain the action put on his body.

He was just a kid bowling quick, imitating the likes of Garth le Roux and Clive Rice, with that action, until Shane Warne happened. That's when he started trying to bowl "inspinners and "outspinners". "Back in the day I didn't know the terminology and things," he says. "All I knew was I wanted to turn the ball away now, and now in. As I got older, I learned about all the terms and started reading about things."

Adams did come from a suburb, Grassy Park, where kids started "playing club cricket as nine-year-olds". That helped the prodigy, but he wasn't yet ready for the meteoric rise when he met Eddie Barlow at the academy. The action wasn't tampered with. "I was playing and having fun, but he sort of instilled that I had to keep testing myself at higher levels. I thought I would slowly rise through the leagues, but that call-up came quickly. Even when I made my debut and took wickets, it was all a blur. I was only running up and enjoying myself."

He enjoyed himself in the series against England, who were so befuddled they came up with the frog-in-the-blender description. However, Adams was to realise it wasn't all fun. Not only was he into the Test team straight out of school, he was also seen as the face of transformation in the country.

"As an 18-year-old, I had to learn about all the responsibilities and those things too," he says. "It was important for me to understand what kind of role I had to play. I think it's important that each and every top sportsman grabs onto that role. You are living your dream after all. As a young player, sometimes it's tough at that level. You still want to live like an 18-year-old, but you have to strike a balance. You live through trial and error too."

The error happened on the West Indies tour of 2000-01, when he was involved in the dope-smoking incident. "Sometimes, as young men, you don't realise the consequences, but we learnt our lesson."

Also, with time, the novelty of the action started wearing off, and five-fors stopped coming and runs started leaking. "Probably bowling with that action, the surprise element always gets lesser," he says. "That's when you learn the art of spin. It's not about just landing the ball there, you have to understand different periods of the game, different situations of the game. As 18-year-olds, you are not quite aware of those things. There weren't really mentors who could work out those things. You have got to learn things by yourself."

However, with the surprise element gone, and the body wilting under the demands of that action, menace and control - not his strongest ally to begin with - both left him. After Kanpur 1996 where Hansie Cronje told him to do something other than somersaults, and he produced six wickets, it took him close to seven years to produce another five-for. South Africa, by then, were looking to move on. Ironically, he didn't play much after his second-most productive year in Test cricket: 26 wickets, in 2003.

Because of the demands and the pressures you are under, you are always focusing on cricket, and you live in a little world where you are just looking at the playing field, and not at the bigger picture and what's going on
Paul Adams

After the Hamilton Test in 2004, Adams read in a newspaper that he was dropped. He says he wasn't told why they dropped him, but perhaps the writing was on the wall. By 28, Adams had gone from a school kid to a superstar to a struggling bowler to a possible has-been. He tried for three years, but by 31, after the selectors punted on him and brought him back to the squad but didn't see enough to pick in the final XI; Adams was gone. No more somersaults.

"I had to make a choice: keep playing or try and change the career and make the move somewhere else forward. It was tough but that's the way it goes. No playing opportunities. And I had a family and two kids. You have got to bring the food to the table. At that time SuperSport broadcasting helped me out and I got involved there."

Adams, 33, now does commentary besides being a spin coach at Western province academy. The match he is calling right now features 37-year-olds who are nowhere close to retiring. Adams, though, says he has no regrets. "Don't think I will change anything [if I could]. No regrets about how I played. I am very proud of it, the way I played."

There may be no regrets, but there is a lesson. He hadn't ever worked elsewhere when the commentary job came his way. Having gone virtually straight from school to international cricket, perhaps he wasn't qualified for much else.

"We don't quite see life outside the cricket field," he says. "Because of the demands and the pressures you are under, you are always focusing on cricket, and you live in a little world where you are just looking at the playing field, and not at the bigger picture and what's going on. As you get older, you realise you have got to make tough decisions."

The frog has left the blender, and is satisfied outside.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo