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ROWAN, ATHOL MATTHEW BURCHELL, who died on February 21, 1998, aged 77, was one of South Africa's best off-spinners. He played 15 Tests, all against England, between 1947 and 1951, and made a speciality of dismissing Len Hutton: 11 times in all, including five in a row at the end of the 1948-49 series and the First Test of 1951. Morally, the figure might be 12: he was the bowler at The Oval when Hutton was given out for obstruction after impeding wicket-keeper Russell Endean as he tried to take a simple catch. Hutton rated Rowan almost as high as Laker.
Rowan's achievements were the more remarkable since his leg was damaged by a wartime explosion: he was unable to put his full weight on the front foot, often bowled in pain, and sometimes in leg irons. In his way, he was as courageous as his famously feisty older brother Eric, but Athol's way was more good-humoured and quiet. He also suffered slightly different privations on the 1947 tour: England was still in the grip of rationing, and Rowan was a famous trencherman. Before the war, he had bowled fast-medium. When he came back, having escaped from the Germans when taken prisoner in the Western desert, he turned into an off-spinner while retaining something more like a seam bowler's grip.
His most dramatic performance came at The Wanderers in 1949-50, when he took nine for 19 as Transvaal bowled the mighty Australians out for 84. Set 69 to win, Transvaal were bowled out for 53 themselves. But Rowan's captain, Dudley Nourse, singled out his performance against England at Port Elizabeth a year earlier when he bowled almost unchanged for figures of 60-9-166-5. "It had to be seen to be appreciated," wrote Nourse. "As I called on his reserve of energy he unfailingly gave of his best without ever a murmur...A wholehearted bowler is Athol Rowan, but not a lucky one." He missed the Tests against Australia through injury, and the pain forced him to retire after the 1951 tour of England.