Adams' action took a heavy toll on his body, undermining his control, which was never the greatest to start with © Peter J Heeger

Grassy Park is a "salt of the earth" kind of suburb, where fathers wear blue overalls to work and kids sleep two or three to a bedroom and mothers do the washing by hand. It is the kind of place where, provided you avoid the gangs and drugs, you grow up with good values and an intrinsic understanding of what is right and what is wrong.

Thank goodness Paul Adams grew up in Grassy Park, because without the values instilled in him by his neighbourhood and family he would never have survived the tumultuous and heady trip from schoolboy to international star - at least not without significant scar tissue.

At first glance it is hard not to go along with the conclusion that Adams was used by South African cricket and then discarded when it had no further use for him. Retirement at the age of 31, when he was in prime health and still as keen as a kid to play, seems fundamentally wrong for South Africa's sixth highest Test wicket-taker. Take a look at the numbers, any of them - average, strike-rate, economy-rate - they're all impressive. And he's five years younger than Bryce McGain, the spinner who was set to make his debut for Australia until a shoulder injury sent him home from India.

But the flip side to the story is the reality of the last three years, during which time his chances to shine did not diminish. He was kept on contract longer than his results justified, and his salary was even paid by Western Province's major sponsor for a season simply to ensure that he was around to compete for a place. He was even plucked from the obscurity of club cricket and added to the national squad by selection convenor Haroon Lorgat a couple of years ago in the hope that "being involved" would somehow reignite the magic spark. But he spun the ball less than he used to, bowled slightly more bad balls, and crucially, had become far easier to read.

The unorthodoxy of his action had taken a heavy toll on his body, which had started to compensate for the strains placed on his hips and shoulders, further undermining his control, which was never the greatest to start with. The truth was, he simply wasn't taking wickets, or even placing batsmen under pressure any more. The surprise element had worn off and captains weren't prepared to back him and be patient.

Retirement at the age of 31, when he was in prime health and still as keen as a kid to play, seems fundamentally wrong for South Africa's sixth highest Test wicket-taker

As a kid he played backyard cricket with his brother Noel, using a tennis ball with the fur scraped off. Quite by chance they discovered that Paul could make it swerve in the air by spinning it - both ways. They knew nothing of cricket terminology and referred to the "in-spinner" and the "out-spinner", until the late, great Eddie Barlow discovered Adams and gave him an Academy place.

"It wasn't love at first sight, I assure you," Barlow recalled, "but I'm the sort of person who sees a diamond in every piece of broken glass, and after a couple of weeks I realised we had something special - a lad who was going to change South African cricket."

And he did. In many ways, Adams' debut year, 1995, was as good as it got. Young, naïve, innocent, ebullient - nothing bothered him, and England paid the price, especially when Devon Malcolm tried to knock his head off during the series-deciding tenth wicket stand of 72 with Dave Richardson in the Test at Newlands.

One of the triumphs of Hansie Cronje's ill-fated captaincy was his handling of Adams. South Africa's bowling strength and depth of allrounders meant there were always five frontline bowlers as well as Adams. It meant two things - first, he never had to bowl, and second, Cronje could use him as a strike bowler in short, sharp spells, never allowing the batsmen to settle, and prolonging the element of surprise.

Inevitably the South African board held Adams aloft as a trophy to celebrate the triumph of transformation and their expensive development programme, but the truth was rather different, as his brother and mates from Grassy Park will testify. It took years before Adams was able to determine who was using him and who was abusing him, and to reach his own conclusions about what being a "role model" meant. But he got there; now, married for three years, and with two daughters, there are fewer more balanced ex-cricketers than this one.

Some fireworks last longer than others. The one called Paul Adams may have ended far earlier than everybody would have liked, but when it was burning at its brightest there were very few that produced brighter or more colourful showers of sparks, or put broader smiles on our faces.

Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency