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Ellis ‘Puss’ Achong, born February 16, 1904, was a left arm slow bowler from Trinidad who mixed up his orthodox finger propelled breaks with occasional wrist spin. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man of Chinese extraction who may have been responsible for the term ‘chinaman’ entering the cricketing lexicon.
Out to a bloody Chinaman
Summer of 1933.
It had required a rescue act by captain Douglas Jardine and all-rounder Walter Robbins to steady England – so surprising and spirited had been the West Indian show at Old Trafford. First George Headley had posted his magnificent 169, adding 200 with wicketkeeper Ivan Barrow. Following that, Manny Martindale had rocked the vaunted England top order.
Robbins, whose leg-breaks had destroyed the visitors at Lord’s, had joined his skipper at 234 for six in reply to 375, and the two had scripted a superb rescue act adding 140 in two hours.
Now, as Ellis Edgar “Puss” Achong ran in to send down his slow left arm spin, the Middlesex amateur was in a belligerent mood. He stepped down the wicket, his intentions aggressive. Strangely, however, the ball came back into him after landing, went through his legs, and Barrow whipped off the bails. Robbins was out for 55.
As he walked back, he turned to the umpire Joe Hardstaff Senior and blurted out in the earshot of Learie Constantine, “Fancy getting out to a bloody Chinaman”.
Constantine, for long settled in England turning out for Nelson in the Lancashire League, had painstakingly peeled his way past the various layers of racial restrictions in the Caribbeans. Was he surprised at this rather ethnic comment by an Englishman, or was he just upset? Legend has it he turned towards the departing batsman and asked, “You mean the bowler or the ball?”
The roots of left arm wrist spin
Achong indeed was the first man of Chinese origin to play Test cricket. But, whether the remark by Robbins and the counter question by Constantine really christened the left-armer’s wrist spin as ‘chinaman’ remains debatable. Some even say that the term ‘chinaman’ should be used only for the left-arm spinner’s googly, and not the leg-break that turn into the right handed batsman.
Sketchy documentation suggests that Charlie Llewellyn, the left handed South African all-rounder who played the game in the late 19th and early 20th century, was the first man to experiment with the delivery.
Llewellyn also sprang from roots rather removed from cricket. Allegedly born out of wedlock to an English father and a black mother from St Helena, he grew up as a supposed mixed breed in the underprivileged quarters of Natal. It was a miracle he ended up playing for South Africa in spite of the nation’s infamous racial segregation. The story goes that he made it because his skin was light enough to pass him as a white.
In retrospect, looking at both Llewellyn and Achong, it does seem that in those days outsiders had to do something remarkable to break into the playing elevens. Perhaps it was for a reason that left arm wrist spin had indigenous origins.
Achong was born in Belmont, Port of Spain. A fantastic athlete from his early days, he also played football as a left winger, turning out for the Maple side in the local league. The individual local teams were largely representative and limited to different ethnicities. However, Achong was good enough to represent Trinidad and Tobago for 13 years between 1919 and 1932.
Yet, his main claim to fame in the cricket crazy islands stemmed from his reputation as a bowler. He sent down left-arm orthodox spin, slipping in wrist spinners from time to time.
When the Marylebone Cricket Club led by Hon Freddie Calthorpe visited the Carribean in 1929-30, Achong turned out for Trinidad. The island side played twice against the reasonably strong English team, winning the first match and losing a closely fought second game. Achong impressed with four for 43 and three for 49 in the win, his wickets including the prize scalps of Patsy Hendren and Les Ames.
He performed creditably in the second match as well, dismissing Hendren again while capturing four for 53 in the first innings. It got him selected for the second Test match against England at Queen’s Park Oval. Achong found it a bit difficult to raise his game to the next level to perform at Test grade, but accounted for Hendren once more to end his debut with two for 64 and none for 12. However, a rather serious injury sustained in the game prevented him for playing in any more Tests in the series.
He continued to play in the regional games with distinction, capturing ten wickets in the final of the Inter-Colonial Tournament against British Guiana in 1931-32. The performances earned him his place in the tour to England in 1933. He did pick up a second innings five-for, bowling West Indies to victory against MCC at Lord’s –dismissing Hendren yet another time. There was another haul of eight wickets against the Minor Counties. However, in the Test matches, he once again returned rather ordinary performances. True, the Robbins incident did take place during the Test at Manchester, but in the three matches, he managed just five wickets at 47.40.
The tour was successful in another respect. He got married during the visit. And in August he was signed by Rochdale in the Lancashire League for the 1934 season. Interestingly, Rochdale had been negotiating with none other than the great Don Bradman for the position of the overseas professional. They signed the West Indian spinner only after the Australian legend could not commit his availability.
It started a long association. Achong played in the Lancashire League until 1951, capturing more than 1000 wickets.
He played just one more Test series, appearing in two matches at Barbados and Trinidad when England visited in 1934-35. However, he managed just one more wicket. His Test career ended with only eight wickets in six Tests at 47.25 apiece.
Achong also called it a day from First-Class cricket that season, ending with 110 wickets at 30.23. After this, he migrated to England and continued to play in the Lancashire League.
He returned to Trinidad and Tobago in 1952. In 1954, he stood as an umpire in the 4th Test between West Indies and England at Port of Spain. It was a match that saw Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes all score hundreds, while Peter May and Denis Compton returned the compliment for England. Perhaps Achong was not very keen to raise his finger for the benefit of other bowlers.
In later life, the former left arm spinner served as a sports coach with the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of Education and played the roles of coach and selector for the Trinidad and Tobago cricket team.
Achong died in St Augustine in August 1986.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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