Xen Balaskar    Getty Images
Xen Balaskas Getty Images

Xenophon Xen Balaskas, born October 15, 1910, was a crafty leg-spinner and a useful batsman who bowled South Africa to a historic win at Lord s in 1935. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who has one of the most uncommon names among Test cricketers.

Lord s, Ladies and Leatherjackets

Was it the Greek Street connection for the leg-spinner of Greek origin? Or was it the happy chance of coming across a pregnant woman and managing to pat her for good luck? Did that fortuitous encounter bring on the attack of the leather jackets? Or was it just a happy young man who had enjoyed a whale of a time in a large exciting city before the second Test match at Lord s? Or perhaps it was a combination of all that.

The fact remains that after that eventful evening in the seedy alleyways of Soho, Xenophon Xen Balaskas walked out at Lord s and enjoyed the three best days of his life.

A week earlier, Balaskas had bamboozled the mighty Yorkshiremen in Bramall Lane. He had picked up four wickets as South Africa had led by 62 in the first innings. And then there had been the great duel. Set 364 to win, the home team had lost the magnificent Herbert Sutcliffe.

The favourite son of the Yorkshire soil, Maurice Leyland, had walked out to bat. Balaskas had beaten him with a huge leg-break. Why don t you turn a fucking ball, Bally? the quintessential Yorkshire man had queried. Balaskas had responded with a straight one that had pegged back the off-stump. He had gone on to capture 8 for 99, and South Africa had triumphed by 128 runs.

Balaskas had not played the first Test at Nottingham, but his Yorkshire performance ensured that he would turn out at Lord s. And on the eve of the Test he was walking aimlessly in the back alleys of Leicester Square, with journalist Louis Duffus for company.

Suddenly, Duffus pointed to a rather shady, dimly lit street and cried, You must go up here this will surely bring you luck. He gestured towards the street sign that read, Greek Street. However, it was not really the most gentile of neighbourhoods. There were quick approaches, beckoning glances and feminine invitations of the form Hullo boys.

Balaskas, however, had other ideas of dipping into sources of luck. After spending some enjoyable moments in the aforementioned street, he was on his way back when he noticed a pregnant woman. It was his belief that if he patted her, there would be loads of luck to follow. And he proceeded to do just that, some light banter with the girl paving the way for a few pats on the back.

Indeed, luck was there in loads. The following morning, it was discovered that the Lord s pitch had been invaded by the curiously named leatherjackets . It was an insect that industriously destroyed the grass at its roots, leaving an arid desert which offered much reward to a bowler who could spin the ball sharply. And Balaskas could indeed do that.

Jock Cameron, the brilliant wicket-keeper batsman, played a glorious innings of 90 to enable South Africa put 228 on the board. And then Balaskas took over. 32 tireless overs of high quality leg-breaks and googlies brought forth 5 for 49, the stumps of Leyland falling prey once again. After the first half of the exchanges, South Africa led by 30.

And then Bruce Mitchell batted five and a half hours for 164, and as a result England were set a target of 309. After that Balaskas wheeled in again, sending down 27 more overs, picking up 4 for 54. Finally, Tommy Mitchell, after pushing and prodding in weak tail-end resistance, stepped out. The ball from Balaskas spun across the face of the bat. Cameron collected and had the stumps broken in a flash. South Africa had won their first ever Test in England. The hero of the moment was Balaskas, who had figures of 9 wickets for 103.

Curiously, he did not play the remaining three Tests that summer due to injury. In the 8 other Tests that he did play in his career, he collected just 13 more wickets at a stratospheric average.

In fact, his only other deed of note in highest form of cricket had come in the last Test he had played before his immortal effort at Lord s. That had been in New Zealand, in 1931-32. At Basin Reserve, Wellington, Balaskas had contributed to another win. But on that occasion it had been with the bat. He had hammered an unbeaten 122, batting in what Wisden had called a most attractive style . And then he had chipped in with two wickets as New Zealand had been bowled out in the second innings.

However, a man who had such important roles in two Test match victories, ended with a batting average of 14.50 for his 174 runs in 9 Tests, and a bowling average of 36.63 for his 22 wickets. That hundred aside, he reached double figures only once in 12 innings, managing 5 ducks in the process. The batting average he boasts, if such a word can be used in this context, is the lowest by a Test batsman with a century under his belt.

Balaskas had a weird, lopsided Test career to say the least. Perhaps he did not frequent shady streets on the eve of every Test match, or perhaps there were not so many pregnant women to pat. There certainly was no further attack of leatherjackets.

The uncut diamond

Balaskas was born to Greek migrants. His parents had opened the first restaurant in Kimberley, the diamond town of South Africa.

With De Beers mining its sparkling fortune, the company made sure of proper education facilities in the town, with plenty of opportunities for sports. Thus, there were two English high schools of high quality. Balaskas attended one of them and was coached by Charlie Hallows.

By the age of 15, he was playing First-Class cricket for Griqualand West. And by 19, he had shown enough promise. During that 1929-30 season, he scored 644 runs at 80.50, with a career-best 206 against Rhodesia, 132 against Eastern Province and 101 against Western Province in successive matches. For good measure, he also picked up 39 wickets at 21.20, 11 against Eastern Province and 12 against Western Province in the same matches that he had scored the hundreds. He topped both the batting and the bowling charts in Currie Cup. He was soon emerging as another of the excellent all-rounders South Africa has always produced.

That following year, he made his Test debut, against Percy Chapman s Englishmen. However, he could not translate his success into the next level. Ian Peebles and Maurice Tate dismissed him for paltry scores and he was handed the ball as the last resort for two flimsy overs in the second innings. It was the Buster Nupen match and South Africa clinched a thriller by 28 runs.

Nevertheless, Balaskas made it to the tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1931-32, and scored that unbeaten 122 in Wellington. But, with time the initial magic of his bat and the mystery of his ball wore off. The centuries became more occasional and dried off altogether. The wickets also grew sporadic and costlier. In fact, the match-winning spell at Lord s was more of an exception than the norm.

Post-War rejuvenation

Balaskas worked as a pharmacist and as a result had to move around the country. Thus he ended up playing for five different provinces. But, after the England tour, success became less and less frequent with the years. He did manage two four-wicket hauls against Vic Richardson s Australians when they visited in 1935-36, and got Stan McCabe for a duck at Newlands. But, soon he was being taken for runs even in the domestic matches.

While his career seemed to have come to a standstill when the Second World War interrupted action on the cricket field, Balaskas underwent a surprisingly rejuvenating season when the game restarted in 1945-46.

Bowling for Transvaal, he picked up 40 wickets at 15.95, with 10-wicket hauls against Eastern Province and Griqualand West Combined XI, Rhodesia and Orange Free State. He would have been a certain pick for the 1947 tour of England, but a knee injury halted his resurgence. In fact, he retired after an injury-interrupted 1946-47 series.

A pity really. One would have relished the contest of Denis Compton coming down the wicket to his leg-spin at Lord s, even without leatherjackets on the wicket.

After retirement, Balaskas lived in Johannesburg. He later laid out a concrete pitch in his garden, and provided net facilities. Players of repute would turn up to pick his brain, while he himself kept discovering new tricks and thinking about novel theories of bowling. John Traicos, another quality spinner of Greek origin, was one of the many to benefit from his tips. Besides, he kept himself fit with regular visits to the gym.

Well into the 1990s, the net at the Balaskas residence remained functional. One of the many men who visited the facilities and gain insights was Fanie de Villiers.

Xenophon Balaskas, the first Test cricketer whose name started with an X, passed away in 1994.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)