The Spin | Isn’t it about time cricket consigned ‘chinaman’ to the past?

Andy Bull
India’s Kuldeep Yadav impressed during his debut in the fourth Test victory over Australia. He bowls left-arm wrist spin, which in the game has long been known as a ‘chinaman’ bowler. Photograph: Tsering Topgyal/AP

The laws of cricket are just a little older than the US Constitution, so they have been through a few changes since they were first set down. And the latest edition, due to be published this October, includes several amendments which anyone paying attention will likely have already read about, like a limit on bat sizes, the introduction of red and yellow cards, and another, more subtle one, which has escaped wider attention. The laws of the game have just become gender-neutral. They now use “he/she”, along with generic nouns like “fielder” and “bowler”. The one exception is “batsman”, which, after some consideration, was decided to be “a term of the game” that applies equally well to men and women. A batter, as they say, is only fit for baseball and fish.

So the language of the game is changing. And about time. There was a stir earlier this year when Christina Matthews, chief executive of the Western Australia Cricket Association, complained that the game was “disrespecting half the population” by “using terms such as 12th man, batsman, fieldsman and nightwatchman without a second thought.” Matthews, who played 20 Tests, also said, “I’m not saying people are deliberately trying to offend but it’s a bit like bullying - whether you’re bullied or not is dictated by the person who is on the end of it, not the person who’s doing it.” Her comments were widely reported in England, Australia, New Zealand and India. And, for a brief moment, cricket became a little patch of the battleground in a wider culture war.

To Dharamsala, then, and the fourth Test between India and Australia, where a 22-year-old debutant named Kuldeep Yadav just ripped through Australia’s batting order. Yadav bowls left-arm wrist spin. Which, and here’s the hitch, means he is known as a ‘chinaman’ bowler. Problem being, of course, that the rest of the world knows that word as a dated, offensive, racial epithet. Slow left-arm wrist spinners being only a little more common than Chinese Test cricketers, the game has, somehow, been able to get away with using this label for the best part of a century now. Credit then, to Andrew Wu, a sports reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald, who called it out on Twitter and in a column last week.

This being cricket, there is a story to it. In 1933, England were playing West Indies in the second Test at Old Trafford. The West Indian team included Ellis ‘Puss’ Achong, a left-arm wrist spinner from Trinidad, who was, the papers said, the first Chinese man to play Test cricket. This wasn’t quite right, as the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent pointed out in his tour preview, Achong did have Chinese heritage, “but is far from being a full blooded Chinaman”. The paper explained that Achong “will bowl steadily and well, but” – and this gives you an idea of the context – “the guile of the heathen Chinee is not his”.

That Old Trafford Test became famous as the match in which Douglas Jardine was given a dose of his own. The West Indies captain, Jackie Grant, set his two quicks, Manny Martindale and Learie Constantine, to bowling Bodyline. Jardine scored a fine century, and shared a stand of 140 for the seventh wicket with Walter Robins, the Middlesex all-rounder. Robins had made 55, when he came down the wicket to Achong, missed the ball, and was stumped. As he walked off, he’s supposed to have said to the umpire Joe Hardstaff: “Fancy being done by a bloody Chinaman.” Constantine, fielding nearby, replied: “Is that the man, or the ball?”

RC Robertson-Glasgow once wrote that Robins was known for his “levity, never broadening into buffoonery”. So the story sounds plausible. And Achong, who died in 1986, took pleasure in telling it himself. Trouble is, it doesn’t stack up. “Chinaman” was being used in English cricket long before Achong came on tour. It seems to have been a Yorkshire phrase, used there as others might say a man that span the ball had put “Irish” on it. The first mention I can find is in this very paper, in a book review from September 1926. “Who has ever seen Macaulay bowl the ‘googly’ in serious cricket? And if he did, what would a certain other member of the Yorkshire XI have to say about this sudden use of ‘t’Chinaman’?”

It pops up again in a Guardian article from 1929, on Constantine’s first match in the Lancashire League. “Waddington, of Yorkshire County renown, bowled for Accrington; he got one of his wickets with a leg-spinner – the ball named ‘T’Chinaman’ in the Yorkshire team, and much dreaded by those who used to field close to the wicket.” So two Yorkshiremen, Abe Waddington, and George McCaulay, both bowled the delivery before Achong did. The first, though, the man who coined the term, seems to have been a third Yorkshireman, Roy Kilner, who died in 1928.

In 1948 Kilner’s team-mate Arthur Mitchell told the Yorkshire Post: “We first heard of it when Roy Kilner began turning his wrist over and making the ball turn from the off. Up to then, Yorkshire’s left-handers had been orthodox spinners or seam bowlers. A name had to be found for it, and I suppose it seemed that ‘Chinaman’ was as good a name as anything.” This is backed up by one of Neville Cardus’s anecdotes, although, this being Cardus, you have to allow for the liberties he’s taken in telling it. “I remember that poor dear Roy Kilner once told me that the next development in the game would produce a left‑handed googly bowler. ‘I’d like to see somebody a-bowling t’wrong un left handed. I’ve tried it misel’, but t’Yakshire team calls it t’Chinaman contemptuous like.’ Even Emmott Robinson fielding at silly point, used to watch Roy in some suspense. ‘Now doan’t thee bowl t’Chinaman whatever tha does, Roy,’ he would say.”

Even then the phrase was offensive. In August 1934, the Yorkshire Post warned its readers: “The Chinese … regard the word ‘Chinaman’ as derogatory, and it should, therefore, be avoided.” “John Chinaman” was the stock caricature of a Chinese labourer, used in cartoons, sketches and songs. And in cricket, the Post explained, the word referred to “a ball of oriental cunning”. Eighty-odd years later, you don’t have to step far back to be struck by how absurd it is that the term is still in use, especially since the story behind it is bunk. If we can change the laws of the game to make them gender neutral, we can surely come up with a better name for Yadav’s bowling too.

• This is an extract taken from the Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. To subscribe just visit this page and follow the instructions.

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes