August 8, 2014

Remembering Paul Melville

The dashing Victoria batsman was set to be a star for Australia when his life was tragically cut short at 21

Paul Melville: a 1970s proto-Glenn Maxwell © The Cricketer (Australia)

It might be a grainy old black-and-white photo in a dog-eared magazine but you can see in it the intense stare. The batsman sets off away from the keeper to run, head bowed and shoulders dipped like a sprinter and the bat held firmly in both hands for safe passage down to the other end.

Paul Meville's canvas pads are a sight you don't see in professional cricket arenas these days; battered and caked in dirt from his acrobatic footwork and, at a guess, several attempts at diving into his crease after a quick single. His methods did not always faithfully adhere to the coaching manuals - someone who saw him play told me that he was like a 1970s proto-Glenn Maxwell and that they remember him getting bowled off the first ball of play at the MCG - but that probably only enhanced the feeling he was destined to do things out of the ordinary.

Paul Melville would be 20 or 21 years old in that photo and I'd searched so intently for one that I had time to imagine what he looked like and how he moved. When I found the photo it was everything I expected; not a cap or helmet in sight and a young man bursting with energy. There's something endearing about a batsman playing with only a mop of hair as protection from the bowler and the elements. It was more common in the past, obviously, but it suggests boldness and a carefree confidence.

Melville had confidence in spades. At the start of the 1978-79 Sheffield Shield season he set himself a 12-month goal of cracking the Australia Test side, and for a 21-year-old greenhorn of impetuous talents, that probably didn't seem outrageous in Packer-era Australia. Former Test spinner George Tribe reckoned him the best fieldsman in Australia. Reading that drew me back to the photo, where I noticed that it's not just the leg guards that are stained but his trousers as well. Of course.

They look like footballer's legs actually and that's because they are, though a recently retired one who had already settled on abandoning winter sport to devote himself fully to cricket. That started with a Lancashire League season at Rishton and then, Melville hoped, higher honours and tours.

At East Burwood (Australian Rules) football club his brilliance made him a target for opposition sides, but how do you stop a player who takes off down the wing and doesn't flinch when his third bounce flies over his head but instead retrieves the ball from behind his back without breaking stride? In 35 games he made such an impression they named an award after him. So too would his district cricket side, Richmond - their yearly award for the best clubman.

Melville's form was typically up and down for such a young player in 11 first-class outings by the early stages of the 1978-79 season. He had shown his worth against Western Australia late in the previous season, with his highest score, a second-innings 86 at the MCG. His first runs in professional cricket came against the 1977-78 Indian tourists, 31 before being bowled by Srinivas Venkataraghavan in the first innings and then in the second, trapped in front by Prasanna when he tried to force the ball through the covers. Melville didn't wait for things to happen.

Late in November 1978, he was dropped from Victoria's side after the first two rounds of Shield games. The feeling was that Melville's omission would be temporary, such was his talent, but a move to rein in the natural instinct for all-out attack also seemed necessary. He hit the ball with menace, particularly through cover, no matter what the situation. That approach had brought him 96 on first-grade debut as a 16-year-old, and the rise up the ranks was swift.

On the morning of November 20, 1978, Melville complained to his father of a headache. He thought it might have been the after effects of a blow he had received on the football field a year earlier. A day after that he was dead at 21 years of age from a brain haemorrhage.

If a vision exists of Melville batting for Victoria, it's scarce or undiscovered. The stats don't tell you much - 511 runs at 26.89 and nine catches - and the Victorian Cricket Association might have devoted more than four sentences of their 351-page 1978-79 annual report to a career and life cut so tragically short.

So as if his career had happened a hundred years earlier, those of us who didn't see him in the flesh can only go by photos like the one I found: Melville bursting forward explosively but forever frozen there in that spot.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko