Obituary

Alan Melville

MELVILLE, ALAN, who died in the Kruger National Park on April 18, 1983, aged 72, was arguably the most elegant batsman of his generation. Those who were lucky enough to see it still remember after 50 years his innings of 114 in two and a half hours for Sussex against the West Indians at Hove in 1933.

It was the summer after the body-line tour and the fast bowlers, Griffith and Martindale, assailed him with vicious bouncers. They might have been serving up by request something to amuse him and the spectators. They were mercilessly hooked and, if they pitched the ball up, they were driven. Even granted the placid Hove wicket, it was a remarkable display. Years afterwards, meeting him at Lord's at a time when short-pitched fast bowling was being constantly discussed, I asked him if he had ever ducked to it. He smiled sweetly and said, "I don't think so. I think either I hit them or they hit me!" From what I saw of him I doubt if he was ever hit by anything that rose high enough to be hooked.

Standing six feet two inches and slightly built, he was a wonderful timer of the ball; his methods were a model for the young cricketer and reduced every risk to a minimum. The drive, the hook and the cut all seemed to come equally easily to him and he was, besides, a good player off his legs. Moreover he was a fine field anywhere and in his younger days a serviceable change bowler, first with leg-breaks and later with off-breaks and swingers.

Picked for Natal at seventeen, while still a boy at Michaelhouse, he scored a century next season in a trial to select the 1929 side to England and his father was asked whether he would allow him to go. But he was anxious to follow his elder brother, Colin (also a stylish batsman who had a trial for the University), to Trinity, Oxford, and it was thought wiser to refuse. In the Freshmen's Match in 1930 he made 132 not out and took eight for 72. Naturally he was picked for the first match, against Kent, in which he scored 78 and put on 148 with N. M. Ford for the fourth wicket before being run out. In the next match he made 118 against Yorkshire.

These innings were the more remarkable as he had had little experience of playing on grass. Unfortunately in the 'Varsity match he was hampered by a knee so weak that it was only a few minutes before the start that it was decided to play him and he did nothing. In 1931 D. N. Moore fell ill and Melville was appointed captain in his place. In 1932 he was captain in his own right, but missed much of the season owing to a collar-bone broken by a collision while batting. In 1933, when he played a fourth time, he had to stand out of many matches in order to work.

Although his cricket for Oxford during these years left no one in any doubt about his class, he was, like some other notable 'Varsity bats, a disappointment in the match at Lord's: his highest score was 47 and his six innings produced an average of 16 only. As Oxford had Peebles in 1930 and Owen-Smith for the next three years, comparatively little use was made of his leg-breaks, but in 1932 he did the hat-trick against Leveson Gower's XI at Eastbourne and headed the averages.

He had been playing for Sussex since 1932 and continued to do so with great success until 1936, captaining them in 1934 and 1935. In 1935 and 1936 he headed their batting averages and in 1935 the bowling averages too, though he took only twelve wickets. It will not surprise the friends of so charming and modest a man that he was criticised for not bowling himself more. In 1935, though suffering from a very sore thumb, he made 101 in 90 minutes against Larwood, then admittedly past his best, and Voce at Hove, and his last innings for the county, against All India in September 1936, was the highest he ever played for them, 152, including a hundred before lunch on the second morning.

Returning home at the end of that season and joining a firm of stockbrokers in Johannesburg, he became captain of the Transvaal side and then captained South Africa in 1938-39 against England. He did little himself in the first two Tests, but in the third promoted himself to open and shared in stands of 108 and 131 for the first wicket, and in the notorious timeless Test which concluded the tour scored 78 and 103, though he was handicapped throughout these three matches by a bad leg which finally forced him to move himself down the order.

Not physically very strong, he had never fully recovered from a back injury sustained in a car smash before he went up to Oxford, and a fall while training with the South African forces in the war caused a recurrence of the trouble. For nearly a year he was in a steel jacket and it was feared that his career was at an end. Luckily the fears proved false and by 1947, after various vicissitudes, he was fit to undertake the captaincy of the South African side in England. The earlier part of the tour was a personal triumph for him, culminating in innings of 189 and 104 not out in the first Test at Nottingham, followed by 117 in the first innings of the Lord's Test.

He thus became the first batsman to score four consecutive hundreds against England in Tests. Moreover at Nottingham his stand of 319 with Nourse, made in exactly four hours, was at the time the highest for the third wicket in any Test. After this and in view of his inspiring captaincy, it was disappointing that his side should lose three of the Tests and draw two. He himself was, not surprisingly, completely worn out by the end of June: he had lost a lot of weight and the food rationing still in force did not help him. After a brave 59 in the second innings of the third Test, he accomplished, by the high standards he had set himself, comparatively little, though an innings of 114 not out against his own county at Hove must have given him much pleasure.

At the end of the tour he announced his retirement from first-class cricket. However, in the autumn of 1948 he was persuaded to reappear and an innings of 92 for Transvaal against F. G. Mann's MCC side brought him an invitation to play in the first Test. This he had to refuse owing to an injured wrist, but played in the third Test, in which he ended his international career with two useful innings. Later he was for many years a South African selector.

© John Wisden & Co