Alan Melville

A story of courage and determination tells the cricket career of ALAN MELVILLE, the 1947 South African team's captain, whose feeling for the spirit of the game helped to ensure the success of one of the most delightful Test series in recent years. Melville, born at Carnavon, Cape Province, South Africa, on May 19, 1910, revealed his cricket talents at an early age. Helped by the late Alan Stewart, a former Minor Counties cricketer and coach at Michaelhouse School, Natal, where he was a pupil, Melville attracted so much attention during five seasons in the eleven, three as captain, that in his last two years there he was picked for Natal. In his second match for the Province, a trial to choose the 1929 team to visit England, the schoolboy Melville scored a century and was so highly thought of that his father was asked whether he would allow his son to take part in the tour. It was decided that, in view of the plans for him to go to Oxford in 1930, Melville's studies must be put first. Shortly afterwards Melville suffered a fracture of three vertebrae in the small of his back in a car accident, an injury from which unhappily there were unexpected repercussions. After apparent recovery he proceeded as arranged to Oxford, where his cricket skill at once became obvious. In the Freshmen's match he made 132 not out and obtained eight wickets for 72 with leg-breaks and googlies of the cunning kind well remembered in South Africa, where, at 16 years of age, he took all ten wickets for 103 for Michaelhouse against Mr. Crockett's eleven composed entirely of the Natal side. Melville received his Blue as a Freshman, but, with I. A. R. Peebles in the Oxford team, he found little opportunity for bowling and so concentrated mainly on batting.

When in 1931 D. N. Moore was taken ill, Melville became the Oxford captain, and he led the University again in 1932. In May of that year he broke a collar-bone in a collision when batting, and resumed only just before the' Varsity match six weeks later. After occasional appearances for Oxford and Sussex next year, he captained the County in 1934 and 1935. In the winter of 1934 he underwent an appendicitis operation. Yet next summer he made 1,904 runs with an average of over 40, and headed the Sussex figures for batting and bowling (12 wickets). At this period probably only his South African birth kept Melville out of the England side. His fighting qualities were revealed again when, handicapped by an injured thumb, he hit 101 in ninety minutes at Hove off a Nottinghamshire attack which included Larwood and Voce in their prime. In 1936 Melville returned to South Africa to take up an appointment on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. He became captain of Wanderers, Transvaal's leading club, then of the province itself, and in 1938-39 led South Africa against W. R. Hammond's men. In the Second Test Melville damaged a leg and it seemed unwise for him to take part in any of the other Tests. Not only did he play, but he promoted himself to first wicket, and, with P. G. Van der Byl, a member of his 1932 Oxford team, shared in successive stands of 108 and 131. An injured thigh prevented him from opening the second innings of the marathon Durban match, but, though lame, he hit his first Test century.

During the war Melville served with the South African Forces, but a fall when training brought a recurrence of his back trouble. For eleven months Melville wore a steel jacket, and it was thought that he would never play cricket again. After demobilisation in 1945 an intensive course of physical exercises brought about such a good recovery that he resumed playing, but took part in only two matches before dropping out. At first many feared that the back injury had re-asserted itself. Then came the news that his wife was suffering from infantile paralysis and that he was at home looking after the two children. Gradually Mrs. Melville got better, and by the beginning of the South African summer of 1946 Melville once more was able to return to cricket. Immediately he jumped into form, so that his choice as captain of the 1947 team became automatic.

Early in the season in England he broke a bone in the little finger of his left hand, and in the First Test strained his thigh, which did not completely right itself till the end of the summer. Melville had hoped to bat first or third wicket down the Tests, but Dyer's inability to accustom himself to English conditions, probably because he was not well, created a pressing need for an opening batsman which Melville himself answered. This extra responsibility did not appear to affect his batting, for, after the early loss of Mitchell and Viljoen at Nottingham, he and Nourse set up a third wicket record for any Test with a stand of 319. Although handicapped by a bad limp throughout the second innings, he obtained a second century in the match, the first South African to do so against England. With another hundred in the Second Test, he created cricket history as the first man to score four consecutive Test centuries against England. Only J. H. Fingleton ( Australia), who got three against South Africa in 1936 and one against England some months later, had previously made four consecutively in Test cricket.

That performance at Lord's was Melville's crowning moment as a batsman. For the first two months of the season he had borne the main burden of a side lacking form and confidence, but the strain began to tell and his powers declined so much that, after making five centuries in his first 21 innings, he reached 50 only three times, and 100 once, in his last 19. The mental and physical exhaustion, indeed, took such toll of a never robust physique that on his return to South Africa Melville weighed 27 pounds less than when he set out; and, no doubt, the question of health influenced his retirement from cricket, announced during the winter.

Spectators at Nottingham were fortunate in seeing Melville's batting in all its phases. After the early setbacks his innings progressed from stylish care, with the forward defensive stroke a predominant feature, to immaculate and fluent stroke play. In the truest sense he has shown batting of the classic mould. Six feet two inches tall, he used his height both for attacking and defending, with mastery of all the strokes, in a way attaching particular attention to his strength as an on-side batsman. Unlike Nourse, Melville rarely seemed to thump the ball: perfect timing made it travel from his bat at uncommon speed. He hit without effort and, like all the best players, looked to have plenty of time in which to finish his strokes.

A shrewd, undemonstrative captain, he inspired the affection of his own men and the respect of his opponents. His frequent variations of field placing, all done by a slight movement of a finger, showed an astute knowledge of English batsman, and his work in the covers set a splendid example to a good fielding side.

© John Wisden & Co