Paul Sheahan: Oozed composure and confidence at the batting crease
Paul Sheahan © Getty Images
Paul Sheahan was born on September 30, 1946. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the dashing strokeplayer from Australia who turned to an obdurate opener.
Andrew Paul Sheahan is the only Test cricketer till date whose great-grandfather had played Tests as well: the leg-spinner William Henry Cooper had played two Tests for Australia in the early 1880s, and had built a reputation for turning the cricket ball by the proverbial mile.
Sheahan was, of course, a specialist batsman: he had started off as an outstanding strokemaker who, in the words of Bill Lawry, “made cricket look easy”. His deceptive scholar-like face never seemed to reveal what was in store: on his day he could dominate any bowling.
Right from the moment he strode out to bat he caught attention. His teammate John Inverarity once said: “Some sportsmen when they walk out on the field look really self-assured. They command the eye. He [Sheahan] oozed composure and confidence, even as a 21-year-old.”
Unfortunately the art of occupying the crease for hours never appealed to him. He was probably preoccupied by other thoughts. As Lawry said: “His [Sheahan’s] mind was probably 80 per cent on cricket — he was already thinking about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He was a good athlete but probably, at the end of the day, he should have done better.”
Sheahan agreed with Lawry: “If I got the chance to go back over it again I’d do it in an entirely different way. I’d be much less impatient or try to be… and I think I would have tried to be a bit tougher and prize my wicket more.”
Like his great-grandfather, Sheahan also played for Victoria; apart from his dazzling cameos he was also an outstanding fielder who manned the covers with supreme efficiency, and was one of the better fielders of his times, even by the high standards set by the Australians.
From 133 First-Class matches Sheahan had scored 7,987 runs at 46.16 with 19 hundreds. The Test numbers, however, were significantly inferior: 1,594 runs from 31 Tests at 33.91 with two hundreds. In his nine Ashes Tests — the Holy Grail for an Australian — he managed only 341 runs at 26.23 with a solitary fifty.
Sheahan was born in Werribee. He was typically referred to by his middle name, since one of the friends of his parents also had a son called Andrew. The name stuck. Paul’s father, a strict Presbyterian, was a public servant; the mother used to work as a secretary.
Paul’s father, a district cricketer, wanted his son to play cricket and was involved in a lot of micromanagement to make his son rise through the ranks. Also a keen student, Paul studied at the Geelong College before doing a BSc in pure mathematics and a Diploma of Education from the University of Melbourne. Two decades later he went on to do an MEd from the University of Adelaide.
Sheahan made a reputation as an attractive batsman at a very young age. As Marc Fiddian wrote in Australian Elegance, “The youthful [Paul] Sheahan was tall and suited to playing off the front foot, but it would not have mattered because he was an effective stroker of the ball wherever he placed his feet. He was also the personification of elegance, hitting the ball with a minimum of energy and using his height to gently steer the ball to its proposed destination.”
Sheahan went for the Victoria trials and was selected; he came under the tutelage of Jack Ryder, who insisted that Sheahan played more off the front foot than he usually did. He made his First-Class debut against New South Wales [NSW] at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) at an age of 19, scoring 61 and five. He scored 106 not out — his maiden First-Class hundred — against South Australia at MCG in this last innings that season.
He took off in the next season from where he had left: he started with 136 against Queensland, followed it up with 73 and one against NSW; then followed what would remain his career-best knock — a dominant 202 against South Australia. In five consecutive innings — all at MCG — he had scored 518 runs at 129.50.
Almost immediately he was selected for the New Zealand tour for some unofficial ‘Tests’; he scored 135 in the second unofficial ‘Test’ at Christchurch, and returned with the reputation for his flamboyant batting and outstanding fielding. Back home he slammed 161 for Victoria against the touring New Zealanders at MCG and followed it with 68 against the touring Indians. He was immediately drafted into the Test side.
Bobby Simpson won the toss and elected to bat in the first Test at Adelaide against India. Sheahan’s turn came after Lawry was caught behind off Abid Ali; he walked out, lost Simpson early, but added 118 for the third wicket with Bob Cowper in 102 minutes. He scored 81 in 121 minutes with 10 boundaries; Wisden called it a “splendid debut”.
The series was a cakewalk as Australia whitewashed India 4-0. Sheahan had an impressive series, scoring 318 runs at 45.42 with three hundreds: not surprisingly he got starts but got out in all his seven innings on scores between 22 and 81. The trait would continue throughout his career.
The following table would display exactly why Sheahan’s captains were often frustrated by the fact that he did not live up to his potential:
He began his Ashes on a decent note, scoring a 210-ball 88 at Old Trafford and adding 152 with Ian Chappell for the fifth wicket. The partnership was instrumental in winning the Test for Australia. That was, however, his only decent contribution in the series.
A similar story followed in the home series against West Indies as well: Sheahan scored 257 runs at 36.71; once again his scores ranged between 14 (there was an 11 not out) and 51 (which was his only fifty of the series).
The first hundred
Despite his inability to score big, Sheahan was still picked for the India tour of 1969-70. He scored 14 in the first Test at Bombay but Australia went on to win by eight wickets. The teams then moved on to Kanpur.
After India scored 320, Australia were reduced to 140 for four by the Indian spinners when Sheahan walked out to join Ian Redpath. The two batted brilliantly and added 131 in almost three hours before Redpath fell to Eknath Solkar. Sheahan kept on losing his partners at regular intervals.
He finally found a partner in the No 10 John Gleeson, who hung around, letting him score his maiden Test hundred. By the time he edged one to Farokh Engineer off Subrata Guha he had already scored a 257-minute 114 with 20 boundaries. However, the rest of the series went eventless for Sheahan, though his team claimed the series by a 3-1 margin.
Defying the South Africans
Australia travelled to South Africa next, where they received a brutal hammering in the hands of Ali Bacher’s side, losing all four Tests by humongous margins. Sheahan did not do too badly: he scored 247 runs at 30.87 with two fifties, and finished only behind Redpath and Doug Walters in both runs and average.
He handled the South African pace more efficiently than almost everyone in the side: at Kingsmead, Australia were bowled out for 157 after adding 44 for the opening stand; of these runs, Sheahan scored a 107-ball 62 with 10 fours — out of the 91 scored during his stay at the wicket. Australia lost by an innings and 129 runs.
In the final Test at St George’s Park, Sheahan scored 67 in 137 balls with seven fours and a six and 46 in 64 balls with six fours. Both turned out to be the highest in both innings. His teammates, however, let him down as South Africa went on to win by 323 runs.
The axing, the comeback, and the change in approach
Sheahan was dropped after failing miserably in the first two Tests at The Gabba and WACA in the 1970-71 Ashes. It did not help Australia’s cause as they went on to lose the series 0-2. He still made it to the Ashes tour to England — mostly due to his 537 runs at 59.66 the next summer. In the last match of the season he scored a match-winning 91 (out of 175) and 74 against South Australia at MCG.
Sheahan started the tour well with 135 against Leicestershire at Grace Road. However, he was not picked for the first three Tests, but was eventually picked for the fourth Test at Headingley with the series levelled 1-1 in the famous Fusarium Test.
The axing had probably done Sheahan good: he finally showed the intent to hang around. He scored a duck when Ray Illingworth and Derek Underwood bowled out England for 146 — but he hung around for 29 balls instead of throwing away his wicket before being caught brilliantly by Illingworth on the second attempt at silly-point off Underwood.
He came out at 31 for three in the second innings and saw his side crumble for 136; with the ball turning square he kept out Underwood and Illingworth for 135 balls and 154 minutes; he eventually returned unvanquished for 41, just about managing to save the innings defeat.
With England retaining the Ashes, Australia needed to win at The Oval to save the rubber. On a turning track, they were set 242 against Underwood, Illingworth, and Tony Greig; though Graeme Watson fell early, Keith Stackpole and Ian Chappell added 116 for the second wicket and Australia seemed to be on course.
It was then that Underwood and Greig intervened, and Australia were quickly reduced to 171 for five when Rodney Marsh joined Sheahan at the crease. With two quick wickets under his belt ‘Deadly’ seemed to be living up to his name, and things began to look ominous for the tourists.
Once again Sheahan came to the rescue: as Marsh began to play his unorthodox leg-side strokes, Sheahan smothered Underwood’s venom by presenting a straight bat over after over; a frustrated John Edrich, leading in the absence of the injured Illingworth, claimed the new ball and turned to Geoff Arnold and John Snow.
Marsh finished with a 51-ball 43 as Sheahan’s diligence of 44 lasted for 121 balls and 142 minutes. Australia won the Test by five wickets to level the series. He was “apparently entrenched as the opener Australia had sought for several seasons,” wrote Wisden.
Though Sheahan had missed out on the first-ever One-Day International (ODI) he went on to play the next three on the English tour. After winning the first ODI at Old Trafford, England posted 236 for nine in the stipulated 55 overs. Australia were 116 for three before Sheahan and Greg Chappell added 103; Sheahan eventually scored a 71-ball 50 with five fours and a six.
Australia won comfortably but England claimed the series with a win in the decider at Edgbaston. Sheahan never played another ODI and finished his career with 75 runs at 25.00.
Moving up the order
Pakistan toured Australia later that year, and in the absence of Stackpole (there was already no decent partner for Stackpole in the first place), Australia were left with no opener but five middle-order batsmen in the form of the Chappell brothers, Redpath, Sheahan, and Ross Edwards.
Though he lost Redpath to Saleem Altaf early in the first Test at Adelaide, he added 100 with Ian Chappell in 103 minutes; Sheahan justified his ‘raise’ with an obdurate 44 with four fours. In the first innings of the second Test at MCG, he saw off the new ball once again with Redpath, adding 60 for the first wicket.
Despite Australia’s 441 for five declared, Pakistan managed to acquire a 133-run lead. Australia were in trouble again when Altaf removed Redpath; Sheahan and John Benaud then got together for a 233-run partnership in 211 minutes. Sheahan himself scored a 207-ball 127 with 12 boundaries. Pakistan lost the Test. It remained Sheahan’s highest Test score.
With the series already won, Australia decided to rest a few key players, including Sheahan, for the third Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). Back to Sheffield Shield, Sheahan (if you mind the alliteration) scored single-handedly saved the match against South Australia at Adelaide, top-scoring in each innings with 49 and 154. It turned out to be his best season as he scored 1,002 runs at 83.50 with four hundreds.
The abrupt retirement
He opened innings with Stackpole against New Zealand the next season without any success. However, he batted well in Sheffield Shield yet again, scoring 783 runs in the season at 52.20 with two hundreds. The best among these innings was perhaps the 171 not out against South Australia at Adelaide out of a team score of 325 for five on a turning track against Ashley Mallett and Terry Jenner: Victoria won by 78 runs despite conceding a first-innings lead.
In the last match of the season, he guided Victoria to another victory — against NSW at SCG. After NSW declared at 250 for five, Sheahan scored 75 not out before Stackpole declared Victoria’s innings closed at 250 for two. After Jeff Thomson bowled out the hosts for 166, Sheahan guided Victoria home.
Victoria won the Sheffield Shield that season. Almost immediately afterwards, Sheahan surprised everyone by announcing his retirement from First-Class cricket to pursue a career in education. He was only 27 then.
Paul Sheahan (right) has been serving as the vice-president of the Melbourne Cricket Club from 2009 and is also a member of MCC © Getty Images
During his playing days Sheahan had already been teaching at the Geelong Grammar School — a place where he taught from 1973 to 1983. In the meantime he also worked as a guest at Winchester College in 1977 and 1978.
Referred to as “one of the nation’s most controversial educators” by The Age he was appointed the Principal of Geelong Grammar School in 1986 — a position he held till 1995. He quit to join the Melbourne Grammar School as The Headmaster and continued to do so till his retirement in 2009 after a touching farewell tribute.
Sheahan has been serving as the vice-president of the Melbourne Cricket Club from 2009 and is also a member of MCC. He had also remained the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Director from 1998 to 2000, a member of Australian Drug Foundation Board from 2004 to 2006, and has been a member of the Victoria Police Operations Standing Committee Board since 2004.
Sheahan, the father of three daughters and the grandfather of 10 children, is now separated. He continues to play for the Newtown and Chilwell Club in Geelong.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)