MEL JONES INTERVIEW
Jones played 61 ODIs and five Tests for Australia. © Getty
Inconsolable. Nothing but that could describe a little girl with two blonde ponytails on lane four of the track at the Olympic Park Stadium in Melbourne. The final of a 200m race was about to begin and she had finished fastest in the qualifier. Yet, her mother was found lending her words of comfort. In vain. “Mum, I can’t. I can’t do this,” she repeated, distraught. Was it the pressure of the final that got to her, or was the weight of expectation bogging her down? As it turned out, it was neither.
She was distraught about having to compete in the final alongside a black girl. That black girl was a 13-year-old Melanie Jones.It was the sort of experience that stuck in the memory of Jones, who went on to represent her country in cricket and become one of the first women commentators in the Indian Premier League. It was also a chance occurrence given that she describes her progression to that 200m final as a “fluke”. But from her opponent’s perspective, a black girl participating in the race meant that she was going to lose. While the blatant stereotyping should have irked Jones, it only amused her. She couldn’t believe she was competing in the final, let alone entertaining the idea of winning it. Speak of irony.
“I’m looking back going, ‘What’s going on…is she ill or what?'” says Jones, casually reclining on a sofa. “I hear her say to her mum, ‘Mum, I can’t do this.’ And at that point I think there’s pressure on her to win this or something, and then she said, ‘I can’t do this… there’s a black girl in the race.’ And I looked around wondering who she’s talking about. She seriously thought because I’m black I must be the fastest person in the race and that she wasn’t going to win. She was in lane four having finished first in the qualifying round! I then realised she was talking about me and I just thought, ‘My God!’
It wasn’t the first time that Jones, who was born to an Australian mother and a West Indian father – who she didn’t meet until she was 16 – was at the receiving end of racially-driven jibes. It was the 1980s, and Melbourne, a city now known for its multiculturalism, was “very white” back then. Being in the vanguard of women in a male-dominated sport may be one of her defining contributions, but colour was the first point of difference in her life.
“It happened on numerous occasions where police cars would stop and say, ‘What are you doing?’ I’d be like, ‘Ummm walking home’. They’d ask me for my ID and stuff like that. I didn’t think about it then. I just thought they were doing their job. I stood out whether it was at school or walking down the street or at the movies or anything. I was in an all white family as well. I was obviously curious about it to begin with. It wasn’t until I met my dad when I was 16 in England that I realised it was okay. My mum and I sort of still joke that I’m the whitest black chick in Australia. Because I’m Aussie really,” she laughs.
There were these, and then others that she had to confront at school, despite her mother being a teacher there. Jones though, never one to say too much, took it on the chin. Then came the day she landed a punch although, she reminisces that it could have been done in another way.
“There were these two kids who were the first Sri Lankan kids in our primary school. Our primary school had a lot of Greeks, Italians predominantly where I grew up, but these kids were a lot darker. There was this kid, I still remember his name; he was a big kid and he racially abused these two Sri Lankans. Mum saw it happening… She said he knew I was angry and so he kind of covered himself and I just snorted him in the nose! My mum just turned away because she didn’t want it to be known that she saw it,” laughs Jones. “I got more angry when it happened to someone else than when it happened to me.”
What these incidents did, however, were pique Jones’s curiosity about her colour and her lineage. Her curiosity was quelled with extensive reading about black history. She read right from Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in America, to the poems of Maya Angelou. It was her way of grappling with and finding her own way in that landscape.
“Who’s winning?” asks Jones’s mother on the first day of a Boxing Day Test, just half an hour into it. That sums up her understanding of cricket, not being sport-inclined at all. Yet she was instrumental in inspiring her daughter’s appetite for cricket, not just in terms of driving her long distances for a game, but even just sitting at cricket grounds for hours at end. Even though she didn’t know what exactly was going on, she did because Jones loved it so much – an association which began in a small town called Rutherglen, where Jones’s maternal grandparents lived.
It was a small country town 300 kms from Melbourne, which back then, would have, at best, housed just about 1000 people. It was where she spent her school and Christmas holidays playing cricket during the summers with her cousins. “It started with bowling a lot because I never really got a chance to bat because of my six male cousins. I was the automatic wicketkeeper being the youngest and struggling to get the older boys out,” laughs Jones. “You hit the ball into Nan’s chook shed and you’re out for the summer, likewise with Pa’s prized chrysanthemums – he grew flowers. It was long, hot Aussie summer days just playing, playing and playing. I was always West Indies when we were playing and my cousins were Australia. I was Malcolm Marshall when I was bowling, and Viv Richards when batting!”
Family influences aside it was John Handscomb – father of Test cricketer Peter Handscomb – who not just planted, but gradually watered the inceptive seed of cricket in Jones’s life. Handscomb was Jones’s Geography teacher in high school; born and bred in England, he moved to Australia and taught at Elwood High School for eons. Handscomb, in tandem with their physical training teacher, Deb Noonan, formed a girls’ team that got involved in local women’s clubs. They eventually toured New South Wales and played in teams across the state, before even touring New Zealand.
“I was lucky enough to go through high school with a number of other girls who really liked cricket, which was kind of unique and weird back then,” says Jones. “I spent lunch time, and time post-school hitting balls over and over again. I loved it. He loved it. I just wanted to play cricket. I never knew there was an Australian women’s cricket team to start with. My first thought was to play for the men’s team. There was no set pathway back then, you just wandered aimlessly and tried different things.”
Handscomb passed away two years ago, missing out on watching his son make his Test debut for Australia, but his hard work and dedication with Jones paid off as she went on to play five Tests and 61 one-day internationals for Australia between 1998 and 2005.
It wasn’t just cricket that had caught Jones’s fancy early on – she was involved in athletics for a number of years. She eventually gave up the latter to pursue a career in cricket, for which she received money for the first time in 2005. It was the 2005 World Cup, in which Jones played her last game for Australia. They weren’t paid for playing in the tournament, but earned $305.78 after tax. “Ten years later, the Australian women’s team got full-time contracts. From women paying to play and losing money, to gaining full-time contracts, it was a quick turnaround,” Jones reflects.
Without contracts, Jones’s generation found ways to make it work. For instance, Jones worked as a gym instructor part-time while studying applied sciences and human movement at Victoria University. Her bosses were co-operative enough to tweak her shifts accordingly, to help her balance work and training. She went on to complete a degree in teaching and is a qualified teacher in secondary education. Although she has never taught academics in a secondary school, she spent a year as a PE teacher before landing herself her first full-time job with Cricket Victoria in 2005, dealing with cricket development for kids. But while Jones loves coaching, it would have to come at the expense of broadcast – the field that she is so extensively involved in currently.
Jones is involved in broadcasting these days. © Getty
Prior to her inclusion in the IPL in 2015, Jones spent eight years calling the women’s game on Channel 9 and ABC Radio. In the same year she was snapped up by Channel 10 for the Women’s Big Bash League, an event that she has subsequently become an integral part of. She has also boundary commentated for the BBL as well as the Pakistan Super League, and even lent her voice to the Ashes Cricket 17 game.
However, it was in the middle of a BBL season that Jones received a barrage of not-so-kind comments on Instagram asking her to stop commentating. Turning a blind eye didn’t help as they kept rushing in; they continued to the point where Jones reacted in the hope that it would quell the comments. ‘I’m typing out my resignation at this moment’ she responded with unfailing sarcasm. He didn’t miss it either, given the barrage of trolls that subsequently took a dig at her. That is just one example of the sort of abuse that broadcasters endure in a generation where keyboard critics strike from behind masks of eggshells. The majority of such comments tend to be directed at women.
“In the beginning, you don’t know when to talk and when not to. Maybe the audience was going, ‘What is she going on about?’ Now you know there’s a process. I just cringe to think what I did it back in those first few years. Nobody said anything, they just let you go. I’m just thankful I never swore on TV!”
Broadcast wasn’t even part of Jones’s larger scheme of things to begin with; the opportunity presented itself when she had been dropped for the 2001 Ashes. It was the first time she was being paid – around 300 pounds to call the game. It was the beginning of a journey that would eventually sparkle with experiences galore. Jones is now away for six months a year, travelling across continents, before returning for Australia’s summer of cricket, where she has arguably had some of her most memorable experiences in her fledgling career so far. How else can you describe rubbing shoulders, literally, with the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air himself?
“I was boundary-riding for a Big Bash game at the MCG when someone said that Will Smith was at the game. You know Will Smith…he’s huge, but you don’t realise till he’s there just how big a superstar he is! Everyone was losing their marbles! I never thought I would be a fan girl, but I was for that moment,” she laughs. “I changed my profile picture on Twitter immediately. The photo was of him touching my arm…Whoever would’ve thought I would rub shoulders with Hollywood royalty!”
‘Put on your best pants, comfy shoes and be adventurous!’ Jones says, of what she would tell a young girl who sought her counsel. Practice what you preach, they say, and Jones preaches, only because she has practiced. And her adventurous spirit has only been fuelled by her curiosity – a trait she inherited from her mother, who she describes as her superhero.
“She’s just a ripping woman. Not because she was a single mum, I reckon whether she was with my dad or not, she would’ve done the same thing,” says Jones with heartfelt admiration. “She was always very keen to allow me to explore whatever it was I wanted to do as a kid. I can remember trying literally every single musical instrument under the sun and she would let me play badly at home and in the car and put up with horrendous noises – it wasn’t music, it was noise! I was lucky to have a mum who was really encouraging of me in sort of every kind of area,” says Jones, who professes to have made the trombone sound like the alert of an approaching ferry along Port Melbourne.
“I might not stick to things for a long time, like my musical instruments, but I dabble a lot. If there’s something I am curious about, I will give it a shot and experience it. Like golf; it takes time to find time and find people to play with. When I get back (to Australia), I want to get into charcoal drawing or painting or that type of stuff.
“I’m also becoming a lot more socially conscious. I just sold my car. I want to ride my bike more. I’ve got a shop ethical app on my phone, so I’ve become a bit nerdy on that front. I bought a house now and I had nothing in there. So when I was buying goods, I’d use this app and if a company shows that they’ve had a D, animal testing, child labour, working rights or whatever, I’d avoid buying from them. Some people say if you’re not buying a fridge, you’re not changing the world, but if we all did our little bit, it might help.”
Part of Jones’s evolution has been through her inquisitiveness. Although she describes herself as an introvert to a very large extent, she is not the reclusive type who can stay confined within the walls of the hotel rooms that her work consigns her.
“I would go batshit crazy if I sat in a hotel room for six weeks on end! And I’d be a nightmare to work with as well. Like I said, I’m really curious about life. I was lucky enough to tour India in 1994 with the Australian youth team. For all the players on that trip, it was probably the best thing to have happened to them. It just opened our eyes up so much. Girls from small country towns that hadn’t seen the world and had never left Australia coming over here and seeing a completely different world. It changes your perspective of a lot of things. You’re hopefully a little bit wiser. And it’s nice to go back home and have conversations with anyone because now you’ve seen a different side to things and perhaps just plant the seeds to a new line of thought or an idea. You don’t have to necessarily change people’s minds, but it’s important to be brave enough to have discussions with people to open their eyes to different things.”
The extent of Jones’s curiosity, however, was evidenced when she actually looked up Mark Roberts on Google. He is the same famed streaker who has made his presence known across a myriad of high-profile sporting events like the SuperBowl. Jones vows to investigate where his sojourn began – something she speculates began on the Ashes tour of 1998.
“We had a warm-up game in Yorkshire where we were all sitting on the sidelines. Belinda Clark and Michelle Goszko were batting and this guy walked past us. First thing we noticed was that he was dressed in all denim. So we just laughed at his dress sense to start with, because there was nobody else there. It was a warm-up game and it was just us. He walked along the side of the ground, he sat watching the game. All of a sudden, we looked up and he’s out in the middle. Naked! So he stripped off, left his pile of clothes, walks out over there…He’s gone out to Belinda Clark and Michelle Goszko… I can’t remember what he said. He then casually walked back, put his kit back on, walked back past us and out of the ground. And nobody said anything!
“The time that it took for this to happen, all the girls came off, we’re like, What did he say?’ They can’t quite remember… we just knew that something’s not right! Ummm apart from the fact that he was naked!” She laughs hysterically. “But he had completely shaved down. He didn’t have a strand of hair other than what was on his head. And I think, to this day – I’ve got to find out – that he’s a serial streaker in English and American sport. And I reckon it’s this guy. So this guy has also done Ascot, the Superbowl, there was also a men’s Test match and I reckon he started his streaking journey with the women’s Ashes tour in 1998. That was bizarre.”
Jones is like that beam of sunshine that breaks through the cover of grey on an overcast day. Full of unbridled energy, a zest for life and in search of constant perspective, she challenges and breaks stereotypes. In the last six months, she has called cricket in the UK, watched Lleyton Hewitt at Wimbledon, took in the Silverstone Circuit for a day out, was at the Tour de France to watch the men and women’s events and is now in the Caribbean for the Women’s World T20 2018. It’s not her zeal for adventure that stands out, but her love for life, ticking off one entry at a time on that bucketlist, unfolding the mysteries of the world one laugh at a time.