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Archie MacLaren: Brilliant, boorish and bankrupt

Archie MacLaren © Getty Images
Archie MacLaren © Getty Images

Archie MacLaren, born December 1, 1871, led England in 22 of the 35 Tests of his career. A batsman of style and panache, he was a controversial and often unpopular character who struggled with financial problems all his life. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who was described by Neville Cardus, rather misleadingly, as the ‘Noblest Roman of All’.

When chronicler turns fan

“There never was a cricketer with more than the grandeur of A.C. (Archie) MacLaren. When I think of his play now, years after it all happened, the emotions that stir in me afresh, and all my impressions of it, are mingled with emotions and impressions I have had from other and greater arts than bat and ball.”

Neville Cardus ended the piece on Archie MacLaren with: “He was the noblest Roman of them all.”

According to Gideon Haigh, “If ever a cricketer was the creation of a single writer, it is MacLaren, the luminous majesty with which he is associated owed in very large degree to his youthful acolyte Neville Cardus.”

The memories of MacLaren are rare — what remains are impressions formed from scorebooks and accounts. And Cardus, in devotion for the cricketer that kick-started when he was a child of twelve, did a fascinating job of creating the aura of MacLaren as a persona on and off the field like few others. In his Autobiography, ironically perhaps the most fictional of all his works, Cardus wrote a piece on MacLaren which has remained his image for many a dabbler in the history of the game. “He was not just a cricketer any more than Wagner was just a composer,” Cardus observed, and continued, “Among exponents of the recognised arts in England there is only Sir Thomas Beecham whom I have found fit to compare in character and gusto of life…with AC MacLaren, on or off the field.”

Well, the high back lift followed by the ‘sculpturesque rhythm in driving to the on’ perhaps lit a flame of admiration in the soul of young Cardus that set the cricket and life of MacLaren aglow. Thus the impression many have is of a giant of the game, with a splendidly honourable life outside the field.

It is as far from the truth as possible. On the field, with the bat MacLaren was often regal, majestic, and sometimes not quite so brilliant.

Possessing the keenest of minds in the game, he sometimes excelled as a captain, but the blunders made by his demanding autocratic nature and obstinacy have outweighed the merits by far. And finally, off the ground he was an abject failure, constantly short of money, with a life littered with failed business ventures. He was also an overbearing bully, brusque, brutish, prejudiced and pig-headed.

He played 35 Tests for England, 22 of them as captain, all against Australia, winning four and losing 11. He lost all the four Ashes series in which he led the team. Some of his tactical blunders are feats of legend in themselves, and some of his celebrated comments in the field and the dressing room leave no doubt as to his shortcomings as a leader.

At the same time, he was one of the most stylish batsmen of his time, who scored fast and did so with all the aesthetic brilliance to make Cardus an unabashed admirer for life. His 424 for Lancashire against Somerset, scored in 1895, stayed a world record in First-Class cricket for 28 years before being surpassed by Bill Ponsford, and remained the highest score in England for 99 summers before Brian Lara hit 501 in 1994.

And after his playing days were virtually over except for a few sporadic returns, he tried his hand at every possible venture — from being a banker to a teacher, from acting as the secretary of KS Ranjitsinhji in India to assuming the role of a limousine salesman. He tried to run a magazine that failed and also attempted to start a stud farm that failed even more spectacularly. He also attempted the impossible of channelling his thoroughly unwelcoming demeanour to run a hotel, to manufacture inflatable cricket pads and to make bats from Spanish willow, and finally even turned up in Hollywood and played a small role in a movie as an extra.

Batsman and bully

MacLaren was born in a prosperous family of Manchester. His father was a cotton merchant addicted to cricket who served as an honorary treasurer to the Lancashire team for the last 19 years of his life.

MacLaren was sent to Elstree, a school renowned for its cricket coaching. During the school holidays, MacLaren’s father arranged for him to be at the Old Trafford, with professional cricketers bowling to him for a fee. From there to the school team was but a small step, and the first century and school captaincy followed soon enough.

In 1886, MacLaren moved to Harrow, and from the very beginning of his journey his brilliance in cricket and boorishness in life were more than apparent.  By his final year at Harrow, he had already scored a beautiful century for Lancashire. He had also procured a dutiful college fag, according to him a ‘snotty little bugger, quite useless, with no aptitude even for sport.’ This younger lad was once humiliated by a group of his schoolmates who threw cricket balls at his hapless self that took refuge behind a tree.

MacLaren, having bullied this younger boy to the fullest, having had him cater to his every need, went out of school to conquer worlds with his willow. Indeed, within four years, he had become the world record holder for an individual First Class innings, with that knock against Somerset. The junior lad had no such sporting ambition or aptitude. He took a completely different path in life. His name was Winston Churchill.

By the time MacLaren died in 1944 after a life of struggle, his old fag was the man the entire world was looking at to stop the designs of Adolf Hitler.

During his stint at Harrow, MacLaren batted successfully against Eton, and was twice adjudged the school’s best batsman. He also received awards for his fielding, and even played football for his school.

On leaving Harrow, he started out on the first of the many jobs he would perform in his life — he was engaged by the Manchester and Liverpool District Bank.

For Lancashire, MacLaren scored a century on debut, a brilliant 108 within two hours on a difficult wicket. However, for the first few seasons, his job at the Bank limited his appearances for the county side. But, in 1893, he was already being asked to lead the side when regular captain AN ‘Monkey’ Hornby was not available.

The same year, he played for the North of England against the visiting Australians and scored 66.

It was in 1894 that MacLaren left his job at the bank and played the full season for Lancashire. And in spite of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack stating that he was young and unproven in cricket, he was named captain of the side. The county finished fourth in the Championship, and there were talks about his becoming a future captain of England.

Down Under for the first time

In 1894-95, Andrew Stoddart was invited by the Australians to organise a team of English cricketers to venture Down Under. As major cricketers backed out, MacLaren was chosen as a last minute replacement. The party consisted of only 13 men, two of them wicketkeepers. Hence, there was little choice but to play MacLaren in all the matches.

The young batsman did start with 228 against South Australia but then ran out of form. His debut was that famous Test which England won in spite of following on. MacLaren’s contribution was just four and 20, but he was off the blocks in a remarkable match.

However, in the next Test match, he became the first batsman to be dismissed off the first ball of a Test match.

Apart from his poor returns in the first few Test matches, the tour also saw the start of a trait that would follow him all his life. As an amateur cricketer, MacLaren had his expenses covered by the tour organisers, but did not receive payment for the games. The Lancashire committee had given him £100 before the tour for his additional requirements. However, he had squandered most of it on the race tracks. He asked for more money, and the committee sent him £60 advance on his expenses for the upcoming English season.

Perhaps boosted by this, he dropped down to No 5 in the batting line up for the final Test and scored his first Test century in the deciding match. He scored 120 before managing to get tread upon his wicket. England won the match and took the series 3-2.

The trip had another important outcome for the Lancashire batsman. During the voyage, he met Kathleen Maud Power, an Australian socialite and the daughter of a horse racing official. They got married in 1898.

World Record and the second tour

A taste for adventure ensured a return journey via Japan. On landing in England, he discovered that he had been named Young Batsman of the Year in Wisden for his performances in the earlier season. And after playing two further games for the county, he accepted his second job — as a teacher in a preparatory school in Harrow.

As a result, the captain of Lancashire missed several games that season. The supporters did not take it kindly. However, when he returned to play against Somerset at Taunton, he hit that famous 424, bettering WG Grace’s 19-year-old record by 80 runs. The knock came in 470 minutes, and contained 62 boundaries and a six. In the last three games of the season, he scored three more hundreds and was elected a life member of Lancashire County Cricket Club.

Although he played very little cricket in the next season, it was decided that MacLaren’s selection for the second Test was required to attract crowds to Old Trafford. He was again dismissed first ball and did not score much in the second innings. He continued to score heavily in First-Class cricket, but in the Tests his success remained sketchy.

By 1897, he had started scoring more freely, more aggressively. Runs were aplenty in county cricket. He was quite naturally chosen for the second Stoddart tour of Australia.

There were quite a few highlights on this voyage. Against New South Wales he scored 142 and 100, becoming the first batsman to score two centuries in a First-Class match in Australia. And with Stoddart in mourning after the death of his mother, MacLaren captained England in the first, second and fifth Tests.

From the beginning of his stint at the helm, MacLaren was characterised by controversies as well as batting brilliance. In the first Test, he scored 109 and 50 not out in a nine wicket win. Yet, he was roundly criticised when he refused to recall Charlie McLeod after he had been run-out. Not able to hear the umpire’s call of no-ball, the deaf batsman had walked after missing a full-toss that hit the stumps.  Wicketkeeper Bill Storer had thrown the stumps down.

When Australia won the second Test, MacLaren courted unpopularity in the local press by complaining about the pitch. There was criticism about his sparing use of Ted Wainwright as well.

Stoddart returned to lead in the third Test and MacLaren enjoyed being relieved of the pressures of captaincy by scoring 124. However, when he claimed that he had got out because of a fly in the eye, the press had a field day in mocking him.

In the end, although England lost, MacLaren had performed brilliantly with the bat in the series. Wisden noted, “Of all the English players the one who had the best cause to look back upon the trip with satisfaction was MacLaren.”

When the tour got over, he got married to Power in an event that caught the attention of the media in a grand manner.

Full time captain

MacLaren played little cricket in 1898, but the following year, when WG Grace called it a day from Test cricket, he was chosen as captain ahead of Stanley Jackson. It led to some speculation of bad blood, since Jackson had been a senior at Harrow and subsequently refused to play the third Test against Australia. MacLaren’s journey as a regular England captain started with a splendid 88 not out at Lord’s in very difficult conditions. England lost, but it was acknowledged as one of his greatest innings.

In late 1899, MacLaren joined a private cricket tour to America and Canada — organised by Ranji. On his return, he was appointed assistant secretary at Lancashire County Cricket Club. It was just a front, as his main duty was to coach the first eleven. That year he also took up writing for Daily Express, commenting on the matches he played in.

Controversies were fast catching up. His captaincy was criticised often enough for being overly defensive. The 1900 season saw Lancashire fast bowler Arthur Mold being no-balled by umpire Jim Philips for throwing. MacLaren defended his bowler stoutly in the press. He did the same at a meeting of county captains convened to discuss the problems of throwing. Mold was called again in 1901 and his career never recovered.

The year 1901 also saw MacLaren plagued by injuries. He did not score many runs before the very end of the season. His leadership also came under severe criticism. Furthermore, his relationship with the Lancashire committee also soured when he complained about the Old Trafford pitch.

In 1901-02, the last privately organised English tour of Australia took place. Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) invited MacLaren to bring a team to play in Australia. When Wilfred Rhodes and George Hirst were not allowed to tour by the Yorkshire captain Lord Hawke, MacLaren gambled by selecting Sydney Barnes.

This inspired decision could have gone down as a triumph of MacLaren’s keen cricketing sense, but for the fact that the bowler did not get on with the captain. The beginning of the tour demonstrated the Lancashire man’s rather tactless handling of the team. When their ship was besieged by a storm on the way to Australia, MacLaren commented, “If we go down, at least that bugger Barnes will go down with us.”

In the first Test at Sydney, MacLaren scored 116, thereby becoming the first man to hit four Test centuries.  This would be the last Test century by an England captain in Australia for 57 years. Powered by the bowling of Barnes, England won by an innings.

However, the rest of the tour was disastrous. Barnes was overbowled in the second Test, picked up an injury in the process and did not play the rest of the matches. MacLaren remained successful with the bat, but England were routed 4-1.

The Tate Error

The summer of 1902 saw another instance of MacLaren starting an Ashes campaign brilliantly with all good intentions and portents and managing to make a mess of things down the line. His preparation was meticulous, with careful analysis of the players in both the sides. As a result, England started strongly, scoring 376 and bowling the Australians out for just 36. However, rain poured down to the rescue of the visitors. The second Test was also largely washed out.

England lost the third Test at Sheffield. Even before the match started, MacLaren had invited the ire of the crowd by leaving out Bill Lockwood and Schofield Haigh and summoning Barnes from Manchester instead. Barnes justified the move with six first innings wickets. However, MacLaren erred by not appealing against the light as England were bowled out chasing a rather ambitious 339 in murky visibility.

In the fourth Test at Manchester, the selectors left out Barnes and Gilbert Jessop. Most probably to ensure that Haigh could play for Yorkshire, Lord Hawke forced the persevering but limited talents of Fred Tate on the squad.

It is reported — again by Cardus so some generous pinches of salt may come in handy — that when MacLaren saw the list of players in the team, he exclaimed: “My God, look what they’ve sent me.” Alan Gibson, writing in The Cricket Captains of England, has suggested that Tate was included based on the thinking that MacLaren would not be willing to pick him and would go with the eleven selectors wanted. However, fuming at Hawke, the captain played Tate in place of the great all-rounder George Hirst.

At lunch on the first day, Australia reached 173 for one, with Trumper hitting a sublime hundred. MacLaren was hauled over the fire for allowing the visitors to score quickly. Tate was ineffective. The match continued, with England hanging on by virtue of a century by Jackson. And at a critical moment, with Australia at a very vulnerable position, MacLaren committed the blunder of placing Tate on the square leg boundary.

The specialist in that position was Lionel Palairet, a Somerset teammate of Len Braund, the leg spinner in operation. He had been stationed deep on the leg field for Syd Gregory bowling at the other end. Now, with the last ball of Braund’s over coming up, MacLaren chose the easy way out. Instead of the amateur Palairet dashing across the ground to the other extreme end, Tate, from the infield on that side, was pushed back to the fence.

In 1933, Armstrong claimed that it was Braund who had wanted Tate to be placed there.

Tate, a kindly fellow who never hurt a soul, had no throwing arm to speak of. Hence, while turning out for Sussex, he generally found himself at slip, or in the covers. Now, he waited for the pivotal delivery, in all probability hoping that it would not come to him.

The leg-break spun in to Australian skipper Joe Darling. The captain got down on his knee and played the slog sweep. It soared up, high and hopeless, straight in the direction of Tate. The crowd waited to erupt in ecstasy. The fielder watched it descend, wavering in the breeze. He positioned his hands, hoping that it would somehow find a way to stick. And the ball fell through, eluding the desperate last minute grab with his left hand.

It was the turning point of the match, a tactical error that proved extremely costly.

England were left to score 124 to win. MacLaren opened the batting, and was caught while attempting a big hit.  According to Gibson, he returned to the dressing room in fury, threw his bat across the room and exclaimed that he had “thrown away the match and the bloody rubber.” Not exactly the words of a motivating skipper. According to Gibson: “This does not say much for MacLaren as a captain. Indeed, it has always seemed to me a shocking performance, from the choice of the team to the chuck of the bat.” Wickets fell fast and Tate, the last batsman, was bowled with England needing just four to win.

A superb Jessop innings ensured a thrilling one-wicket win at The Oval, but the series was lost. For years, MacLaren would continue to write that the team selection had made it impossible for him to win.

Secretary of Ranji

MacLaren took a new job in 1903, working for a wine merchant. He remained successful in the domestic matches, but once again courted controversy when it came to his job for England. He withdrew from the forthcoming Ashes voyage which he was supposed to lead. Apparently he was concerned about the quality of bowling resources available to him. Plum Warner was appointed skipper and the team surprised all by winning the series in Australia.

The following year, however, saw a rare triumph in MacLaren’s captaincy career. Lancashire won the Championship. The end of the 1904 season also marked another development and change of job for MacLaren. Ranji, a close friend with whom he had shared several tours, asked him whether he was willing to become his private secretary. That winter, MacLaren accompanied Ranji to India and stayed there for several months before returning in time for the English season.

When Australia came over in 1905, Jackson was appointed captain of England. The first Test at Nottingham saw MacLaren score 140, his only century in England and also his highest Test score. The Englishmen had struggled to face the pace of Albert Cotter in the first innings. According to Cardus, in the second innings he saw MacLaren muttering, “Cotter. I’ll bloody Cotter him.” Whether this is fact or Cardusian fancy remains in the domain of conjecture, but MacLaren attacked from the start and dominated throughout the innings. Bernard Bosanquet’s googlies bowled England to a win. England won the series 2-0.

The end of the season also saw MacLaren’s testimonial which raised £800.

In the winter of 1906, MacLaren returned to India to work for Ranji. He was extremely busy with his duties and informed the Lancashire committee that he would be unavailable for most of the 1907 season. However, the county still persisted with him as captain.

When Ranji was named the new ruler of Nawanagar, MacLaren and Arthur Priestly, the liberal party politician and cricketer, were the only Englishmen to attend the coronation ceremony.

MacLaren did return to England in the middle of the season to play a handful of matches. He courted controversy by accusing the public, rather unfairly, of deliberately damaging the pitch at Lord’s during the match between Lancashire and Middlesex.

In Ranji’s biography, Simon Wilde suggests that MacLaren had to work very hard as a secretary. However, he also spent time getting embroiled in controversies. His rather bureaucratic designs to stall payment to an artist in employment of Ranji led the Indian Office to brand him ‘Ranjitsinhji’s ridiculous private secretary’. And later he was prosecuted for not paying rent for his accommodation. Wilde also accuses MacLaren of flinching petty cash from the state coffers of Nawanagar.

Captain again

With Jackson unavailable for the 1909 series against Australia, MacLaren was appointed captain yet again. There were some encouraging remarks about his field placing when England won the first Test at Edgbaston. However, it was also true that he had vehemently opposed the selection of a young batsman called Jack Hobbs.

The second Test at Lord’s saw some quixotic selection. According to Wisden, “Never in the history of Test Matches in England has there been such blundering in the selection of an England eleven.” It is still not known whether MacLaren was responsible for the final team, the selectors certainly claimed he was. The second and third Tests ended in defeats and England lost the Ashes yet again under his captaincy. In the fifth Test, MacLaren was further criticised for leaving out fast bowler Claude Buckenham. Wisden categorised it as: “so grave a blunder that it is difficult to find words in which to speak of it … MacLaren was sadly at fault in his management of the England bowling.” MacLaren’s own form remained poor, and it was clear that he was coming to the end of his international career. He never played another Test match.

Part time player

He continued to play regularly in 1910, and went on a tour to Argentina with the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in the winter. Following this he virtually called it a day.

He was back in 1914, trying to make a comeback. By then he was writing for a magazine World of Cricket. He played one match against Surrey scoring four and zero. His association with the magazine also fell through, with his unreliability with money being one of the reasons.

When the First World War broke out, MacLaren joined the Royal Army Service Corps as a lieutenant. Working in the Manchester area, his job consisted of recruiting men into the army. However, he was invalidated out on health grounds.

Once the War was over, MacLaren took on the role of a cricket manager for the private team of businessman Lionel Robinson. As part of his duties, MacLaren arranged for the 1921 Australian team under Warwick Armstrong to play a match at the cricket ground of the Robinson estate. The home team was selected and captained by MacLaren himself. The all-conquering 1921 Australians were dismissed for 136 in the first innings and conceded a120-run lead. The match ended in a draw and MacLaren himself batted at No 9, hitting five boundaries in an unbeaten 25.

Later that season, MacLaren led an ‘An England XI’ against the tourists on the invitation of Eastbourne Cricket Club. The all-amateur team, handpicked by MacLaren, won by 28 runs after being bowled out for 43 in the first innings. MacLaren himself scored zero and five, but he was instrumental in inflicting the first defeat on the till-then rampaging visiting side.

MacLaren took on the responsibility of a coach for Lancashire. However, his dictatorial attitude rendered him unpopular. In 1922-23, he played his final few First-Class matches, leading an MCC team to New Zealand. In his very last First Class match, MacLaren faced a representative New Zealand side at Basin Reserve and scored 200 not out.

He ended his career with 22,236 runs at an average of 34.15. In 35 Test matches, he scored 1931 runs at 33.87 with five hundreds.

The game

MacLaren’s batting was characterised by his high backlift, full follow-through, and surefooted movements towards front or back. He often held his pose after playing a stroke, which made him a delight to watch. He was a powerful driver and a superb hooker. According to Cardus: “To see MacLaren hook a fast ball … from the front of his face, was in those days an experience which thrilled me like heroic poetry; he didn’t merely hook the ball, he dismissed it from his presence.”

MacLaren was reputed to have a fine disdain for all kinds of bowling which deviated from excellence. “He batted on his own terms, he would not compromise at the behest of anybody, let his name be Lockwood, Noble, Trumble, or Hirst.”

In the field his movements were safe and quick, and he excelled in the slips. In the 424 First-Class matches that he played, he held as many as 452 catches.

As mentioned, he was a great analyser of the game, but his attitude and man-management skills were atrocious. His tactics hovered between brilliance and blunders. He demanded absolute allegiance from the players, inflicting his whims on them. He was not the ideal captain for a side, but ironically that was his role for most of his playing days.

Last days

For the rest of his days, MacLaren struggled with constant financial problems, striving to make ends meet, and sometimes indulging in unforgivable extravagance. His debts became as legendary as his exploits on the field, one of them was for an unpaid champagne bill at Old Trafford.

He flitted from venture to venture, almost all of them crashing in uniform failure. Apart from his many attempts at business, he also arranged a private tour of South Africa in 1924-35.

Things improved marginally just before the Second World War, when MacLaren’s wife inherited a legacy. However, a trip to America around this time found MacLaren as short of money as ever. At Hollywood, he ran into old friend and former England captain C. Aubrey Smith. By now an established actor, Smith arranged for a role for MacLaren in Alexander Korda’s The Four Feathers — a walk-on part as a monocled veteran of the Crimean War.

MacLaren passed away in 1944 after a bout with cancer.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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