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Archie MacLaren’s amateurs fell Warwick Armstrong’s mighty Australians in one of cricket’s greatest fairytales

Archie MacLaren © Getty Images
Archie MacLaren © Getty Images

Many an armchair fan may have examined the performance of a national side and boasted “my team could beat them”, safe in the knowledge that they’ll never be required to prove it. Michael Jones looks back to August 30, 1921, when the former England captain Archie MacLaren claimed that he could pick a team to defeat the all-conquering Australian side — and did so.

 

The nickname ‘Invincibles’ was bestowed by posterity on the 1948 Australian touring team, but if things had turned out a little differently the title might already have been claimed by their predecessors 27 years earlier. Fresh from a thumping 5-0 win in the previous home summer — the only Ashes whitewash of the twentieth century — Warwick Armstrong’s side arrived in England and resumed where they had left off, winning the first three matches by ten wickets, eight wickets and 219 runs to seal the series at the earliest opportunity.

The loss of the first day’s play in the fourth Test at Old Trafford ended the chances of a result, and it was something of a shock that Australia had much the worse of what play was possible, conceding a first innings lead of 187; the match was notable to trivia lovers for the incident on the second evening when Lionel Tennyson, the England captain, announced his intention to declare, before Armstrong pointed out that the laws as they stood at the time did not permit him to do so at that stage of the day. After some delay while the umpires checked the wording of the relevant law, it was decided that England’s innings must continue — whereupon Armstrong himself bowled the first over after the interruption, hoodwinking the umpires who failed to notice that he had also bowled the last over before it. The final match of the series, at the Oval, was another rain-affected draw, so the margin of victory remained at 3-0. The two changes England made for the Oval match brought the total number of players used to 30 — still the most to appear for one team in a Test series.

In between the Tests, county sides were crushed under the Australian juggernaut. Nottinghamshire suffered the greatest humiliation: Charlie Macartney rampaged to a triple century off just 221 balls and eventually made 345, which stood as the First-Class record for most runs in a day until Brian Lara made the last 390 of his 501* in a day in 1994 — and that despite Macartney being dismissed well before the close. The Australians totalled 675 — and then rolled over the county side for just 58 and 100, to win by the massive margin of an innings and 517 runs. Northamptonshire suffered a similar fate: although Macartney made ‘only’ 193 in that match, it proved more than enough as the home team were bowled out for a mere 69 and 68, with no batsman reaching 20 in either knock; they lost by an innings and 484 runs. It was rare that a county side so much as made the tourists bat again: Leicestershire, Surrey, Essex (twice), Lancashire, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire and Somerset were all defeated by innings margins; the few teams which managed to draw with them usually only did so with considerable help from the weather. The nearest the Australians came to displaying a chink in their armour was against MCC at Lord’s, when Jack Durston swept them aside with seven for 84 in the first innings to give the home team a lead of 93, but a second innings century from Warren Bardsley enabled the visitors to squeeze home by three wickets.

Few people, then, can have taken Archie MacLaren seriously when he claimed that he could put together a team to beat the tourists. As an ex-England captain he commanded a certain level of respect, but in the early 20th century, just as in the early 21st, former international players could occasionally be somewhat eccentric in their views, and a player’s achievements on the field did not necessarily give authority to the opinions he expressed once off it.His track record against Australian teams was not a good one: he had captained England in four Ashes series either side of the turn of the century, and lost all of them.

Nevertheless, Eastbourne Cricket Club invited MacLaren to put his tactical acumen where his mouth was by selecting an “England XI” to take on the tourists at their home ground of The Saffrons. MacLaren accepted the challenge, and the match was arranged to take place at the end of August, after the conclusion of the Test series.

The Team

On the face of it, MacLaren’s side did not look like world-beaters; they included only one current Test player and two former ones, and were all amateurs. As to the captain and selector himself; at the time of the match he still held the record for the highest First-Class score, but that had been set a full quarter of a century earlier; now, only three months short of his fiftieth birthday and without a hundred at First-Class level for eleven years, he showed little indication of being in peak condition to take on the world’s best.

MacLaren had advocated in his newspaper column throughout the summer that younger players should be blooded, and he put his own theory into practice: most of the players were not even county regulars, but drawn from the Cambridge University side.

The brothers Gilbert, Hubert and Claude Ashton were all picked; Hubert had already shown his potential with an innings of 236 not out against the Free Foresters in only his second match, and proved himself against the tourists with an innings of 109 for Cambridge earlier in the season (in a match the university side still lost by an innings), but the other two had less distinguished records, with Claude still in his debut season.

Percy Chapman would go on to captain England, but in 1921 he was still in the early stages of his career. Michael Falcon had been a regular for Cambridge before the war, but after it he had been elected as a MP, and only played cricket on the few occasion he had enough free time; it was only his second match of the season.

Besides MacLaren himself, the team did have two experienced county players: Geoffrey Foster, one of the seven brothers of Worcestershire, had been playing for the county almost since the turn of the century, although his record over that time was unexceptional; Walter Brearley had had a distinguished career for Lancashire, and a brief one for England, but had not played since the war.

MacLaren did have one trump card in his hand, in the shape of the South African Aubrey Faulkner. In the pre-war years Faulkner had been the best all-rounder in the world, and he had a Test double century to his name — made against a team which included several of the same opposition he was to face this time. South Africa had not played a post-war Test, however, so it was nine years since Faulkner had last been tested against international standard opposition, and it remained to be seen whether he could still replicate such performances. In him, though, the Australians knew they had at least one opponent to be wary of.

The Match

Little attention was paid to the match with MacLaren’s team before it started: the County Championship was reaching its climax, and with the top of the table clash between Middlesex and Surrey in progress at Lord’s, few newspapers even bothered to send a reporter to an exhibition match on the south coast whose result was considered a foregone conclusion. Neville Cardus later claimed to have been there on a “premonition” that something unusual would happen — supposedly overruling his own editor, who wanted him to cover the county match — but given Cardus’s known habit of writing “first-hand” reports of matches at which he was not present, such a claim must be open to question.

By lunchtime on the first day, those who had not bothered to turn up appeared to have been vindicated. MacLaren won the toss and chose to bat, on a wicket which looked ideal for doing so, but in the face of the Australian attack proved far from it. Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald opened the bowling, but Armstrong took Gregory off after two overs and came on himself. McDonald accounted for Foster, and Armstrong bowled Faulkner before the total had reached double figures. All three Ashton brothers were swept aside, leaving the England XI on 26 for five; Chapman offered the only resistance, making 16, but once he was out the rest followed quickly. The amateur team had been bowled out for 43 in just 20.1 overs, with McDonald and Armstrong collecting five wickets apiece. MacLaren himself made a duck, and his boast that his team could beat the tourists was looking like a hollow one.

In the Australians’ reply, Falcon dismissed Herbie Collins for 19, but Macartney and Warren Bardsley cruised past their opponents’ total without being parted, and had already established a healthy lead when Faulkner claimed the key wicket of Macartney for 24. Tommy Andrews followed for a duck, Falcon bagged ‘Nip’ Pellew at the other end, and with the tourists 96 for four, MacLaren’s amateurs could at least hold some hope of restricting their first innings deficit to manageable proportions. They continued to chip away; Faulkner eventually claimed Bardsley for 70, none of the remaining batsmen reached 20, and the Australians were all out for 174; their last nine wickets had fallen for 91.

A lead of 131 still placed them in a dominant position, but it could have been much worse for the England XI — as indeed it had been for many of the tourists’ opponents over the summer. The two similarly-named bowlers took all ten wickets between them, Falcon bagging six and Faulkner four.

MacLaren chose to drop both Foster and Faulkner down the order for the second innings, and promoted himself and wicketkeeper George Wood to open. There was still enough time at the end of the first day for McDonald to bowl Wood, and the England XI were eight for one at stumps; still trailing  by 123, yet another innings victory for the Australians appeared to be on the cards.

Early on the second morning MacLaren was also bowled by McDonald, and his team were 10 for two. Foster gave a return catch to McDonald on 11, but Gilbert Ashton went for a few shots, scoring 36 in only 25 minutes before being trapped in front by Armstrong. The amateurs were 60 for four, still 71 short of making the Australians bat again, when Faulkner walked out to join Hubert Ashton.

Between them, they turned the game on its head — the 24 previous partnerships in the match had made 277 between them; Ashton and Faulkner’s stand added 154. Having come into the match out of practice, Faulkner admitted afterwards “I coached myself as I went along — the Aussies must have thought I was mad” — but his self-coaching must have had the desired effect, as he began to rediscover the form which had seen him dominate Australian attacks a decade earlier.

By the time Ashton fell to Armstrong for 75, MacLaren’s team had not only avoided an innings defeat, but established a lead of 83 — enough to salvage a modicum of respectability, but not to harbour hopes of fulfilling his boast that they could win. After Ashton’s departure, Faulkner proceeded to give a masterful example of marshalling the tail: 36 runs were added for the sixth wicket, of which Chapman scored 11. Claude Ashton fell quickly, and at 256 for seven, the lead was only 125.

Falcon held up one end while Faulkner passed his century at the other, and they added 51 for the eighth wicket, with Falcon’s share 17. Clement Gibson failed to score in a partnership of 19 for the ninth, and when Armstrong finally dismissed Faulkner, it was for 153, made in three and a half hours with 21 fours, out of 266 added while he was at the wicket. The last wicket pair failed to add to the total before Brearley was run out, and the England XI were all out for 326. The Australians needed 196to win, with a little over a day in which to get them.

The Argentine-born Gibson, who had gone wicket-less in the first innings, struck early in the second, dismissing Collins for 12, and the visitors ended the second day on 25 for one. With 171 required and nine wickets in hand, they were still favourites, but interest in the match had been rekindled by Faulkner and Ashton’s efforts, and the last day saw a substantially larger crowd than the first two.

The second wicket pair of Bardsley and Hanson Carter took the total past 50 before both fell in quick succession, Bardsley being bowled by Gibson and Falcon picking up the wicket of Carter. At 52 for three, with plenty of batting to come, the Australians had no cause for panic yet, but perhaps MacLaren’s team could detect their first sniff of victory.

Then Falcon produced a peach to rattle Macartney’s stumps — a delivery Wisden called “perhaps the turning-point of the game”. At 73 for four, the first seeds of doubt were being sown in Australian minds. There could be no question that the tourists were not taking the game seriously: every member of the squad had been offered a substantial bonus if they came through the entire tour undefeated, and there was now a real chance that they were about to forfeit it.

Andrews and Pellew cut the target to double figures before Pellew gave a catch to Hubert Ashton: 103 for five. Ryder decided the best way to score the remaining 93 runs was to attack, and he hit a quick 28, with six fours, to raise the score to 143. With only 53 needed to win and five wickets still in hand, the Australians were still favourites to maintain their unbeaten record, but then Ryder gave a catch and Gregory was trapped in front for a duck, to give Gibson his fourth and fifth wickets of the innings.

Armstrong joined Andrews in the middle, Arthur Mailey later recalling (possibly in a piece of artistic licence, because it hardly seemed typical of Armstrong) that the giant form of his captain had been “shaking like a jelly” as he went out to bat. They had knocked off a further ten runs when Faulkner finally got rid of Andrews, who had scratched around for an hour and a half for his 31. The leg-spinner soon added the wicket of Armstrong, leaving the tourists on 158 for nine.

Thirty-eight runs still stood between them and the target, and only the last wicket pair of McDonald and Mailey to get them — neither of whose records with the bat gave their team much cause for optimism. McDonald managed one boundary, but they had only added nine to the total when Gibson rattled Mailey’s stumps. The Australians were all out for 167, and the England XI, from what had seemed a probable innings defeat barely 24 hours earlier, had pulled off an astonishing 28 run victory — “the sensation of the season”, as Wisden called it. Gibson, having bowled unchanged throughout the innings, finished with six for 64; Falcon and Faulkner took two wickets each. The tourists’ hopes of claiming their bonus for finishing the tour unbeaten lay in tatters.

MacLaren raised his cap to acknowledge the crowd’s cheers as his team walked off, having successfully delivered on his claim that the tourists could be beaten. With scores of nought and five, he had hardly contributed to the victory with the bat, but could perhaps claim some credit for his leadership.

The contributions of Hubert Ashton (aged 23) and Gibson (only a week past his 21st birthday) may have gone some way to endorsing MacLaren’s assertion that putting their trust in youth was the best way forward for the England selectors, but the performance which turned the match in favour of the “England XI” had been that of a 39 year old South African. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from the success of MacLaren’s team, if indeed there was one, was that in order to beat the world’s best team, it gave a significant advantage to have at one’s disposal the services of the world’s best allrounder.

What followed?

The Australians travelled the short distance from Eastbourne to Hove the following day, for a match against Sussex. When Arthur Gilligan and Vallance Jupp reduced them to 43 for five on the first morning, a few spectators may have been forgiven for wondering if they were demoralised by their defeat to MacLaren’s side — but they recovered and, despite conceding a first innings lead, eventually won by 197 runs thanks to Mailey and McDonald skittling the county side for 62 in the fourth innings.

They followed that with an innings victory over the South of England, with Armstrong slamming an unbeaten 182 — but were then brought down to earth by an invitational side for the second time in as many weeks, this time by Charles Thornton’s team. At least Thornton’s XI looked more likely giant-killers, most of them being Test players; Vallance Jupp and Frank Woolley took eight wickets each in the match, while Andy Sandham and Johnny Douglas scored the runs. George Wood was the only player to be part of both victorious teams. The last fixture of the tour was a single innings match against Cumberland, which the Australians won by five wickets.

Australia undertook four more tours of England between the wars (in 1926, 1930, 1934 and 1938), losing one Test each time — the last team slumping to a record margin of defeat at the Oval, although they still retained the Ashes. Unlike their predecessors of 1921, the following three touring sides maintained an undefeated record outside the Tests (although the 1930 team came perilously close to losing it, with a tie against Gloucestershire), but in the final First-Class match of the 1938 tour, Henry Leveson Gower’s team became the first non-Test side since Thornton’s to beat the Australians.

Although Don Bradman missed the match after injuring his ankle in the final Test, the tourists were otherwise close to full strength; but they faced an opposing line-up which was also close to Test standard, and primarily thanks to Bill Bowes ripping through the Australians’ second innings with five for 42, Leveson Gower’s XI won by ten wickets. In 1948, the first post-war touring team won the Test series 4-0, avoided any slip-ups against invitational sides and finally earned the mantle of “Invincibles”.

MacLaren did not play a First-Class match in the 1922 English season, but on the strength of his captaincy against the Australians, MCC invited him to lead a non-Test tour of Australia and New Zealand the following winter. He failed to replicate his success of the previous year, and MCC lost all three matches — to South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales — of the Australian leg, but they did rather better in New Zealand.

The match against Auckland was a rain-affected draw, but Canterbury were beaten by eight wickets, with two of the players he had selected for his amateur side playing lead roles: Chapman scored 183, while Gibson took four for 77 and eight for 57.

Against a representative New Zealand side, MacLaren rediscovered his form in spectacular fashion: aged 51 and having not made a first-class score higher than 54 since the war, he now hammered an unbeaten 200 in what turned out to be his last innings. Tich Freeman and Gibson shared the wickets, MCC won by an innings and 156 runs, and MacLaren ended his first-class career by taking the final catch.

Despite his performance against the Australians demonstrating that he was clearly still more than good enough to play at international level, Aubrey Faulkner all but retired after the Eastbourne match, but when the 1924 South African side hit rock bottom and captain Herbie Taylor was desperately searching for bowlers, he cajoled the 42-year-old Faulkner into playing at Lord’s. Faulkner made 25 and 12, failed to take a wicket as England piled up 531 for two, and promptly resumed his retirement.

Of the Cambridge players whom MacLaren had chosen to test his hypothesis that youth was best, Chapman had the most success, captaining England in 17 of his 26 Tests. He led the side to three innings victories over West Indies in the latter’s inaugural Test series in 1928, followed by a 4-1 series win in Australia the following winter, but lost the return series in 1930 2-1, primarily thanks to Bradman’s record aggregate of 974 runs in the series. At Lord’s he made his only Test century, as well as pulling off a screamer to prevent Bradman adding even more to his score of 254, although England lost by seven wickets. After a lean tour of South Africa in 1930-31, when the visitors lost the first Test narrowly and could only draw the remaining four, Chapman was dropped by England, but continued to play at county level until the outbreak of war.

George Wood went on to play three Tests, all against South Africa in the 1924 series, with modest results; Wisden went so far as to remark that wicket-keeping was the only area in which England were not obviously superior. For the fourth match he was dropped in favour of George Duckworth, and never got a look-in again.

The Ashton brothers never made it to Test level, but became county stalwarts. Hubert spent some time in India, whom he represented in a match against an almost Test-strength MCC touring team in 1926-27, before, improbably, captaining a Burma team – consisting entirely of British expatriates — when the tour moved on to there. Clement Gibson enjoyed some success with MacLaren’s MCC team in New Zealand in 1922-23 and turned out for Sussex in 1926, but played infrequently after that, with only a few appearances for his birth country of Argentina against touring teams, and a South American side which visited England in 1932.

Michael Falcon returned five years later to reprise his role as scourge of the Australians, captaining the Minor Counties against them in the first fixture of the 1926 tour and taking seven for 42 in the first innings, although the loss of the first day’s play to rain made a result impossible in a match only scheduled for two. Walter Brearley, already 45 at the time of the Eastbourne match, didn’t play again.

Brief scores:

England XI 43 (Warwick Armstrong 5 for 15, Ted McDonald 5 for 21) & 326 (Aubrey Faulkner 153, Hubert Ashton 75; Ted McDonald 6 for 98) beat Australians 174 (Warren Bardsley 70; Michael Falcon 6 for 67, Aubrey Faulkner 4 for 50) and 167 (Clement Gibson 6 for 64) by 28 runs.

(Michael Jones’s writing focuses on cricket history and statistics, with occasional forays into the contemporary game)

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