‘Cheerful’ Charlie McGahey © Getty Images

 Charles Percy McGahey, born February 12, 1871, was one of the hardest hitters cricket has seen. An Essex mainstay with the bat at the turn of the 20th century, McGahey went on to lead Essex for a few seasons, and along with Percy Perrin, gave the Essex middle-order much solidity. A remarkably popular man, McGahey went on to don many a hat, from playing association football to being a part of a world record to promoting cricket in France. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the jovial man they called Cheerful Charlie.

  ‘Cheerful’ Charlie McGahey was, to quote Christopher Martin-Jenkins, “a tall, right-handed, hard-hitting, front-foot batsman, a useful, slow leg-break bowler, and a good field. The crowd loved him.”

Wisden wrote of him: “Essentially a hitter, he showed great strength in driving either to the off or the on and he punished any short ball with severity. Seldom did he cut. He was a good field in the slips or in the deep.”

McGahey was six feet two. He bore an infectious smile. The crowd loved him. But one would be a fool to think he was soft when it came to batting, for he was one of the most ferocious hitters of the ball.

Peter Perrin, with whom McGahey stitched many a partnership together, wrote of McGahey in Wisden: “He was undoubtedly the hardest hitter I ever faced. The opposite batsman had to keep his eyes open, as McGahey used to jump to the ball and drive back very straight. On one occasion he drove the ball back so hard that he broke his partner’s arm!”

McGahey scored 20,723 runs with 31 hundreds, but they came at an ordinary 30.20. Despite that, he ranks eighth in the history of Essex (for whom he scored 19,079 runs; his mate Perrin is third with 29,172); and barring Trevor Bailey and Jack O’Connor, he is the only player to do the 15,000 run-300 wicket double for Essex.

He bowled leg-breaks in an era when Bernard Bosanquet made the googly fashionable, and was good enough to take 330 wickets at 31.21. He played two Tests, both during the 1901-02 Ashes.

He also played full-back in Association Football. He represented Clapton, City Ramblers, and went on to make appearances for Sheffield United, Tottenham Hotspur, and Arsenal. He even captained London and Middlesex.

The Straits Times (Singapore) has a remarkable account from the early 1890s: “McGahey was a splendid full-back and that on one Christmas tour, when the opposition was completely overwhelmed, he took a spell at centre-forward in order to keep warm. He had one shot at goal and kicked the ball so hard straight at the goalkeeper that it smashed through the goalkeeper’s hands and broke his collar-bone.”

Indeed, his feet were no less stronger than his forearms.

Charlie McGahey The footballer © Getty Images

 Early days

Born in Stepney, London, McGahey came from a modest background. His father was a railway clerk, and the family was not exactly affluent. Despite that, McGahey always played as an amateur for Essex.

He had no formal training when he was thrust into serious cricket, and was little more than a slogger in club cricket. Wisden wrote: “When in 1893 he was first given a trial for Essex he was just a rough natural hitter, with nearly everything of the science of batting to learn. The material was there, but it obviously needed a good deal of shaping and polishing.”

He made his First-Class debut at 23, but took time to make an impact. There was a fourth-innings 103 (out of a team total of 245) against Hampshire in his first season, but the match was not given First-Class status. Later that season he slammed 147 against a weak Somerset attack (there were two other hundreds and a 99 in the innings).

In 1897 he scored consecutive hundreds, against Sussex and Hampshire, but that big season remained elusive. Unfortunately, his health took a toll that season, and it was only a trip to Australia around the end of that year that helped him recover.

The great chase at Old Trafford

McGahey’s first major season was 1900, when his 1,190 runs came at 37.18 with 4 hundreds. Two years before that, he was involved in a big chase against Lancashire at Old Trafford. Batting first, Lancashire had reached 206 for 2 before collapsing to 254. Essex did worse, conceding an 85-run lead.

Once again Lancashire collapsed, this time from 158 for 2 to 250, leaving Essex 336 to chase. The Lancashire bowling attack boasted of Willis Cuttell and Arthur Mold, Test players both, but the biggest threat was definitely Johnny Briggs.

Captain Hugh Owen and Herbert Carpenter added 88, but both fell on that score. Then McGahey joined Perrin, and the pair added 191 in no time, Perrin contributing a mere 61. Essex lost Arthur Turner on 279, but McGahey continued, eventually falling for 145. With 23 to win and 5 wickets in hand, Essex steered to a win.

By this time McGahey had slowly established himself as a mainstay for Essex. Professional coaching, of course, had a role to play. McGahey was fortunate to play for Essex in a phase when Charles Ernest Green was at the helm. A renowned hard-hitting batsman and Essex captain himself, Green would be remembered by Essex CCC as perhaps the most significant of its founders. Green made sure his bowlers and batsmen got quality practice against the best in the trade, and McGahey, like several of his teammates, thrived under the conditions.

Graceful act

By this time word had got around. WG Grace was recruiting men for the newly-formed London County, and he selected McGahey. He joined them in 1901, starting with 81 against Middlesex and 115 against Warwickshire.

1901 was, of course, McGahey’s watershed season. He almost threatened to reach the 1,000-run mark by May, opening the season with 77*, 125, 63, 77, 114, and 145*, 74, and 47* in his first eight innings. The twin hundreds against Gloucestershire was the first instance of an Essex batsman scoring two hundreds in a match.

A dry end to the month prevented him from getting to the four-figure mark, but he roared back with a vengeance against Warwickshire. With 130* and 5 for 95, he became the second Essex cricketer to score a hundred and take a five-for in the same match (after Charles Kortright, three years back).

But he was not done. In the return match against Gloucestershire he scored 66 and 91, and claimed 6 for 86 and 6 for 71, thus becoming the first Essex player to score a hundred runs and take ten wickets in the same match. Five years later he would do it again, with 89 and 14, and 7 for 27 and 3 for 37. Nobody else did it in between, or would do it before World War I.

McGahey finished 1901 with 1,838 runs at 48.36 and 52 wickets at 28.50. There was not much dispute regarding him being named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year. Wisden, however, left a remark: “His exceptionally heavy scoring was perhaps due to the exaggerated excellence of the wickets at Leyton rather than to any sudden improvement in his batting.”

That season he was appointed Assistant Secretary of Essex CCC for £200, at par with the professionals. More significantly, he was also included in the squad that toured Australia that Antipodean summer with Archie McLaren’s team.

Note: Some sources suggest that McGahey had contracted tuberculosis before the tour, and undertook the tour only to get cured. It had worked for him before. By the time he returned, he was fully fit. However, most sources do not mention this.

Test cricket

McGahey started the tour on a high, against Victoria. The tourists secured a 33-run lead, but still had to capitalise on it. The host attack was studded with Jack Saunders, Charlie McLeod, Warwick Armstrong, and Frank Laver, but it did not matter: reducing Tom Hayward to a mere spectator, McGahey took on the attack, slamming 57 and adding 95 for the opening stand. The partnership turned out to be crucial, for the tourists collapsed to 174 soon afterwards before Syd Barnes bowled them to victory.

Thereafter he got going only in the minor matches. However, with England trailing 1-2 after 3 Tests, McGahey was given a Test cap in the fourth Test at SCG. He scored 18 and 13. To be fair, England were bowled out for 99 in the second innings by Saunders and Monty Noble.

McGahey did not bowl, and Australia secured The Ashes with a 7-wicket win. Once again he did well against Victoria with 34, 2 for 13, and 3 for 58, and was retained for the fifth Test. This time he did worse, managing 0 and 7: Noble and Hugh Trumble shared 15 of the wickets, and Australia won 4-1. He never played another Test.

Later career

McGahey continued to play, and mentored many an Essex youngster. Perrin wrote: “Charles McGahey, in my view, was one of the most popular and kindest-hearted players ever seen in First-Class cricket; certainly he was most encouraging to any young player. I have known him on many occasions go out of his way to give a youngster good advice.”

He continued to play domestic cricket till after World War I. Against Derbyshire in 1905 he slammed a career-best of 277 in a team score of 507. At that point it was the second-highest score for Essex (after Perrin’s 343 not out the previous year). John Freeman (291) is the only other Essex batsman to score more than McGahey.

In 1906 he scored 305 not out for Essex XI in a minor match battling a hangover. Dan Reese, the New Zealand player who also played for London County and Essex, narrated the innings in Was It All Cricket?: “When he went in to bat he had obviously not recovered. He said he didn’t see the first ball at all; the second also missed his stumps; he then cocked one over short-leg’s head and later put one through slips. After running one or two for his partner he gradually improved and began to get them more in the middle of the bat. On he went, first to 20, then 50 to 100, then 200, and eventually reached 300; the last two centuries being the result of fearless hitting….I believe old Charles got more kick out of that innings than any other he ever played.”

Despite the presence of Johnny Douglas and Fred Fane in the side, McGahey was named captain of Essex the following season. He led them till 1910.

McGahey was posted in France during the War years, but that did not distract him for cricket. He maintained a ground at Étaples, taking great care to look after the matting wicket. HS Altham later recollected in Wisden that one of the afternoon matches at Étaples featured Douglas, Nigel Haig, and Reggie Schwarz.

Even after The Great War, McGahey showed no sign of fatigue. In his second match after The War, he routed Somerset for 84 with figures of 6 for 21. He was 49 when the 1920 season started, but he played 22 matches, scoring 591 runs and taking 16 wickets. He eventually hung up his boots after 1921, but stayed on as coach for five seasons.

In 1920, in a match against Oxford University, McGahey was bowled by a young RC Robertson-Glasgow. However hard he tried, McGahey never managed to pronounce the surname of the boy who would go on to become one of the greatest cricket writers of all time.

The frustrated retort was “I was bowled by an old **** I thought was dead two thousand years ago, called Robinson Crusoe.” The nickname stuck for the rest of Robertson-Glasgow’s life.

© Getty Images
Charlie McGahey at his cheerful best © Getty Images

 Essex Twins

Throughout his career, McGahey forged huge partnerships with most partners, but none to match those with Perrin. Joe Armour, the man who kept score for Essex for 44 years, called McGahey and Percy Perrin ‘The Essex Twins’.

The moniker stuck to the pair for more reasons than one: Perrin was slightly taller (6’3”), had an identical frame, was strong off the back-foot, and they often batted together, Perrin at three and McGahey at four. Armour even suggested one of Perrin and McGahey wore a scarf around his waist to help him!

Perrin and McGahey had several massive stands. It started with a mammoth 323-run third-wicket stand against Kent with Perrin (who scored 205 while McGahey got 142).

In 1901 Perrin and McGahey opened batting in a minor match, for Tottenham at Clapton. They added 301.

In 1912 Perrin (245) and McGahey (150) added 312 against Derbyshire in a mere three hours. At this stage Perrin was 36, and McGahey, 41.

In between all this, in 1904 there was a 328-run stand against Surrey. This time he partnered Carpenter, who got 199. McGahey scored 173.

The man and the world record

Over two decades after his retirement, McGahey kept scores in a solitary First-Class match. Coincidentally, that turned out to be a one-of-its-kind contest, at Leyton in 1932, and for once a scorer had a role to play.

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This was the match when Percy Holmes and Herbert Sutcliffe added 423 by stumps on Day One at Leyton. When Sutcliffe eventually fell for 313 the day after, the opening pair had put up 555, a run more than the existing record by Jack Brown and John Tunnicliffe in 1898, and everyone was happy; but Essex captain Charlie Bray intervened.

The scorers, McGahey of Essex and Bill Ringrose of Yorkshire, were sitting below the scoreboard, and did not have a view. While the board showed 555, both McGahey and Ringrose had calculated 554. It did not help that McGahey had arrived late on Day One.

Umpire Tiger Smith came to the rescue. He claimed that Ringrose had missed a no-ball Smith had called before McGahey’s arrival. Ringrose agreed (albeit not very happily), and McGahey met Bray at the Essex dressing-room. The following conversation ensued:

McGahey: Sorry to disturb you, skip, but all hell is going on out there. They want us to find an extra run to beat the record and I won’t do it without your permission.
Bray: Find a run for them, Charles. They’ve batted magnificently and more than deserve the record.

And thus, in his only First-Class match as scorer, McGahey created history of sorts.

The man, and a tragic end

Gifted with a dry sense of humour, McGahey was immensely popular, among colleagues and others. Reese wrote: “Charlie McGahey was always the life of the party; he was a lovable fellow and a splendid player at a pinch.”

They tried to hook him up, but to no avail. Reese wrote: “One Welshman, bent on making a match for McGahey, said he could get him a girl ‘with a coal mine’! Needless to say, we all joined in the hunt for Mrs McGahey, but our Charles was good on the defence and came through unscathed.”

On Christmas Day, 1934, 63-year old McGahey was walking on a wet pavement when he slipped. He damaged a finger, but nothing major was diagnosed in the beginning. Unfortunately, the finger turned septic a few days afterwards, and McGahey succumbed to it on January 10, 1935 at Whipps Cross Hospital.

In 1989 Jan Kemp penned down Cheerful Charlie, a biography of McGahey.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)