The Majestic MacLaren that wasn't
Odd Men In - a title shamelessly borrowed from AA Thomson's fantastic book - concerns cricketers who have caught my attention over the years in different ways - personally, historically, technically, stylistically - and about whom I have never previously found a pretext to write
In his final year at Harrow, Archie MacLaren had as his fag a particularly 'snotty little bugger', uppity but damn near useless, with no aptitude even for sport: the youth had actually once been pelted by boys with cricket balls, and felt an everlasting shame from having cowered behind trees.
Embarassing, really. For MacLaren, even as a teenager, was marked out for great attainments. He would that year compile an effortless maiden first-class century for Lancashire; within four years he would set a record score in England to withstand all rivals for nigh on a century. That damnable, feeble fag. Never amount to anything, that Winston blessed Churchill.
MacLaren lived long enough to see the schoolboy upstart achieve fame throughout the world; one wonders if it ever occurred to him that his own closest brush with international renown beyond the cricket field was his walk-on part as a monocled veteran of the Crimean War in Alexander Korda's The Four Feathers. Likewise, while Churchill's greatness endures, MacLaren is nowadays at best a period curio, like an antimacassar or an aspidistra.
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. Among the most famous passages in Autobiography (1947) is Cardus's paralleling his first glimpse of MacLaren with his first experience of the actor Henry Irving ("They wakened the incurable romantic in me which saves a grown man from foolishness"); later he elevates the cricketer to the stature of creative genius ("MacLaren was not just a cricketer any more than Wagner was just a composer") and supreme English artist ("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").
Like Jad Leland in Citizen Kane, unable to wash from his memory the idle adolescent glimpse of a woman in white, young Cardus never forgot that initial sight of MacLaren, on "the greenest grass in England", playing a drive "far to the distant boundary, straight and powerfully". The memory turned him back into a 12-year-old in the sixpenny seats at Old Trafford. "I cannot remember the bowler's name; he has passed with all other details of the match into the limbo, but I can still see the swing of MacLaren's bat, the great follow through, finishing high and held there with the body poised as he himself contemplated the grandeur of the stroke and savoured it...This brief sight of MacLaren thrilled my blood, for it gave shape and reality to things I had till then only vaguely felt and dreamed about of romance."
Other observers verify the spacious flourishes of MacLaren's batting. "He lifted his bat round his neck like a golfer at the top of his swing," recalled his contemporary CB Fry. "He stood bolt upright and swept into every stroke, even a defensive backstroke, with dominating completeness." But for Cardus, it was the thought of MacLaren as much as the deeds that did the trick. The climactic moment of their relationship, of course, was MacLaren's invitation to Cardus to Eastbourne in August 1921, where his olla podrida of an English XI was taking on the might of Warwick Armstrong's unbeaten Australians. MacLaren made a first ball duck. In the Manchester Guardian, Cardus nonetheless spent 150 words describing it: a passage, I might add, that is startlingly moving, drenched with disappointment yet incandescently admiring. The faith was repaid when MacLaren's team won two days later, not only handing Cardus the scoop of a lifetime, but also vindicating his romantic effusions.
By then, however, MacLaren was by most measures a failure. Clinging tenaciously to his amateur status, he had hazarded a host of careers: from banker to teacher, from Ranji's secretary, warding off his army of creditors, to limousine salesman, with "a gaudy line in patter and a sunny indifference to his customers' real needs" (to quote a lovely essay on MacLaren by Jeremy Mailes). Eternally beyond his means, he had been invalided out of the army and run a failed magazine; he'd go on to start an unsuccessful stud farm and an inhospitable hotel; he would fail in attempts to manufacture cricket bats from Spanish willow and inflatable pads.
Nor were these misfortunes; on the contrary, they were nothing but failures of a frankly unpleasant personality. Cardus admired him from the perfect distance. Team-mates and business partners alike found MacLaren brusque, boorish, overbearing. Even admirers who grew close enough came away disabused. "It is disillusioning to one of my youthful loyalties,' wrote the Etonian littérateur George Lyttleton to his former pupil Rupert Hart-Davis, "to realise that the Majestic MacLaren was an extremely stupid, prejudiced and pig-headed man." In Batter's Castle (1958), Ian Peebles recalls perhaps his most notorious habit: "I have heard old timers say he was liable to enter the dressing room clutching his head and saying, "Look what they've given me this time." Or "gracious me! Don't tell me you're playing!" Which cannot have been very good for morale."
No, indeed. Without Cardus, in fact, MacLaren might have faded altogether: Autobiography, today probably the most-read of Cardus's work, still tends his monument, if in a slightly unusual way. MacLaren was a cricketer like many others, a lion on the field, a lamb everywhere else; Cardus's MacLaren is the archetypal object of youthful devotion to whose faults and failings we are impervious. There was only one MacLaren, but everyone has a MacLaren.
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer