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To many, who like myself were at Lord's last year during the 'Varsity match and saw and chatted with Gregor MacGregor, the news of his sudden death in a nursing home came almost with the force of a physical blow.
I have known MacGregor and played cricket with him for more years than the average man cares to count. I have played with him in games which men label 'first class'--in games of the country house, or 'brown sherry' variety, as they are often derisively called, and I have played against him in College and county cricket, and whether with him or against him or under him, he was always the same,--even-tempered--imperturbable--at times perhaps bordering on the cynical; rarely if ever depressed by fear of disaster, or over-elated with the joy of success.
As a captain he never bustled or hustled his side--he was silent, determined, full of supreme self-confidence, but not with that aggressive, assertive confidence that lessens the value of many, who otherwise would make excellent leaders of a side. His knowledge and sound judgment of the thousand and one aspects of the game were almost unrivalled.
He was a pessimist at the start of a day--he was an optimist all through it!
I played with him at Cambridge in 1890 and under him there in 1891. I played against him in that fine, clean, keen cricket the Surrey v. Middlesex matches, and, this I will say, speaking with that truth that is only given to 'babes' and fools to utter, that he never asked: How's That?unless the man were out. And there is no finer compliment--no finer praise--no finer tribute to say of one of the greatest wicket-keepers that ever lived than to say that he never asked in vain.
Some men behind the 'sticks' led away by the excitement of a close finish--the rapid advance of defeat or the approach of victory--snatch at an appeal--but MacGregor never did--he was a grand clean stumper--clean in every sense of the word--a stumper, absolutely 'frillless.'
He never gesticulated--he never jumped about like a jack-in-the-box or as a badly regulated monkey on a stick--he was the personification of quietude.
In the world of sport there have been pairs, P. M. and A. M. Walters, the great Corinthians for example, and hosts of others in their different games, but in all my forty years I have never seen that machine-like precision--that foreshadowing of the possible--that existed between Gregor MacGregor and Sammy Woods. The faster Sam Bowled, the nearer the sticks stood Mac, and he took the five and a half ounces of leather, cork and string, as if it were a ping-pong ball! He took it on the off or the on-side with equal facility, and he would throw the ball back, time in and time out, with the suggestion that he was a little tired at the simplicity of it all!
One of the most wonderful things connected with MacGregor's wicket-keeping is the fact that he never hurt his fingers. Now, I have looked with keen interest at the hands of many of our great stumpers, and some of them are as the knarled roots of trees--twisted--curved,--battered joints protrude everywhere. I looked at MacGregor's hands--and they were untouched--unmarked. Why? I asked him one day at the Oval--and this was his answer: As a boy I learnt to bend my wrist backwards, so that I take the ball with my fingers pointing down--the result being that if I do not take it clean, my fingers are simply bent backwards--not driven in at the tips. In other words the front of his hand faced the ball--not his finger tips, and this is the reason why he never broke down.
Even-tempered as MacGregor invariably was, I well remember one occasion on which this usual tranquility broke down--the reason I have forgotten. Cambridge were playing Surrey at the Oval in June 1891. As a rule he was chary of tendering advice to his bowlers, but in the second innings of Surrey, on a none too easy wicket, he remarked in his quiet way to our great fast bowler: Let'em go, Sam. And then for the first time I saw MacGregor stand back--and he was right, for on his day and in the right mood, Sammy Woods was a real fast bowler. Surrey required 122 to win. Sam let'em go! As he started to bowl the majority of the famous eleven developed a strange desire for the company of the square leg umpire and 'edged' in his direction, and the stumps, unguarded, were hurled with fierce velocity to MacGregor who carried them back, with never a smile, and silently placed them, re-bailed, in their original position. Surrey were out for 103, of which number Jack Shuter made 51--he was one of the few who stood up--he faced the bowling, as that parallelogram of a man, George Hirst, would have done. As we walked back to the pavilion, a faint, very faint smile illuminated for a moment the dark features of MacGregor-- Well bowled, Sam, was all he said.
But silent, imperturbable as MacGregor usually was, occasionally his splendid keenness broke through his cold reserve. Surrey, as was often the case, were hard pressed by our old rivals Middlesex, and on the morning of the third day at the Oval, seemed certain to lose the match. There had been some rain and the wicket was slow and easy, and with all their side to bat, Middlesex required only 150 or so to win. From the very start the game swung in their favour--the ball cut through and the runs were as plentiful as fallen autumn leaves. At the interval they had made 120 odd for three. At lunch I noticed that several of the amateurs had not even changed, so certain were they of the runs. I whispered to MacGregor: Mac, I should like to make those fellows change. And he smiled. After lunch, after forty-five minutes of a hot sun, a wonderful chance came 'o'er the spirit of their dream.' Hayward and Lockwood and the sticky wicket caused a rapid search for garments--wicket after wicket fell and MacGregor arrived only to be run out by Turkey Rawlin in his first over! As he passed Rawlin in the middle of the pitch, seeing he had no earthly chance to get in--he shouted in a voice literally broken with emotion: Great Scott, Turkey, what have you done?
His whole thought was for his side. No man could stop a rot better than he, and this he knew. But on this occasion his openly expressed fear was groundless, as Billy Williams, that rough and ready cricketer, made 17! and Middlesex won by one wicket.
The last time I had the pleasure of playing against MacGregor, the last time I ever played in a first-class match, was the Surrey v. Middlesex at the Oval in June, 1904. For the first and only time in my life I did the ' hat-trick' and Gregor MacGregor gave it me. Bosanquet had been stumped by Strudwick, and Nicholl bowled, and then MacGregor arrived--he took guard and then he slowly scraped forward, a thing I very rarely saw him do--the ball pitched on the leg stump and did just enough to beat the bat.
In the end Middlesex won by seven wickets, and in Surrey's second innings MacGregor stumped three and caught two. I was one of the two--c MacGregor b Bosanquet, 0--So my old captain and I were quits. It was our last meeting in the cricket field, and the last cricket match that a man plays in is the one he never forgets. I shall never forget my last duck! I shall never forget MacGregor--for indeed he was, because of his great knowledge of the game--his persistency of purpose--his very silence, a terribly hard nut to crack.
Wishing for another opinion than my own as to MacGregor's captaincy, I wrote to an old friend of mine who played under MacGregor for Middlesex for many years. This is his reply:--
As a captain, MacGregor required a lot of knowing--he was dour--he said very little, but he had the gift of getting the very best out of those who understood him--those who did not understand him mistook his attempt to disguise his own keenness to win, for pessimism. MacGregor was a curious study in character. When a big effort was needed and it depended on the effort of one man, he would say just the right word to that man to make him feel his responsibility, at the same time conveying his own belief in the fact that he would not fail. As to words he was parsimonious, but he always said the right thing at the right moment. In this way MacGregor was a better skipper than many gave him credit for--it was all done so quietly, and few knew of it except those who played under him in the field.
When I first played with him he asked me where I was in the habit of fielding. I replied slip or mid-off or mid-on, anywhere close in. That was enough! I was generally put in the out-field after that! No doubt he thought it was good for my training and discipline. Then one day there was a vacancy at short slip, a left-hander was coming in, and as more than one regular member of the side refused the position, Mac beckoned to me: "I think you like short slip?" I jumped at the chance, being only too delighted to get out of the long-field which I detested. I beamed all over: "Yes, I do like short slip"; and as I went to my place I saw the old hands grin and among them was Stoddart (this was his last match for Middlesex). Stoddart was among those who had refused, remarking: "that his life was not insured!" I wondered why they smiled--I was not left wondering long! Trott was bowling to Tyler of Somerset. I took up my position, preferring to fall forward, than to be too near for my focus, then I was pulled up by Mac and Trott two or three yards, till I could almost shake hands with the batsman. Trott bowled three slow ones, and of the fourth all I knew was that my right hand was touching my ear, and the ball was in it. It was Trott's fast ball!
I turned round to meet laughter everywhere.
In the pavilion the voice of Sammy Woods greeted me: 'I say, old chap, do you always catch'em like that?'
'No, Sammy--and I don't want to again.' And looking at MacGregor I saw a rare sight, I saw him smile.
As a batsman MacGregor was of the useful, not ornamental type--a splendid stop-gap--a fine breakwater against a sea of adversity--he was a 'no-stroke' player, but he made as many runs as he wanted to. He always played back in preference to pushing forward--he watched the ball when he was batting, almost as closely as when he was behind the stumps, and he once made 73 not out against the greatest pair of bowlers in the world, Turner and Ferris, who were backed up by a man who could also bowl a little, Hughie Trumble!
Rest in peace, old friend. You were a great stumper--you were a great cricketer, and you saw in the grand old game more than a circus show on which men may find it worth while to spend sixpence--you saw in it, as C. B. Fry says a physical fine art full of plot-interest, enlivened by difficulties, difficulties that through the long, long years you successfully overcame.