A month or so ago a greatly respected member of the media was asked by his employers to compile a list of county cricket's best overseas players. Turning to Lancashire and limited to just four names, he had provisionally decided on Clive Lloyd, Farokh Engineer, Wasim Akram and Ashwell Prince, but then rang a colleague to check on his selections and request any suggested changes. "Well, Ted McDonald's got to be in there, somewhere," said his friend. "Who's that?" was the reply.

Outraged astonishment, whether genuine or affected, would not be an appropriate response to such a question. Visual images have long commandeered minds and there will be many true and faithful cricket supporters for whom the history of the game began with Ian Botham or one-day cricket and they will not be certain which came first. Tell such folk that next summer will mark the centenary of the great Australian tour in which McDonald took 150 first-class wickets, 27 of them in the five-Test series, and they will thank the passage of time for explaining their ignorance. Warwick Armstrong might be a new town in the Midlands.

But Lancashire followers probably have more reason to reproach themselves for any lack of knowledge. Their county won six Championships in the 20th century and McDonald's fast bowling played vital roles in four of those triumphs. He took 588 wickets in title-winning summers and his total haul of 1053 wickets puts him eighth on the county's all-time list. All those above him had far longer careers at Old Trafford than the Tasmanian, who played his first match for Lancashire aged 33 in 1924 and his last, some seven months after his 40th birthday, at Blackpool in 1931.

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Before McDonald began playing full-time county cricket in 1925 there were three lucrative summers with Nelson in the Lancashire League, and even in his early forties, with his fire suddenly burning low, he was engaged as Bacup's pro for another two seasons. The initial move to England with his young family cost McDonald his Test career but the offer from Nelson - £500 a season plus collections and other benefits - made him the highest-paid cricketer in the world. Given his liking for alcohol and his predilection for placing large wagers on slow horses this was plainly useful. "I've always had a weakness for freak bets," he said.

And yet we have still given nothing more than half an answer to that initial question. We know some of the reasons why McDonald was famous but who he was in the sense required by biographers intrigued the game's historians for nearly a century. Fortunately many of those questions were answered four years ago when Nick Richardson finally published his excellent biography The Silk Express. Richardson's book has been diligently researched and is profusely illustrated with many photographs of McDonald, either singly or as a member of a team in whose success he had played a major part. And yet in none of those photographs is he smiling.

"He was not an extrovert who enjoyed cultivating a public profile," Richardson writes. "The evidence from those who knew him was that McDonald could be a moody man, who was more often than not taciturn… This personality was initially a fierce contrast to the exuberance and thrill that seemed to emanate for McDonald's bowling partner, Jack Gregory… McDonald was harder to like and this problem was manifest in the way he bowled: at times, hostile, and at other times apathetic. He was, by cricket's evolving definition of what a hostile fast bowler should be, neither flamboyant nor inspirational. He might have been part of sporting circles who formed convivial groups, but for McDonald his cricket was very much a private activity."

Except, of course, that the game could never be wholly private for a man whose moves to Nelson and then to Lancashire were predicated on large numbers of people turning up to watch him play. Indeed, part of the deal by which McDonald was made available for the entire Championship season in 1925, rather than just midweek county fixtures, involved Lancashire agreeing to play one match each season at Nelson's Seedhill ground.

In first-class games the duels between McDonald and the great batsmen of his era were always good box-office. In his first full season at Old Trafford his bowling was demolished in front of the home crowd by the 22-year-old Walter Hammond, who made 250 not out and put on 330 with his third-wicket partner, Alf Dipper. As would happen fairly frequently when McDonald was attacked, he took refuge in short-pitched bowling. With most batsmen such a tactic was unnecessary: his pace was enough. But with batsmen of pedigree like Hammond or Frank Woolley, bouncers were employed and Bob Wyatt reckoned McDonald was one of the first to use leg-theory, albeit nothing like as systematically as Harold Larwood eventually did. "My own experience of leg-theory is limited," Douglas Jardine wrote after the Bodyline tour. "The first time I experienced it, it was bowled - and well bowled - by McDonald, the Australian-Lancastrian."

As well as being of his time he was far ahead of it in his determination to seek the highest wages he could, even if that meant ending his Test career. His precise place among the best cricketers of his day was determined by the willingness of a Lancashire League to pay him a great deal of money

Three of Woolley's four Championship centuries off Lancastrian attacks that included McDonald were scored when the Kent batsman was over 40 but McDonald also took his wicket ten times in the dozen games they played against each other. Such statistics are particularly useful because two of those games were the subject of memorable essays by Neville Cardus, a writer for whom statistics were an unseemly invention of dull men on bad days.

Cardus was perfectly aware of McDonald's mercurial temperament. In 1926 he reported on Lancashire's game at Dover, always one of the writer's favourite grounds, and saw him take 7 for 81 in the first innings. But when Kent needed 426 on the final day, McDonald refused to bowl fast, instead sending down leg-spinners from round the wicket and mooching around in the field. His captain, Leonard Green, could neither order nor persuade him to do a proper job. Let us allow Duncan Hamilton, author of The Great Romantic to take up the story in the tea interval.

"Cardus finds McDonald quietly drinking a glass of whisky, which Green has poured for him. He implores McDonald to put some spine into his bowling. He explains that if Kent get the runs, the Lancashire committee will 'play Hell' with Green for declaring. McDonald 'snarls' at him - Cardus emphasises that word - and then says: 'Very well.' "

Four of Kent's remaining five wickets fell to McDonald, who took a hat-trick, as if to show what he could do when he slipped himself. Cardus had thus seen Woolley make a century and McDonald take 12 for 187, all on three perfect June days in Dover. Et In Arcadia Ego.

Two seasons later Woolley made another century against Lancashire but his 151 out of Kent's first innings 277 at Old Trafford was hardly more than a glorious prelude to McDonald's career-best figures of 15 for 154. Cardus watched that match, too, and those who criticise his occasional lush lyricism might also consider the strength of the following passage:

"Whence does McDonald draw his terrible and strength and velocity? His run to the wicket is so easy, so silent. He does not thunder over the earth like Gregory - like a bull at a gate. No, he runs along a sinister curve, lithe as a panther, his whole body moving like visible, strange music. A more beautiful action than McDonald's was never seen on a cricket field, or a more inimical. The man's whole being tells of the sinister, destructive forces of nature - he is a satanic bowler, menacing but princely. Yesterday he was at his best; he like a comet burned, and from his wheeling arm shot pestilence and war. His attack mingled in proportion the strength of the lion and the subtlety of the serpent…Bowling of McDonald's skill and dreadful beautiful energy ennobles the game; the spark of it belongs to life immortal and it kindles imagination's fires in all men who look on."

McDonald was 37 yet near the peak of his powers. He took 178 wickets that season as Lancashire completed a hat-trick of titles. It was an astonishing effort from a man who made no noticeable attempt to look after himself in the manner of modern cricketers. Cigarettes, a fish sandwich and perhaps a glass of water or something stronger comprised his lunchtime refuelling. In certain respects he was very much moored in his time: there was never a captain to touch Armstrong and never a batsman to rival Victor Trumper, not even Don Bradman, who MacDonald bowled and beat for pace when Lancashire played the Australians at Aigburth in 1930. "I am now ready to argue his place among the greatest of fast bowlers," Bradman wrote of his conqueror in Farewell to Cricket, citing the beauty and rhythm of McDonald's action among his many cricketing virtues.

It is a shame that the beauty of McDonald's bowling is not fully reflected in the few minutes' film of him that has survived but while we may view Cardus' assessment as subjective, Bradman's judgement and those of other opponents are more clear-eyed. And it is certainly doubtful whether any cricketer has had writers searching harder for perfect similes or suitable metaphors. Take, for example, Eric Midwinter's judgement on McDonald:

"His action was effortless and his speed, stiletto-like, liable to test the quickest reflexes, his fame assured from the summer of 1921 when Gregory and he had destroyed England's batting. His balance was such that his run-up was soundless, and umpires spoke of not sensing his approach… He seemed not to get flustered, inequable or sweaty, and good batsmen tended to lift his pace and exactitude. It was Italianate in form: he could have opened the bowling for the Borgias."

But perhaps history cannot offer the best comparisons to those seeking to understand Ted McDonald, for as well as being of his time he was far ahead of it in his determination to seek the highest wages he could, even if that meant ending his Test career. His precise place among the best cricketers of his day was determined not by the number of Australian caps he won but by the willingness of a Lancashire League to pull their tripes out to pay him a great deal of money - much of which ended up with the bookies.

And that, of course, is another aspect of McDonald's modernity. While no cricketer from the 1920s would have been more likely to sign up for Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket in the 1970s or to seal lucrative deals to play for T20 franchises in the current era, McDonald would also have found his "weakness for freak bets" eagerly explored by today's tabloids. In his own time the papers actually believed that sportsmen had a private life that was none of the media's business. We know of McDonald's gambling problem today partly because of Richardson's diligence in uncovering his requests for "bale out" monies from clubs. It took a writer of RC Robertson-Glasgow's skill and subtlety to suggest a problem existed.

"He was a handsome fellow with strong and clear-cut features, but saturnine and mahogany-grim; like Carver Doone, he meant to frighten the young men with a look… Perhaps he would have done well to remain in his own Australia, for, over here, he found those who were only too ready to play up to his swashbuckling and devil-may-care nature. He loved to be thought the 'tough baby', and fell into ways of life that somehow foreshadowed tragedy."

Yet McDonald's tragedy occurred not because a bookie hired muscle but because the Ford 8 he was driving collided with another car on the Blackrod bypass early in the morning of July 23, 1937. Although he survived that smash, he was killed shortly afterwards by another car that struck him when he was discussing the accident with the other driver and a policeman. McDonald was 46 and at the time of his death he and his wife, Myrtle, were managing the Raikes Hall hotel in Blackpool, a job he had been given as payment for playing for the local club as an "amateur". His estate was valued at £300 and collections were organised to help out Myrtle and her two sons. The appropriate tributes were paid, many of the most generous coming from McDonald's former Australian colleagues.

Over 2000 people attended the funeral and a two-minute silence was held during the Test match between England and New Zealand at Manchester. Probably few of those 8000 spectators at Old Trafford knew about the gambling and perhaps not too many recalled the afternoons when "Mac" barely seemed interested in cricket. Far more remembered the silent grace of that 16-yard run-up and balls which shattered the stumps of the world's greatest batsmen, often before they had played any stroke at all.

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Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications