As the Six Nations ends and the cricket season peeps shyly over the horizon let us continue the theme of depictions of cricketers (and wicket-keepers in particular) by taking a look at this splendid specimen: Gregor MacGregor, who (uniquely, I think) represented England at cricket and Scotland at Rugby football.
This photograph was originally published by the News of the World as part of an 18 part series in 1895, when MacGregor was at the height of his fame (I imagine he found himself tacked up on not a few schoolboys’ bedroom walls and framed in snug bars). From the fact that he appears to be ‘keeping on a shagpile carpet in front of what looks like some kind of picturesque ruin I think we can deduce that this a posed studio portrait, but I think it preserves the essence of the man.
We usually think of the ‘Golden Age’ of amateur dominance as being primarily the heyday of the dashing strokemaker, but – although MacGregor was a reasonable bat – his fame was as another phenomenon of that period, the virtuoso, daredevil amateur wicket-keeper.
MacGregor originally came to prominence as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where he formed a celebrated partnership with the Australian international bowler Sammy Woods. ‘A Country Vicar’, who was a contemporary of theirs, takes up the story:
“Gregor MacGregor and Sammy Woods were the outstanding figures in the Cambridge XI of 1891. You might call them MacGregor and Woods, or Woods and MacGregor, whichever you pleased: they were always a pair, partners in business for the destruction of Oxford – indivisible, like Castor and Pollux, or David and Jonathan, and each equally great in his own special department of the game. Woods was the best amateur fast bowler in England, MacGregor the best wicket-keeper.
My feelings, in 1891, as a humble Freshman, towards the fourth-year brothers-in-arms, may be described as absolute hero-worship. To me, the great pair seemed almost super-human. I viewed them as demigods. I had seen them on the Rugby football field, each magnificent in his own position. MacGregor, broad-shouldered, dark and saturnine, cool, collected and unruffled at full-back: “Sammy”‘s towering form leading the forwards. They were equally splendid at Fenners!”
“It should be remembered that “Mac” never followed the modern fashion of standing back to fast bowling. He stood close to the stumps even when Sammy was going all out. And, when at his fastest, the great man was apt to be just a little erratic in pitch. That did not trouble the wicket-keeper: he took the ball with the utmost ease and certainty, whatever its length might be.”
This style of bravura wicket-keeping (standing up to genuinely fast bowling) arose at a time when the role of the ‘keeper was changing, as Patrick Morrah explains in ‘The Golden Age of Cricket‘:
“The modern practice of standing back to bowling of anything above medium pace would have been looked on with scorn by such players [MacGregor and Martyn] … in earlier times it had been the custom to stand up to all bowling, but the wicket-keeper did not try to stop the more difficult balls; there was a long stop to look after them. In the seventies and eighties Tom Lockyer and Alfred Lyttleton set a new standard, and long-stop became obsolete; it was now the wicket-keeper’s task to see that no byes were allowed, while at the same time watching every chance of stumping as well as catching.”
Though, according to ‘A Country Vicar’
“Lyttleton always said that the abolition of the long stop spoilt his wicket-keeping. He had become a master of the art when that second line of defence was still considered a necessity – to save the byes; and one of the chief marks of skill then, in the man behind the stumps, was the knowledge as to which ball to take and which to allow to pass.”
These exhibitions of dare-devilry (which were essentially the province of amateur players) reached their apogee in the Gentlemen v Players fixtures, for instance that of 1893, as Patrick Morrah relates:
“Pelham Warner considered a catch by MacGregor … to have been the best he ever saw. Kortright was bowling at his fastest, and with MacGregor standing back Frank Sugg stood out of his ground. So MacGregor came up to the wicket to force him to stay back; Kortright sent down one of his fastest deliveries, Sugg touched it, and MacGregor took the catch low down a few inches from the wicket.”
and 1906, when MacGregor’s rival and successor Harry Martyn of Oxford and Somerset stood up to Brearley and Knox, who Wisden described as having bowled ‘terrifyingly fast‘. Martyn, too, had dared to stand up to ‘Korty’ when playing for the Gentlemen:
“Harry Martyn … is said to have taken up position at the stumps when he first kept to Kortright in a Gentleman v Players match. The bowler did not like this and uttered words of warning: Martyn stood his ground, gathering the first of Kortright’s rockets right-handed outside the off stump, and tossed the ball back to the bowler so swiftly that it hit the poor unprepared fellow in the chest.”
The Players tended not to go in for such exhibitions, as David Frith reports in ‘The Fast Men‘:
“It was said that several of the leading wicket-keepers could have stood over the stumps to the Kortrights, Knoxes and Brearleys, but Lilley and Strudwick – to consider only two – felt it more profitable to stand back and minimise the byes at the same time as having a better chance to hold snicks.”
But presumably it was not only tactical considerations that led the professionals Strudwick and Lilley to err on the side of caution. At worst, MacGregor and Martyn stood to lose their teeth (worth it for what the French term ‘La Gloire‘): a serious injury for a professional could have meant the loss of his livelihood and a one way trip to the Workhouse. It was for much the same reason that the genuine speed merchants of the period were all amateurs. There may have been professionals who could have bowled as fast as Knox or Brearley, but not if they were required to play every match in a season and hoped to extend their careers to an age where they might have managed to save enough to buy a small public house.
Strudwick may, for instance, have been mindful of the fate of a predecessor as Surrey wicket-keeper (Frith again):
“Such exhibitions as Martyn’s to the abovementioned three and MacGregor to Woods bring to mind the remark of the prizefighter Jem Mace, to Ted Pooley, Surrey’s wicket-keeper in the 1860s and 1870s: ‘I would rather stand up against any man in England for an hour than take your place behind the wicket for five minutes. I heard that ball strike you as if it had hit a brick wall.’
On that occasion a ball had leapt from one of the wide cracks in the Lord’s pitch and removed three of Pooley’s teeth. In taking a return from a fieldsmen at Brighton in 1871 Pooley had a finger broken. He first noticed it when blood began to run down the sleeve of his flannel jacket, and upon removing his glove he saw that the broken bone was protruding from the flesh. When ‘Old Ebor’ (A.W. Pullin) discovered Pooley in the Lambeth Workhouse in 1899 he described the old ‘keeper’s fists as ‘mere lumps of deformity’.”
After leaving Cambridge MacGregor worked as a stock broker and played for Middlesex, retiring in 1907 with a total of 411 victims caught and 148 stumped. He died in 1919, aged 49.