Macartney started his career as a bowling all-rounder. He made his Test debut in 1907, primarily as a left arm orthodox spinner who was considered to be a useful lower-middle order right-hand batsman. As Macartney was initially selected for his flexibility, his position in the batting order was frequently shuffled and he was largely ineffective. His most noteworthy Test contribution in his early career was a match-winning ten wicket haul at Headingley in 1909, before being dropped in the 1910–11 Australian season. It was around this time that Macartney befriended Trumper and began to transform himself from a bowler who batted in a defensive and technically correct manner, into an audacious attacking batsman. He reclaimed his Test position and made his maiden Test century in the same season, before establishing himself as the leading batsman in the team.
The First World War stopped all first-class cricket and Macartney enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Upon the resumption of cricket, Macartney stamped himself as one of the leading batsmen in the world with his performances during the 1921 Ashes tour. Macartney produced an Australian record score in England of 345 against Nottinghamshire. The innings was the fastest triple century in first-class cricket and was also the highest score made by a batsman in a single day of play. He reached 300 in 205 minutes and the whole innings took less than four hours. Macartney topped the batting averages and run-scoring aggregates, which saw him named as one of the five Wisden Cricketers of the Year in 1922. Wisden opined that he was, "by many degrees the most brilliant and individual Australian batsman of the present day". After missing the 1924–25 series due to mental illness or a recurrence of war injuries, Macartney departed international cricket at the peak of his powers on the 1926 tour of England. He became the second Australian to score a century in the first session of a Test match, and did so on a sticky wicket conducive to bowling. This was part of a sequence of three consecutive Test centuries as he led the batting charts. Macartney was posthumously inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame in 2007.
Macartney's flair was compared to that of Victor Trumper, and his determination to that of Don Bradman, who is universally regarded as the finest batsman in cricketing history. His style was quite different to that of Trumper, but he generated fascination with his Trumper-like daring and supreme confidence. Self-taught to a greater extent than anyone else in Australia or England in his era, the 1922 Wisden Almanack described Macartney as "a triumph to individualism… he is not a model to be copied" and "one of the most brilliant and attractive right-handed batsmen in the history of Australian cricket". His success was largely attributed to his eye, hand and foot co-ordination.
Macartney was a short man, standing 160 cm (5" 3). When batting, he unconventionally would attempt to leg glance yorkers pitched on middle stump down to fine-leg, and often lost his wicket in so doing. He was known for preferring his team-mates to give him candid criticism rather than praise. In later life he condemned modern batsmen; he would explain why he no longer watched cricket as because "I can't bear watching luscious half-volleys being nudged gently back to bowlers". Sir Neville Cardus wrote that "there was always chivalry in his cricket, a prancing sort of heroism. The dauntlessness of his play, the brave beauty and the original skill bring tears to my eyes yet." In the late 1940s, Macartney received a help-seeking letter from a compiler of Who's Who in Australia. He said he had "no record of figures, nor am I concerned with them. My only interest is the manner in which the runs are compiled and how wickets are taken, and in the good of the game." "Those sentiments", wrote Jack Fingleton, "summed up the cricket story of C. G. Macartney".
An authoritative, combative stylist, Macartney's élan and devastating strokemaking led Kent cricketer Kenneth Hutchings to dub him the "Governor-General". Fingleton noted that, early in his innings, Macartney had a strategy of aiming a shot straight at the bowler’s head, in order to rattle him and seize a psychological advantage. On one occasion, after reaching a century before lunch on the first day of a match, he immediately called for a bat change. He selected the heaviest bat from the batch that his team-mate brought out and stated "Now I’m going to have a hit". His rate of scoring and boundary-hitting subsequently increased. He possessed powerful hands, strong forearms and broad shoulders. Leg spinning team-mate Arthur Mailey recalled that Macartney would often hit him for six in Sydney Grade Cricket matches. Grinning, he would say "Pitch another one there and I'll hit you for a few more". On the occasions when he lost his wicket attempting further long hits, his grin would remain, and he would remark "Wasn’t it good fun?"
As a bowler, Macartney delivered the ball at a relatively fast pace for a left-arm orthodox spinner, comparable in speed to Derek Underwood. He was known for his consistent length and his well-concealed faster ball which often caught batsmen off guard. On sticky wickets, he was often incisive, which helped him to take five wickets in an innings 17 times in his first-class career. He was known for his miserly attitude, often giving the impression that he would rather bowl ten consecutive maidens rather than take wickets but concede runs. This extended to his off-field activities, where he was considered careful with money. On the 1926 tour of England, he and Mailey visited a hat shop which had a tradition of giving souvenir hats to cricketers of touring Australian squads. When asked if he would like a similar style to the gift he received in 1921, Macartney replied "Not on your life. I’ve been wearing this since you gave it to me in 1921."
In 1909, Australian team-mate Trumper moved from Paddington, a suburb on Sydney's south shore to Chatswood on the northern side of the harbour, where Macartney lived. Macartney and Trumper played together for Gordon Cricket Club on the north shore and became close friends. Macartney regularly practised on the Trumper family’s backyard turf pitch. Trumper’s relocation made more frequent meetings possible, since the Sydney Harbour Bridge was not to open until 1932, and the only way of travelling between either side of the bay was by ferry. Trumper was regarded as the "crown prince of the golden age of cricket", the finest and most stylish batsman of his era, and one of the most elegant strokemakers of all time. Under Trumper’s influence, Macartney became more audacious and adventurous. Macartney revered Trumper as both a cricketer and a person, and was to be a pall bearer when Trumper died in 1915 at the age of 37.
In 1898, Macartney and his family moved from Maitland to Sydney. In his school cricketing career Macartney distinguished himself as an all-rounder at Woollahra Superior and Chatswood public schools, before briefly attending Fort Street High School. Macartney asserted that school cricket was insignificant in his development, believing that he learned more about cricket during informal summer cricket games with his brother at their local park, with their dog acting as a fielder. It was during his school career that he was noticed by Australian captain Monty Noble, who heaped praise on him in a newspaper article.
After leaving school, Macartney worked for a fruit and vegetable merchant near Sydney's Sussex Street docks, honing his batting skills by practising without pads on a wooden wharf during his lunch break. At this stage in his career, he possessed a copybook technique and defensive style, something he was to discard for an audacious, self-styled and attacking outlook.
In 1902, Macartney joined North Sydney Cricket Club in the first division of Sydney Grade Cricket and then moved to the Gordon club in the outer suburbs when the club was formed during the 1905–06 season. He played regularly for Gordon until 1933–34 when he was 47, amassing 7648 runs at an average of 54.7. He was known for his dominant status at the Chatswood Oval. In one match, he lofted a ball out of the ground, over a railway line and onto an adjacent bowling green, forcing the lawn bowlers to take evasive action.
Macartney's exploits were noticed by the State selectors and he made his first class debut for New South Wales against Queensland in 1905–06, scoring 56 in the first innings and taking three wickets in the second. After a consistent but unspectacular second season with both the ball and bat, Macartney made his Test debut against England in the First Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the 1907–08 season. He was viewed as a utility player, selected for the flexibility in his batting position and his left arm orthodox spin.
His most productive batting of the series came in the Third Test in Adelaide, when he scored 75 batting third in the order and took two wickets for 66 runs (2/66) in an Australian victory. His batting was largely ineffectual in the last two Tests, as he was moved to batting eighth and then back to the opening position in the Fifth Test. Despite his confused role as a batsman, he contributed with the ball in the Fifth Test victory on a pitch amenable to spin, taking match figures of 5/66. His first international series had yielded 273 runs at an average of 27.3 and ten wickets at an average of 26.6. In spite of his unsettled role in the batting line up, Macartney had performed well-enough as an all-rounder to be selected for the 1909 tour of England, his first overseas tour.
At this stage of his career, Macartney was regarded as a bowling all-rounder. He was only eighth on the batting averages for the tour, with an average of 19, but took 71 wickets at an average of 17.46. His bowling confounded the English team in the Third Test at Headingley in Leeds, where he took 7/58 in the first innings and 4/27 in the second. It was his best innings and match bowling figures in Tests and helped win the Test and retain The Ashes. Australia had struggled to post 188 in their first innings on a pitch conducive to spin bowling. Australia responded with a dual spin attack, with Noble bowling off spin in tandem with Macartney's left arm orthodox. Noble (0/22 from 13 overs) tied down the batsman, allowing Macartney to attack at batsman at the other end. He bowled with a high trajectory, tempting the batsmen to attack him and then varied his bowling speed to surprise them. He had John Sharp stumped after luring him from the crease and bowled Jack Hobbs with a faster ball. Another of his victims was English captain Archie MacLaren. England were bowled out for 182 and Australia went on to win by 126 runs after Macartney took four more wickets in the second innings, including MacLaren and Wilfred Rhodes.
Macartney's batting in the series was largely unsuccessful. He made two fifties, but otherwise failed to pass 20 and ended with 153 runs at 19.13. In his era, the expectation was that batsmen would be able to bat in a variety of positions and Macartney was gradually moved from seventh down to tenth in the batting order by the end of the tour. Largely due to his efforts at Headingley, his bowling figures were more impressive; he ended the Tests with 16 wickets at 16.13.
Macartney started poorly in the home series against the touring South Africans in the Test series of 1910–11. In the first three Tests, he accumulated 15 runs in five innings and took a solitary wicket. As a result, he was dropped for the Fourth Test. Restored to the team, he bounced back with his first Test century, making 137 in the first innings of the Fifth Test and 56 in the second. It was his third century in as many first class innings: he had made 119 and 126 in a state match for New South Wales against the same opposition the previous week. During the English tour of Australia in 1911–12 he only played in the Fifth Test.
In England for the 1912 Triangular Tournament (which also included South Africa), he scored 2,207 runs during the tour at an average of 45. On this tour, he reached the peak of his performance as an all-rounder, also taking 38 wickets. He made six centuries, including two in one match against Sussex, but Wisden regarded his 99 in a drawn Test match at Lord's to be his finest innings of the tour. He did not pass 34 in the other Tests and ended with 197 runs at 32.83. He did not bowl heavily during the series, taking six wickets at 23.66.
There were no further Test matches before the First World War. During an unofficial tour of the Australian team to the United States in 1913 which consisted of more than 50 matches, Macartney scored 2,390 runs at 45.92 and took 189 wickets at 3.81, topping both the batting and bowling averages. He also made the most centuries (seven) and the highest individual score of 186 against a combined Canada and United States team. The 1913–14 domestic season was to be the last season of cricket before the outbreak of World War I. Macartney captained New South Wales for the first time against Tasmania. Despite his success on the field, Macartney still had a regular job outside of cricket, as with most cricketers of the era. In 1914, he left his job on the Sydney wharves and joined the staff of New South Wales Railways & Tramways in the Chief Mechanical Engineer's Office at Redfern.
World War I interrupted Macartney's career as competitive cricket was cancelled. In January 1916, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). In July 1917 he was posted to France as a temporary Warrant Officer in the 3rd Division Artillery. In 1918, he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for gallantry. The death of his father later in the year led to his repatriation from Britain and prevented his appearance with the AIF cricket team.
The war years divide Macartney’s career in two. Prior to the war, he was primarily known as a bowling all-rounder. In 21 Tests, he had taken 34 wickets at 26 and scored 879 runs at 27, with one century. After the war, Macartney transformed himself into one of the greatest batsmen of his era. In his 14 post-war Tests, he scored 1,252 runs at nearly 70, with six centuries. His bowling became more sporadic, taking just 11 more wickets, averaging 32.
Macartney resumed Test cricket when Australia hosted England in 1920–21, although he only played in two of the Tests. In the First Test, playing as an opening batsman, he struck 19 in the first innings. Australia's new post-war skipper Warwick Armstrong felt that Macartney would be more effective at number three and in the second innings he made a free-flowing 69 in a 111-run second-wicket stand with Herbie Collins as Australia went on to inflict a 377-run defeat. Macartney's return to form was interrupted by an illness which caused him to miss the following three Test matches. He returned for the Fifth and final Test, where he recorded his highest Test innings of 170 on his home ground, the Sydney Cricket Ground. Among the spectators was a 12-year-old Don Bradman, who had been taken to watch Macartney by his father. Eight decades later, Bradman recalled the innings, "as if it were yesterday", describing it as full of "delicate leg-glances, powerful pulls, cuts and glorious drives" and concluding that it was one of the best innings he had seen in his lifetime. Bradman cited the innings as an inspiration for his career. Macartney headed the Australian Test averages with 260 runs at 86.66 as Australia won the Ashes 5–0.
On the 1921 Ashes tour, Macartney had a chance to rectify his poor performances of his pre-war tours of England. He scored 345 against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge in 232 minutes, with 47 fours and four sixes. Macartney had an inauspicious start to the day, coming to the crease after the dismissal of Warren Bardsley with only one run scored. He attacked immediately and was dropped in the slips when on nine runs. The missed chance further emboldened Macartney, who had a philosophy that being dropped was a signal that it was to be his day. He proceeded to exhibit his full repertoire of strokes. After reaching his double century in only 150 minutes, Macartney signalled to the pavilion. When Nottinghamshire captain Arthur Carr asked him if he was seeking a drink, Macartney said that he wanted a heavier bat and indicated that he was going to attack. Macartney held his promise, adding his next 100 runs in only 48 minutes to reach 300 in 198 minutes. At the time, it was the fastest triple century in first-class cricket. It still stands as the highest innings by an Australian in England, and at the time was the most runs scored by any batsman in one day. Australia went on to score 675 and win by an innings and 517 runs, the largest winning margin achieved by Australia in a first-class match. The cricket writer Sumner Reid described it as:
the most destructive innings I ever saw in England or Australia. Not Trumper at his brilliant best, nor even Bradman in his calculated genius, ever performed with more unadulterated, murderous power and masterful technique.
Macartney was less successful in the Tests, failing to pass 35 in the first two Tests though Australia took a 2–0 series lead. In the Third Test at Headingley, he made his first Test century on foreign soil, striking 115, helping Australia to victory and an unassailable 3–0 series lead. He finished with 61 in the drawn Fifth Test at The Oval, to head both the batting aggregates and averages with 2,317 runs at 59.41 average in first-class matches and 300 runs at 42.6 in the batting. He did not take a wicket in the Tests.
His efforts in 1921 led to Macartney being named as one of the 1922 Wisden Cricketers of the Year. Wisden stated that he was, "by many degrees the most brilliant and individual Australian batsman of the present day".
On the journey back to the southern hemisphere, Australia stopped for its first ever tour of South Africa. Macartney scored 59 and 116 in the First Test in Durban which was drawn. After missing the Second, he returned for the Third Test in Cape Town and scored 44, before taking 5/44 in the second innings to ensure that Australia would only have a small target to chase. The Australians went on to secure a ten-wicket victory. He finished the series with seven wickets at 14.86. Macartney missed the 1924–25 series when England toured Australia. This was attributed to a flare-up of an injury he had suffered during World War I, but sceptics believed that he had suffered a nervous breakdown.
Macartney's international farewell on the 1926 tour of England saw him at the peak of his batting powers. The First Test at Trent Bridge was washed out, with England batting in the only innings of the match. After scoring 39 in the first innings in the Second Test at Lord's, he amassed 133 not out in the second, to help to stave off defeat.
In the Third Test at Headingley he became only the second Australian to score a century before lunch on the opening day of a Test. The match started poorly for Australia. English captain Arthur Carr won the toss and sent Australia in to bat after a thunderstorm on the previous day had turned the surface into a sticky wicket; Bardsley was then dismissed by the first ball. Macartney strode to the crease, surveyed the fielding positions and called down the wicket to the bowler Maurice Tate "Let's have it!" He nearly regretted his comment when he edged the ball to Carr at third slip from the fifth ball of the day. It was a difficult chance but the English skipper failed to hold the ball. Macartney was then on two. Within a few minutes, he had regained the initiative for the Australians.
Utilising a mix of conventional technique and more audacious shots, he pierced the field with a variety of cuts, hooks, pulls, drives and glances. He teased the fielders with deliberate deflections through the slips, with late cuts described by Raymond Robertson-Glasgow as "so late they are almost posthumous". Macartney's attack helped his partner Bill Woodfull to settle in the difficult conditions. Macartney saved his severest hitting for George Macaulay, a medium pace swing bowler and off spinner whom Macartney regarded as England's most potent bowler. Macartney had asked for and received permission from captain Herbie Collins to target Macaulay's bowling. By the end of the Australian innings, Macaulay had figures of 1/123 and was never to play against Australia again. Macartney's assault was such that he charged down the pitch to meet the medium pace bowlers, a dangerous tactic on a surface with erratic bounce.
He reached 40 in as many minutes as Australia's total reached 50. Australia reached 100 in only 79 minutes with Macartney having scored 83 of those runs. Macartney reached his century in 103 minutes with Australia on 131. At lunch he had scored 112 in 116 minutes and he continued until the score reached 1/235, when he was dismissed, having amassed 151 in 170 minutes. Former English captain, Sir Pelham Warner said "I say without hesitation that I have never seen a greater innings... not even the immortal Victor Trumper could have played more finely". This allowed Australia to accumulate a healthy first innings total and force England to follow on, but they were unable to achieve victory.
Macartney hit 109 in the Fourth Test at Old Trafford in a rain-affected draw and failed in the Fifth Test, when England won the Test and with it the Ashes. Macartney topped the batting averages with 473 runs at 94.6 and took four wickets at 53.75. Macartney decided to retire from Tests after the tour. He had taken part in twelve Test century partnerships, the highest being 235 with Bill Woodfull in the Leeds Test.
After his return to Australia, Macartney continued to play club cricket. At the start of the 1926–27 season, he captained a combined Sydney City team against a New South Wales country team, which included the then 18-year-old Bradman. Macartney scored 126 and Bradman 98 in a match viewed as a generational transition in Australian batting. In 1935–36, Macartney was vice-captain to Jack Ryder, on the tour of India organised by Frank Tarrant; he also wrote forthright columns for The Hindu, covering the tour.
Macartney wrote for several Sydney newspapers, and between 1936 and 1942 regularly produced pieces for the Sydney Morning Herald. In 1930 he published the autobiographical My Cricketing Days. During the Second World War he was a lieutenant in the amenities service of the Australian Defence Force, and afterwards was a personnel officer at Prince Henry Hospital.
Childless, Macartney was predeceased by his wife. He died of coronary occlusion (heart attack) while at work. In February 2007, Macartney was inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame along with Richie Benaud, making them the 26th and 27th inductees.
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