J E P McMaster: the hero of zero

Published in Scoreline magazine, Pakistan, 2018

At the time of writing (2019), 687 players have represented England in 1004 Test Matches since 1877. (By comparison Pakistan have used 233 players in 416 Test Matches.)

I think I have watched every English Test performer since 1954, including many great ones. At the beginning were Len Hutton, Peter May, Fred Trueman. More recently were Alastair Cook and Jimmy Anderson. Along the way were such as Geoff Boycott, Graham Gooch, Ian Botham and David Gower. But none of these are my favourite England player.

That honour belongs to number 67: Joseph Emile Patrick McMaster.

He faces stern competition from number 221: John “Jack” Crawford William MacBryan. He is the unluckiest man ever to play Test cricket for England. He was chosen as a batsman in the Old Trafford Test at home to South Africa in 1924. As sometimes happens in Manchester, it rained a lot. The whole match lasted only 401 balls. MacBryan did not bat or bowl and he did not take a catch. He was never picked again. MacBryan’s father, incidentally, had the distinction of being P G Wodehouse’s model for the forbidding psychiatrist (“loony doctor” in Bertie Wooster’s description) Sir Roderick Glossop.

But I think readers will agree that he has to take second place to McMaster.

“J E P” was born in Gilford, County Down, on 16 March 1861, in what was then a united Ireland and then after independence and partition in Northern Ireland. He went to Harrow but did not get into the first XI. He then went to Trinity College, Cambridge to read law. He played no major cricket matches at Cambridge, but won a blue at the new-fangled sport of lawn tennis in 1881.

He qualified as a barrister in 1888, but then disappeared on a daring adventure, the private cricket tour of South Africa organized by Major R G Warton. To say the least it was a mixed party, with five England Test players, four county players, and six like J E P with no cricketing record. One was a comedian called Cameron Skinner, chosen to provide entertainment for the party although I can find no record of his best gags.

Major Warton’s party were genuine pioneers, enduring rudimentary transport and accommodation, and sometimes in danger from outlaws and wild animals. Political tension was building in South Africa between the English settlers and the Boers, of Dutch origin, which would burst into war a decade later.

Warton’s team played twenty matches but 17 were at odds, against local teams with between 15 and 22 players.

J E P played in thirteen of these. A sponsored history of the tour was published by Charles Cox of the Port Elizabeth Advertiser, describing him as “Mr Emile McMaster, moderate bat and fair field,” and summarizing his record as “fairly successful.” But he scored only 107 runs in 17 innings, average 7.2. His top score was a “carefully compiled” 34 not out against XXII from South-Western Districts.

Two of the matches were against 11 players representative of South Africa. To the fury of some cricket statisticians, these were given Test Match and therefore first-class status retrospectively (like England’s first two Tests against Australia). J E P got his chance in the second of these, through injuries. His captain was a young Monty Bowden, himself substituting for the injured C A “Round-The-Corner” Smith, a Sussex amateur bowler, who later became better known as the actor Sir C Aubrey Smith and founder of the celebrated Hollywood Cricket Club.

The match, at Newlands, Cape Town, was played on 25-26 March 1889.

England won the toss and batted first. McMaster came in at Number 9, with the score at 287 for 7, when the renowned Bobby Abel of Surrey was bowled by “Gobo” Ashley for 120. Was J E P disappointed to go in Number 9, three places below the wicket-keeper H Wood? Did he get nervous in the pavilion, watching Abel’s long innings against the persistent Gobo Ashley on a difficult pitch?

No doubt J E P had to wait for the applause for the Surrey professional’s century. He took guard against the left-arm medium Ashley – and was out first ball, caught by Rose-Innes at slip. He took the long walk back, perhaps murmuring an apology to the next batsman, Hon C J Coventry, now facing a hat-trick ball.

The golden duck was the zenith of his career. He fielded out two South African innings in which they were routed for 47 and 43 by Lancashire’s slow left-arm genius Johnny Briggs. He was not required to bowl his rare leg-breaks. He took no catch, as Briggs hit the stumps 14 times in a match analysis of 15-28.

J E P never played another major match. This lone appearance therefore represented his entire first-class career, giving him a record which is impossible to beat. One ball faced, no runs, no wickets, no catches. He is a cricketing Yarborough. That is why he edges out MacBryan from my pantheon of failure. MacBryan had a worthwhile first-class career for Cambridge University and Somerset. He was a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1925. (He was also an England hockey international, and, for a while as a 90-year-old he became England’s oldest living Test player.)

At least J E P was not denied the retrospective glory of an England cap, and at least he knew about it, unlike poor Monty Bowden. He died of fever in Umtali only a few years later, buried in an improvised coffin made of whisky cartons which had to be guarded from marauding lions. (The genius Johnny Briggs died even more tragically in a mental asylum, but Hon C J Coventry survived a premature report of his death and was able to join his own funeral celebrations in his home village).

I like to imagine J E P in later life, toiling at the Bar, bored out of his mind in Chancery. He replays his fatal stroke over and over and turns it into a spanking boundary, the springboard of a career in cricket’s Golden Age. Each year he buys Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, to view his entry in the Test players list.

I think of him playing club or village cricket, with the permanent aura of a Test player, a cherished wicket for opposition bowlers. Deliriously happy schoolboys would tell their mothers “I got McMaster out, the England player!” By contrast, opposing batsmen would pat back his slow half-volleys and long-hops, for “You don’t take chances with McMaster, the England player.”

Pakistan has no McMaster among its Test players. But when I began to research its cricket history, I was often struck by the number of players who made one first-class appearance and then vanished. I especially enjoyed meeting two of these, Brigadier M T K Dotani (who appears on the scorecard as Taimur Hasan) and Mr Shahid Javaid Khan (recorded as Javed Khan) – survivors (with one run between them in four innings) of the Dera Ismail Khan team who set an unsurpassable record of losing a first-class match in 1964 to Pakistan Railways by an innings and 851 runs. They told me a vivid, touching story of a provincial team, mostly of schoolboys and college students, who played for fun on the local parade ground, doing battle against one of the best teams in Pakistan.

But I have seen many more scorecards, particularly from the 1950s and 1960s, where players make one appearance, bat low down the order, score few if any runs, do not keep wicket or bowl, and do not take a catch. McMasters all, and I would love to hear more of their stories.

03. January 2024 by rkh
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