James Macdonald's style was characteristic of so many top left handers
James Macdonald was an outstanding cricketer. An upper order batsman, he played with that grace that characterises many of the best left handers, being likened by his contemporaries to the great Frank Woolley. Bowling, he did not usually exact great spin on the ball, rather he relied on subtle variations of pace and flight to lure batsmen of all abilities to their doom. In addition, as befitted one who gained 25 hockey caps for Ireland, he was a quick and agile mover in the field, excelling in the covers. Generally recognised as the best all rounder of his time in Ulster, worth his place in either discipline, he had, as Bob Lambert's star waned at last, and Tom Dixon departed for sunnier climes, few, if any, peers in the whole country.
James was one of three cricketing brothers. His younger brother Tom - TJ - was a fine opening batsman who gained 17 caps, but there was also the eldest brother George, for years a very useful member of the North Down club, though his ability did not match those of his siblings. James made his North Down senior debut in 1922, aged 15, and apart from taking time out to head the Second XI bowling averages the following year, he was ever present in the side until war service took him away from The Green. His figures are phenomenal, providing one of the rare instances when statistics do tell - almost - the whole story. He did the double three times, remarkable for one who was almost entirely a Saturday afternoon cricketer, besides having two other thousand run and two other hundred wicket seasons. It is small wonder that the Comber side won the NCU Challenge Cup nine times during his career, besides taking the League title six times. James would have been the first to point to the contributions of others, but this outstanding part in these triumphs cannot be gainsaid.
His best season with the bat was 1930, when he scored 1349 runs at an average of over 60, making 451 runs in June and scoring a tournament record 197* in the Cup v CPA. He also made a Cup Final record 159* v Cliftonville in 1935. In all, he headed the batting eleven times between 1926 and 1939; on the three occasions that he missed out it was TJ who surpassed him. He was no less effective as a bowler, heading the averages sixteen times. Perhaps his best season with the ball was 1931, when, allowing Tom to head the batting, he took 115 wickets, including a match winning 13-79 to defeat Ulster by 148 runs in a Cup Final that lasted three days. That season, he had thirteen "5 fors", besides snaring four eight wicket hauls. His best bowling performance, however was in a losing cause, in 1936 against the touring Royal High School FP from Edinburgh, he took all 10 for 42, but saw his side go down by two runs. He also shone for Queen's University in his years there. Thus as an 18 year old in 1925, playing against the fancied Dublin University batting line up in a rain affected draw in College Park, he had match figures of 11-57. His wickets included the Kelly brothers, Charles McCausland and Arthur Robinson, all Irish Internationals. He also dismissed, in the second innings, a fellow left handed all rounder, destined to win great war fame than anyone else playing in the match, but in fields far removed from College Park. His name was Samuel Beckett. A week later, James returned to College Park with a scratch Instonians side to take six more wickets in a one day match. This time he added George McVeagh to his victims, and also had Beckett once more. Four years later the rain stayed away as he took 13 wickets to bowl the Belfast students to victory, with the help of a hundred for Tom.
James played 29 times for Ireland between 1926 and 1939, being unavailable for a further 18 fixtures. He totalled 1196 runs at 28.48, besides taking 82 wickets at 20.98. Several commentators have suggested that these figures, while respectable, do not fully reflect his ability and have concluded, probably correctly, that it was his frequent unavailability, because of his teaching commitments that offered the most likely explanation. As it was, many would have been satisfied with that same career record. He began with 95 against Wales at Ormeau in 1926, a match in which, aged 19, he was one of only three original selections to play. Together with clubmate Jack Dearden he added 136 for the 7th wicket to enable Ireland to reach 299, just as well as Wales passed 400. James was missed twice, in the same over, on 64, but delighted the crowd with his off drives and late cuts. While he was to have several good matches against Scotland and other opponents, it was MCC that often brought out the best in him. His first match at Lord's, a rain affected draw in 1927, produced a stylish eighty minute 59, adding 115 for the 5th wicket with AP Kelly, having taken five wickets in a highly regarded spell.
By 1934 he was captain of Ireland, having taken over following the tragic injury to AC Douglas at Lord's the previous year. MCC came to Sion Mills for a two day match, the first Irish fixture in the NWCU area. The wicket was excellent (Caribbean readers please note!) and both sides made big scores. Sammy Edgar made a debut century, but James, at 4, caught the eye with a classical 82*, four 6s and eight 4s, before making an unselfish declaration. His skills were needed again in the second innings when, batting at 5 - having taken 3-58, he saw his team-mates collapsing around him and an unlikely MCC victory become highly probable. He made a stalwart 41* and, with the assistance of Ham Lambert ensured a draw. In the three dayer which followed at College Park, his defensive skills were again needed as he saved the match with an undefeated 62, having held himself back in the order. When MCC came to Ireland again, this time to Rathmines, James had handed the captaincy over to Jimmy Boucher, who decided - despite a 172 run first innings lead - not to enforce the follow on. This enabled James to score his only century for Ireland, a chanceless 108*, Boucher delaying his declaration, something James would never have done, to enable him to do so. The great off spinner's generosity was rewarded, Ireland won by 285 runs with James wrapping up the innings, taking two of the last three wickets.
Perhaps his best performance for Ireland, however, was with the ball against the Australians at Ormeau in 1938. Captain again, he joined with Eddie Ingram to bowl the visitors out for 145, returning figures of 16-6-24-5, troubling all the batsmen. His wickets included doughty and controversial opener Sid Barnes and Jack Fingleton, one of the few batting successes against Bodyline and a professional journalist who later became one of Australia's best cricket writers. Unfortunately, Ireland then collapsed though TJ was one of only two batsmen to reach double figures. James had a good final season in 1939. Again leading the side, he made an undefeated 52 against multi millionaire Sir Julien Cahn's star studded XI at the magnate's private ground near Nottingham, then after bowling well at Lord's, returned to the East Midlands, to take on Sir Julien again, this time on the latter's other ground at Loughborough. A high scoring draw resulted with both sides perhaps conscious, that the following season might see little cricket, batted in carefree style, each completing one innings each. TJ made a century, and James, finishing as he had started, 95. He must have regretted not making five more, particularly as he got out to Cahn, arguably the worst bowler to turn his arm over in a first class match! Possibly looking for a six to reach three figures, James was stumped off one of Cahn's outlandish donkey drops, giving a fourth victim to keeper CR Maxwell, probably the best amateur gloveman in England at the time.
The outbreak of war saw James leave his teaching post at Methodist College, Belfast and join the Royal Artillery. Narrowly escaping with his life and freedom at Dunkirk, where he acted with great heroism, he finished the conflict with an MBE (Military Division) and the rank of Lieutenant -Colonel. He also found time for cricket, still able to make some appearances at The Green, and also to play in a number of wartime matches at Lord's and elsewhere. One such match, at Trent Bridge in 1941, found him at No 3 for Officers v Other Ranks. Clearly the "Establishment" missed the Gentlemen v Players game. The ORs were far too strong, but James was second top score with 25, defying the opening attack of Larwood and Voce for some time. Even bowling a length, and nine years after Bodyline, they were a formidable combination. James much impressed Maurice Leyland, the ORs captain, it possibly being on this occasion that he reportedly said that the only thing wrong with James was that he was not Yorkshire born.
The War over, ill health prevented James from playing cricket any more. He was badly missed in Irish sides in the immediate post war years. The spin bowling was strong enough with players of the calibre of Boucher, John Hill and "Sonny" Hool available, but the batting was weak and often foundered. Instead he devoted himself to his profession, rising to become a highly respected Headmaster of Regent House School in Newtownards, Co Down. He also took a leading part in cricket administration at club, provincial and national level. President of the Irish Cricket Union in 1954, he was a national selector form 1946 to 1960.
His death in 1969 was unexpected and he was widely mourned, his memorial service being attended by cricket dignitaries from throughout Ireland and beyond.
In "A History of Senior Cricket in Ulster", his old pupil Clarence Hiles summed him up, "He was the epitome of all that was good in Ulster Cricket." We cannot but agree but would suggest that "Cricket everywhere" could be substituted for "Ulster Cricket".
James Macdonald's obituary is in Wisden 1970. He is profiled in Siggins and Fitzgerald "Ireland's 100 Cricket Greats", and is also the subject of special sections in Clarence Hiles "A History of Senior Cricket in Ulster" and Ian Shields "One Shot More... For The Honour of Down." This profile is greatly indebted to the last two works mentioned.