After attending public school, MacLaren played intermittently for Lancashire until 1899 as he tried to establish a career outside the sport. Even so, he was appointed county captain in 1894 and was chosen frequently to play for England. An appointment as Lancashire's assistant secretary allowed him to play more regularly from 1900. He first captained England in 1898 as a stand-in, but became captain in his own right in 1899. Under his leadership, England lost to Australia in three consecutive series—1899, 1901–02 and 1902. MacLaren was involved in controversies throughout all three defeats, and was replaced as captain in 1905, although he remained in the team. Business interests kept him out of the game for the following years, but he was invited to lead England once more in 1909. Defeat in that series ended his Test career, and the following year he ceased playing regular first-class cricket. He played occasionally until 1922–23, and had some late successes: in 1921, a team selected and captained by MacLaren defeated a previously unbeaten Australian team, and on his final first-class appearance during a 1922–23 Marylebone Cricket Club tour of New Zealand, he scored 200 runs.
MacLaren had many jobs as he attempted to find ways to support his cricket, family and lifestyle. At various time, he worked as a teacher, a journalist and a cricket coach. For many years, he was employed as Lancashire's assistant secretary but such were his financial worries that he often had to ask for cash advances from the committee, with which he had a stormy relationship. He worked for several years as private secretary to K. S. Ranjitsinhji and he became involved in his employer's financial scandals. Many of MacLaren's later business ventures were failures, and only when his wife came into an inheritance did he and his family live in comfort. Throughout his life, MacLaren was involved in many disagreements and was never popular with teammates. However, he was a hero to the cricket writer Neville Cardus, who wrote prolifically on him. MacLaren died in 1944, aged 72.
MacLaren was born on 1 December 1871 in Whalley Range, a fairly prosperous district of Manchester, the second of seven sons to James MacLaren and Emily Carver. His father, a cotton merchant and cricket enthusiast, served as honorary treasurer to the Lancashire team from 1881 until his death in 1900. MacLaren senior encouraged his sons to play cricket. With the aim of improving their ability in the game, MacLaren senior sent Archie and his older brother James to Elstree, a school well-regarded for its coaching.
MacLaren's cricket instruction was supplemented during the holidays at Old Trafford Cricket Ground, where his father paid professional cricketers to bowl at him. He was soon selected for the school's cricket team, scored his first century, and was the captain by his final year. From Elstree, MacLaren went to Harrow School in 1886 where he joined James; Geoffrey, their younger brother, followed them but financial difficulties prevented any other family members attending the school. MacLaren had little success in intra-school cricket during his first year there but in 1887, success in trial games resulted in his promotion to the school first eleven. A century in an early match ensured his selection for the important fixture against Eton College at Lord's. Although an inexperienced Harrow team was easily defeated, MacLaren top-scored in both innings with scores of 55 and 67, and in praising his batting, critics suggested he had a bright future. He came top of the school batting averages for the 1887 season.
Wet weather in the following two years affected playing conditions, making the cricket pitches slow-paced and difficult to bat on. With little experience of such conditions, MacLaren had a succession of failures. His technique, based at the time on playing forward at the ball, was unsuited to wet pitches and it was only late in 1889 that he made the required technical adjustments and learned to play off the back foot (i.e. stepping backwards to play a shot). During 1890, his final year at Harrow, he captained the team and had his most successful season, scoring over 500 runs at an average of 42.54. In the match against Eton at Lord's, MacLaren once more succeeded when others struggled, and he scored 76 on a difficult pitch. In his four years at Harrow, MacLaren was twice awarded the prize for the school's best batsman, and received awards for his fielding. MacLaren also played football successfully: he captained his House team and played in the school first eleven in 1888 and 1889 before a knee injury forced him to miss the 1890 season. Unlike many of his fellow amateur cricketers in this period, MacLaren did not attend Oxford or Cambridge Universities, where he would have played a high level of cricket; his father could not afford to send him or his brothers there. On leaving Harrow, MacLaren found employment with the Manchester and Liverpool District Bank.