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Unveiling the Remarkable Journey of W.G. Grace in 1864: A Cricket Legend’s Beginnings
The year 1864 saw another landmark in the young W.G. Grace’s progress. While still only 15, with a serious illness not far behind him. He was asked to change the side on which he had played the previous year and appear at Lansdowne against the local 18 for the All England Eleven. Now captained by the blue-eyed, ginger-whiskered George Parr, the ‘Lion of the North’, who had taken over the management of the touring team from William Clarke.
The previous winter Parr had led his men on tour in Australia and E.M., who had been a successful member of the side and its only amateur, had not yet returned. W.G. was placed at No. 6 in the batting order, a reasonably high place for a youngster, and he was not nervous, because he had played before against the notorious pair, Jackson and Tarrant. He was unlucky to be run out by his partner, John Lillywhite, after having made a comfortable 15, but he did not grieve too much. He had played. for the All-England Eleven.
In 1864, aged sixteen, he played his first game in London. It was his first visit, but he did not spend his time gadding about the capital, for cricket was his only objective. As a protege of his brother Henry, he had gone up to the Oval to play for the South Wales Club. No sooner had the brothers reached the Oval than the old family solidarity was called into action.
The South Wales captain asked Henry if he would mind the boy’s being asked to stand down for the second game of the tour, which was to be played against the Gentlemen of Sussex at Brighton, as he had the offer of a very good player. ‘The boy was asked to play in both matches,’ Henry flared out, ‘and he shall play in both matches or none; and I only hope every member of the team will do as well as I expect him to do.’ W.G. Grace made 5 and 38 at the Oval and nothing more was said about his standing down.
The match at Brighton took place a few days before his 16 birthdays. W.G. Grace was anxious, as always, that the family name should shine. Henry was not perhaps playing he stood down himself for the ‘very good player ‘, and E.M. was still somewhere on his way home from his tour in Australia. A rumor was already circulating that this mighty traveler might land in time to be able to turn out in the Brighton game and W.G. Grace hoped that he would, ‘if only,’ as he said, ‘to give me heart’.
There had even been a newspaper paragraph that specifically stated that the Rev. Mr. Grace, who had batted so well in Australia, was expected. W.G. Grace said afterward, chuckling grimly, that they had heard E.M. called many names, but never the Rev. and the very thought of that Rev. ‘gave him heart’. When South Wales won the toss the lanky, loose-limbed W.G. Grace was sent in at the fall of the first wicket.
The second did not fall until the score had almost reached 200 and then it was not W.G.’s. He was at the crease all day and when first thing in the morning, he chopped a wide ball onto his stumps, he was the last man out and his score was 170. Sussex had to follow on, made a better show in their second innings, and left South Wales 134 to win.
There was not quite time to get the runs, ·but W.G., with 56 not out, made a courageous effort. The next highest score was 13. The South Wales captain, perhaps with contrition in his heart, gave him a bat blade and handle were in one piece of wood, but W.G. Grace valued it, as he said because it marked the beginning of his long scores.
In first-class matches that year his average was nearly sixty and he had made over a thousand runs. He was even modestly pleased with the comment in Lillywhite’s Companion: ‘Mr. W.G. Grace promises to be a good bat: bowls very fairly.’ It was like saying that Nelson might one day make a sailor, but it was perhaps a wiser and less unsettling comment than a promising young player gets today.