WG Grace – A Man Who Wanted to Play Cricket Forever
Ah, yes, good as old as WG Grace. The famous doctor WG Grace has become something of a target for mockery. He was extremely famous for his beard, his size (he was struggling to bend to field the ball by the time of his last Test match). Also, his gamesmanship and his shamateurs – but his achievements really were things of stupendous substance. His legend would not have endured 100 years after his death if they were not.
Doctor WG Grace name still resonates with the wider public, even though they may know little about the sport he did more than anyone else to popularize. In the way that great men do, W G Grace came along at just the right time to capitalize on an evolutionary turning point in the game. By 1864, when Grace turned 16, overarm bowling had been legalized.
A wise decision that rapidly turned cricket into something that the modern generation might relate to, while an annual county championship was rapidly taking shape. Grace proved so successful that people turned up in their thousands to watch him play. He was not only in England but when he toured Australia with English sides in 1873–74 and 1891– 92. No cricketer during his lifetime had such an effect on gates.
He was, so it is hardly surprising that – amateur or not – he demanded large slices of the financial pie (his fee for the 1873–74 tour was ten times that offered the professionals). Cricket may have still been in a developmental stage, but young W G Grace did not lack help in honing his astonishing skills.
The eighth of nine children to cricket-loving parents in Downend, Bristol, he grew up in the slipstream of an elder brother, Edward Mills Grace, who might have been remembered as the finest all-rounder of his day had not young William Gilbert been so diligent in learning from him all that he could. They did much to make Gloucestershire the dominant county during the mid-1870s and make the Gentlemen (amateurs) competitive in their matches with the Players (professionals).
Had WG Grace not risen to the top so phenomenally fast, there might have been more chance of someone questioning whether he should have been playing on the amateur side. He scored his first double century (for an England XI against Surrey in 1866) at the age of 18. Therefore, at a time when scores of such size were extremely rare. Four years later, he was generally accepted as the best cricketer there had ever been.
A few years after that, he was simply referred to as ‘The Champion’. No wonder, he was routinely dominated the national batting averages by a distance: from 1869 to 1880. WG was top in all but two years and generally averaged more than 50 when few could manage to top 30. In the 1871 season, he scored 2,739 runs (average 78.25), a tally that was not beaten for a quarter of a century.
With football lagging behind cricket in its development, WG was the major sporting personality of his time and as recognizable as Queen Victoria. On the Grace Gates at Lord’s, which were erected in 1923, eight years after his death and with Bradman still some way short of making his first-class debut, he was described succinctly as ‘The Great Cricketer’.
There were several secrets to his success. Standing 6ft and powerfully built, he developed a technique that could destroy even the best fast bowling on pitches that were often dangerously rough. He also opened the leg side as a scoring area, when many considered it a style malfunction to do anything but hit the ball straight back to where it came from or through the covers.
However, thanks to a good method, a lot of patience, and total dedication to the task. He showed just how long it was possible to bat. In the space of eight days in 1876, he scored 344 against Kent (the highest first-class score then recorded), 177 against Nottinghamshire, and 318 against Yorkshire. No cricketer had ever been so scientific. There was a lot more to him than his batting, though.
For many years he was also among the most effective bowlers in the country. His bowling brisk round-arm medium-pacer then slow flighted off-breaks, off which he fielded superbly. WG Grace took 100 wickets in a season nine times between 1874 and 1886 and performed the matching double of 100 runs and 10 wickets a total of 17 times in his career.
So, no one else apart from George Giffen of Australia has ever done so more than six times. He was so much better than his peers that he might easily have got bored with the lack of competition. Indeed, in 1873 the Sporting Gazette complained that he was ruining cricket and asked, ‘What is to be done with him?’ Fortunately for him, Test cricket came along and the regular exchange of tours between England and Australia presented him with fresh challenges.
Doctor WG Grace scored England’s first-ever Test century in the first Test ever staged on English soil at The Oval in 1880 in a match in which his elder brother Edward and their ill-fated younger brother Fred, who was to die within weeks, also played. He soon became England’s captain of choice right through to 1899 when, at the age of 50, he finally accepted that time had caught up with him.
Not that he gave up cricket altogether: he played on in first-class cricket until 1908 and his 60th year. As with Tendulkar, longevity was one of the most impressive things about Grace. His first-class career spanned more than 40 years. Overall, WG Grace scored 54,896 runs, took 2,876 wickets, and held 887 catches (as well as executing five stumping in occasional appearances as a wicketkeeper).
Only four batsmen have ever scored more runs, only five bowlers have ever taken more wickets, only one no-wicketkeeper (Frank Woolley) has held more catches. Although inevitably, his form declined in his later years. He enjoyed a famous Indian summer in 1895 when he turned 47, scoring 1,000 runs before the end of May (a feat never achieved before) and recording his hundredth hundred at a time when no one else had managed more than 41.
There is no shortage of stories about WG’s sharp practice – of him putting the bails back in the groove and claiming that the wind had blown them off, and of him rounding on opponents in mid-appeal and announcing, ‘The public has come to watch me bat, not you bowl.’ How true they are, who knows. But there were also plenty willing to testify to his decency. Lord Harris, another England captain of the time, called him ‘the kindest and most sympathetic cricketer I have ever played with’.
In 1998 a bat used by W.G. Grace in an 1868 match in which he was out for a duck in both innings fetched a massive $43,199 at an auction in London. The previous highest price of 23,000 pounds was paid for a bat used by Sir Donald Bradman in 1937.