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WG Grace: Greatest cricketer ever?

WG Grace was cricket's first superstar © Getty Images
WG Grace was cricket’s first superstar © Getty Images

WG Grace, born July 18, 1848, was the first superstar of cricket and the man who gave it the form in which it is played today. He remains one of the greatest cricketers to have graced the sport. Abhishek Mukherjee evaluates Grace’s career in numbers to confirm the greatness of the legend.

They call WG Grace the Father of Cricket; CLR James had wondered why the English schools never included him in the history curricula; he was the man who modified cricket to shape it the way it is played today; he was well-known for his on-field pranks, sledges and other antics (to use a polite word for “cheating”); he was notorious for his brazen attitude towards extracting money from tour organisers and famous for his generosity to the poor.

The Doctor was an Amateur (he turned out for Gentlemen in their high-intensity clash with Players and often ended up earning more than the Players from the matches), but seldom has a Professional made more money out of the sport than him. Yet, the same man often provided food and coal to the poor and arranged jobs for them.

But how great a cricketer was Grace? Is it actually possible to fathom his greatness in numbers, when cricket was played in wickets so unprepared that they are commonly referred to as dhaan-khet (paddy-fields) in Bengali; balls lifted or shot along the ground randomly; protective gear was primitive; and over-arm bowling had barely been legalised.

How did Grace emerge as a champion of the era? To begin with, batsmen before Grace were generally classified as front-foot (who countered low balls) or back-foot (who countered shooters) batsmen; Grace was the first all-round batsman in history to achieve reasonable level of success, which helped his batting average leapfrog to an unthinkable level.

But enough of words; let us dig into the numbers now. Let us check WG’s dominance from 1868 to 1877 — the legend’s halcyon days. It is well-known that he topped the batting charts for nine out of ten years during this phase. But how superior was he to the others?

Top batting averages, 1868 — 1877 (minimum qualification 500 runs):

Season

Topper

Second

Ratio of averages

Batsman Runs Average Batsman Runs Averages

1868

WG Grace

588

65.33

Isaac Walker

661

34.78

1.88

1869

WG Grace

1,320

57.39

Henry Jupp

1,129

31.36

1.83

1870

WG Grace

1,808

54.78

Richard Daft

565

51.36

1.07

1871

WG Grace

2,739

78.25

Richard Daft

565

37.66

2.08

1872

WG Grace

1,485

57.11

Richard Daft

589

34.64

1.65

1873

WG Grace

1,805

72.20

Isaac Walker

587

34.52

2.09

1874

WG Grace

1,664

52.00

Henry Jupp

1,275

36.42

1.43

1875

Lord Harris

682

35.89

WG Grace

1,498

32.56

1.10

1876

WG Grace

2,622

62.42

Walter Read

588

42.00

1.49

1877

WG Grace

1,474

39.83

Bunny Lucas

832

34.66

1.15

Few have dominated the batting to such an extent the way Grace had done over this decade. Even Don Bradman had a Wally Hammond — and to a lesser extent, George Headley — competing with him. But this was superhuman, to dominate proceedings this way.

Let us also do a quick check on hundreds and fifties as well. Here, too, Grace is so far ahead of the others that the numbers are not even comparable.

Most 100s: 1868 — 1877

Season

Topper

Second

Batsman 100s Batsman 100s

1868

WG Grace

3

Henry Jupp and Thomas Humphrey

2

1869

WG Grace

6

3 batsmen

2

1870

WG Grace

5

Monkey Hornby and Albert Money

2

1871

WG Grace

10

7 batsmen

1

1872

WG Grace

6

8 batsmen

1

1873

WG Grace

6

Monkey Hornby

2

1874

WG Grace

8

Henry Jupp

3

1875

WG Grace and GF Grace

3

1876

WG Grace

7

Arthur Ridley

3

1877

WG Grace and 4 other batsmen

2

Most 50+ scores: 1868 — 1877

Season

Topper

Second

Batsman 50+ Batsman 50+

1868

Thomas Humphrey

6

WG Grace

5

1869

WG Grace and Henry Jupp

9

1870

WG Grace

14

Henry Jupp and Ted Pooley

6

1871

WG Grace

19

GF Grace and Richard Daft

6

1872

WG Grace

12

Ephraim Lockwood

7

1873

WG Grace

14

Henry Jupp

8

1874

WG Grace and Henry Jupp

10

1875

WG Grace

8

GF Grace and Alexander Webbe

5

1876

WG Grace

17

Ephraim Lockwood

10

1877

WG Grace

11

Bunny Lucas

6

Eight days

The finest season was 1871, where Grace’s career reached heights even he had never scaled before or after, but the most famous feat came in 1876, when WG caused mayhem over a period of eight days: 344 for Gentlemen of England against Kent; 177 for Gloucestershire against Nottinghamshire at Clifton; and 318 not out for Gloucestershire against Yorkshire at Cheltenham — an aggregate of 839 at 419.50.

Indeed, the famous Biblical flood had lasted seven days; WG had managed to surpass that.

Across eras

Let us focus on the volume of runs he had scored, despite the fact that a chunk of his career had come before Test cricket or the County Championship had been conceived. How does he compare to the champions across eras?

  M R Ave 100s
Jack Hobbs

834

61,760

50.70

199

Frank Woolley

978

58,959

40.77

145

Patsy Hendren

833

57,611

50.80

170

Phil Mead

814

55,061

47.67

153

WG Grace

870

54,211

39.45

124

Herbert Sutcliffe

754

50,670

52.02

151

Wally Hammond

634

50,551

56.10

167

One must remember that Grace’s career mostly spanned the 19th century, while the others played under much improved conditions in the Post-World War I days.

The thousand-mark

Grace turned 46, but that did not stop him from reaching new heights. He became the first to score a thousand First-Class runs by May; it is even more commendable that the Grace’s summer had started on May 9. The full sequence read:

-          13 and 116 for MCC versus Sussex at Lord’s;

-          18 and 25 for MCC versus Yorkshire at Lord’s;

-          288 for Gloucestershire versus Somerset at Bristol;

-          52 for Gentlemen of England versus Cambridge University at Fenner’s;

-          257 and 73 not out for Gloucestershire versus Kent at Gravesend;

-          18 for England versus Surrey at The Oval; and

-          169 for Gloucestershire versus Middlesex at Lord’s.

Surprisingly, despite the era, Grace required only ten innings to reach the 1,000-run mark — a mark bettered by only Don Bradman in seven innings in 1938. Though the feat has been achieved nine times, Grace (1895), Hammond (1927), and Charlie Hallows (1928) are the only ones who have done it in only May: the others had all started in April. Additionally, Grace had started his run on May 9; nobody had started as late.

The Holy Grail

When Grace reached the mark of a hundred hundreds when it was an unthinkable feat; what was more, it was a part of the same run in that magic month of May 1895. For a change even The Doctor was “visibly tense”, as was Sammy Woods, the bowler. Comparing the two, CL Townsend wrote: “This was the only time that I ever saw WG (Grace) flustered” and “poor Sam Woods could hardly bowl the ball, and the Doctor was nearly as bad.”

Eventually it was achieved with a low full-toss down the leg, and the Bristol crowd erupted. It would be 18 years before Tom Hayward would emulate him.

Other batting titbits

-          Grace’s 124 First-Class hundreds put him 11th on the list.

-          Grace scored the first two triple hundreds in history (during his famous eight-day run mentioned above). He also scored 301 for Gloucestershire against Sussex at Bristol in 1896. Nobody managed three triple-hundreds before the Wars.

At the highest level

Grace made his Test debut at 32 at The Oval in 1880, and immediately became the second batsman (after Charles Bannerman) to score a Test hundred on debut. He also added 120 for the second wicket stand with Bunny Lucas, which was the first hundred-run partnership in the history of the sport.

Grace was also one of the top run-scorers of the 19th century; this particular statistic is mind-boggling, given that he was 52 at the dawn of the 20th century.

  M R Ave 100s
Arthur Shrewsbury sr

23

1,277

35.47

3

George Giffen

40

1,238

23.35

1

Joe Darling

18

1,139

35.59

3

Alec Bannerman

28

1,108

23.08

0

WG Grace

22

1,098

32.29

2

Syd Gregory

24

1,096

28.10

3

With the ball

As if fifth-best with the bat was not enough, Grace also makes it to the top ten with the ball. One may argue that his ridiculous bowling average had to do with the era, but combine that with a batting average touching 40, you do not get a lot better than that.

  M W Ave 5WIs 10WMs
Wilfred Rhodes

1,110

4,204

16.72

287

68

Tich Freeman

592

3,776

18.42

386

140

Charlie Parker

635

3,278

19.46

277

91

Jack Hearne

639

3,061

17.75

255

66

Tom Goddard

593

2,979

19.84

251

86

Alex Kennedy

677

2,874

21.23

225

45

Derek Shackleton

647

2,857

18.65

194

38

Tony Lock

654

2,844

19.23

196

50

Fred Titmus

792

2,830

22.37

168

26

WG Grace

870

2,809

18.14

240

64

Other bowling titbits

-          Grace was also the first bowler to take ten wickets in an innings twice. Following his 10 for 92 for MCC against Kent at Canterbury in 1873 (albeit in a 12-a-side match), he went on to take 10 for 49 for MCC against Oxford University at the University Parks in 1886.

-          His 240 five-wicket hauls is seventh in history, while the 64 ten-wicket hauls rank eighth.

-          When he took nine for 55 and eight for 34 against Nottinghamshire at Cheltenham in 1877, Grace became the seventh bowler to take 17 wickets in a match.

Additionally…

-          Grace has taken the second-most First-Class catches (885) after Frank Woolley (1,018).

-          As mentioned above, Grace had finished with 54,211 runs and 2,809 wickets. Let alone the 50,000 run-2,500 wicket double, nobody else had managed 40,000 runs and 1,000 wickets. Add the tally of catches, and there is no doubt that the world has not seen a greater cricketer.

-          Grace has also played the third-most First-Class matches (870) after Rhodes (1,110) and Woolley (978).

-          Grace played on till an age of 50 years 320 days; the figure is next to only Rhodes (52 years 165 days) and Bert Ironmonger (50 years 327 days). George Gunn (50 years 303 days) is the only other quinquagenarian to have played Test cricket.

-          In his final Test appearance, he led England, opened batting, and sent down 22 overs.

-          Grace led England in 13 Tests, winning eight and losing three, which gave him a win-loss ratio of 2.67. The number is fifth in the history of England, after Douglas Jardine (9.00), Mike Brearley (4.50), Percy Chapman (4.50), and Len Hutton (2.75).

-          Grace’s First-Class career — spanning a staggering 42 years 305 days — is easily the longest in the history of English cricket.

-          In fact, Grace’s career was so long (1865 — 1908) that it spanned the careers of his sons Charles Butler Grace (1900 — 1906) and WG Grace jr (1893 — 1903).

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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