A cartoon of WG Grace by A Spy (Lesley Ward), published on Vanity Fair on June 9, 1898, almost two months before Grace’s famous declaration © Getty Images
A cartoon of WG Grace by A Spy (Lesley Ward), published on Vanity Fair on June 9, 1898, almost two months before Grace’s famous declaration © Getty Images

There were a lot of things WG Grace was capable of, but declaring his team innings closed in a ‘dead match’ because he had never made a certain score was fantastic even by his outrageous track record. However, he did exactly that on August 3, 1898. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back.

Of the many anecdotes that revolve around WG Grace, many were, in all likelihood, made up. For example, we cannot say for sure whether he made a boy bat at No. 11 just because he had bragged about the fact that he had never made a duck (“not enough experience”). We also do not know whether he haughtily told the umpire that the crowd had come to watch him bat, not the other man officiate.

On the other hand, some of them were true: for example, he held the wound together for half an hour when Gloucestershire cricketer Arthur Croome gashed his throat against a spiked railing in front of the Old Trafford pavilion — till surgical needles were found — this, after his fingers and thumb were numb from a day’s bowling.

This is one of those true stories. When I first came across the anecdote I found it so fantastic that I found it difficult to believe. Jonathan Rice wrote in Wisden on Grace that “in 1898 he declared an innings closed when he was on 93 not out, as 93 was the only score between nought and 100 on which he had never finished an innings.”

1898. WG was just past his fiftieth birthday. Obviously he was well past his halcyon days of the 1870s: he bowled less and less; the beard grew in volume and cult status; and his girth hardly made him look like the greatest cricketer of the 19th century. Over a century after his death, there is not much claim otherwise.

Then came that Indian summer of 1895 when he rediscovered his form. He scored 2,346 runs at 51. He got 9 hundreds, a number he had surpassed only in 1871. One of these 9 hundreds was the hundredth of his career: he was the first to reach that figure. This was two years after his son (named William Gilbert, just like his father) had made his First-Class debut.

He bowled with renewed vigour from the next season, taking 52 wickets at 24 and 56 at 22 in the following one. He also averaged 43 and 39 with bat. For a man in his twenties these would have splendid numbers: for one approaching fifty these were almost out of the world.

He had taken 12 wickets against Somerset just before he had turned fifty. Playing for Gentlemen against Players in the next match (that began on his birthday) he scored 43 and 31*; and in the next match, against Nottinghamshire, he amassed 168 and 38*. Then came the Sussex match at Ashley Down Road, Bristol.

The match was unremarkable in itself. Gloucestershire were bowled out for 244 (Cyril Bland and Walter Humphreys took 4 wickets each while neither Gilbert Jessop nor father and son WG Grace delivered). Sussex responded with 364, riding on an opening stand of 131 between CB Fry and Billy Murdoch. Neither Grace Sr nor Jessop got a wicket.

Fry scored 93 in that innings. However, it would not be the most-remembered 93 of the match.

Grace dropped himself down the order in the second innings. Cyril Sewell and Reginald Rice wiped out the 80-run deficit. The great man finally emerged at 189 for 4 on the third (and final) afternoon. Two more wickets fell quickly (including Jessop for a duck), and Gloucestershire suddenly were left with a 112-run lead with 4 wickets in hand.

However, Grace made sure the crowd had something to cheer about. He was not going to play for time. He took his time, allowing wicketkeeper Jack Board to play his strokes before Board and Harry Wrathall fell within quick succession. Gloucestershire led by 168 with 2 wickets in hand…

But then, there was no bowler in the world who could dislodge Grace that day. The more he played his shots and got his runs, the further the target moved away from Sussex. Stanley Brown played a good hand (Grace Jr was scheduled at No. 11), but he did not need.

The pair added 93. Almost coincidentally, Grace reached 93 as well. Then — out of nowhere — he walked away: he had declared the innings closed.

Was there a chance of a result? The lead was 261, but there was little time left, so it could not have been that. Sussex batted for only 10 overs. It was clear that victory was not in Grace’s mind: he was after something completely different.

He had, you see, never scored 93, which meant he did not have the ‘full set’ between 0 and 100: how could he allow such anomaly in his career? Surely acquiring the entire set was more important than a, er, hundred? That was almost certainly how Grace saw things…

It was indeed the case. After making a duck in his first First-Class innings, WG was done with all but 11 of his ‘set’ by 1880. Three of these — 64, 80, and exactly 100 — were done in 1881, while 56 and 86 were taken care of in 1882.

Did WG think of the ‘set’ seriously at this point? Probably not. His golden days were past him, and he was not likely to throw away a hundred for a ‘set’. In all likelihood he also had his eyes on his hundredth hundred, and all six numbers were close to hundred (including four in the nineties).

Thus, the next four came in a trickle: 76 in 1885, 74 in 1886, 97 in 1887, and 95 in 1888.

That left him with only two. When Gloucestershire followed on against Sussex (who else?) at Spa Ground, Gloucester, in 1892, he hit medium-pacer George Bean back to him. It was the first 99 for The Doctor in First-Class cricket.

And then, once the hundredth hundred was done away with and he had that one last hurrah in 1895, there was little Grace had to play for: so why not go for that ‘set’, then?

For the interested, here are the dates corresponding to the first instance of every single- or double-digit First-Class score by WG Grace. Do note that the dates correspond to the first day of the match and not necessarily the day on which the score had been reached.

Date on which WG Grace recorded a score between 0 and 100 for the first time in First-Class cricket
Note: The date is the starting day of the match, not necessarily the date on which WG made that score
M I Score Team Against First time on
1 1 0 Gentlemen of the South Players of the South June 22, 1865
2 3 12 no Gentlemen Players July 3, 1865
2 2 23 Gentlemen Players July 3, 1865
3 4 3 Gentlemen Players July 10, 1865
3 5 34 Gentlemen Players July 10, 1865
4 6 48 Gentlemen of England Gentlemen of Middlesex July 17, 1865
5 8 35 England Surrey August 21, 1865
6 9 2 Gentlemen of England Oxford May 21, 1866
7 12 11 Gentlemen Players June 25, 1866
7 11 25 Gentlemen Players June 25, 1866
8 13 7 Gentlemen Players June 28, 1866
9 15 19 South North July 2, 1866
11 18 6 South of the Thames North of the Thames August 6, 1866
12 19 30 Gentlemen of the South I Zingari August 8, 1866
12 20 50 Gentlemen of the South I Zingari August 8, 1866
14 22 75 England Middlesex June 10, 1867
16 25 18 Gentlemen Players July 8, 1867
16 26 37 no Gentlemen Players July 8, 1867
18 28 29 England MCC June 1, 1868
18 29 66 England MCC June 1, 1868
19 30 10 South of the Thames North of the Thames June 8, 1868
22 33 55 Gentlemen of the South Players of the South July 23, 1868
24 37 24 England Surrey and Middlesex August 17, 1868
27 42 51 MCC Surrey May 31, 1869
28 44 14 South North June 3, 1869
29 46 31 MCC Cambridge June 14, 1869
29 45 32 MCC Cambridge June 14, 1869
31 48 43 Gentlemen Players June 24, 1869
31 49 83 Gentlemen Players June 24, 1869
38 61 96 South North August 9, 1869
41 64 49 MCC Surrey May 16, 1870
42 66 54 MCC Oxford May 26, 1870
42 67 73 no MCC Oxford May 26, 1870
44 70 26 Gloucestershire Surrey June 2, 1870
47 76 8 MCC Cambridge June 20, 1870
48 79 20 MCC Oxford June 23, 1870
48 78 62 MCC Oxford June 23, 1870
53 88 84 MCC Surrey July 25, 1870
56 91 4 South North August 8, 1870
57 94 46 no Gentlemen of MCC Kent August 11, 1870
58 95 77 Gentlemen of the South Gentlemen of the North August 18, 1870
59 97 42 United South of England Eleven United North of England Eleven August 22, 1870
62 103 98 MCC Yorkshire May 22, 1871
67 109 1 Gloucestershire Surrey June 8, 1871
68 110 88 MCC Middlesex June 12, 1871
70 114 15 MCC Oxford June 22, 1871
73 119 16 Gentlemen Players July 6, 1871
76 124 21 MCC Surrey July 20, 1871
77 125 59 MCC Sussex July 24, 1871
79 128 78 Gloucestershire Nottinghamshire August 3, 1871
80 131 40 South North August 7, 1871
84 136 79 Gloucestershire Nottinghamshire August 21, 1871
85 138 81 no WG Grace’s XI Kent September 21, 1871
86 140 65 South North April 29, 1872
88 143 87 South North May 16, 1872
91 148 13 Gloucestershire Surrey June 3, 1872
96 156 9 Gentlemen of the South Players of the South June 27, 1872
101 164 44 MCC South July 22, 1872
104 167 67 Gloucestershire Nottinghamshire August 1, 1872
106 170 68 South North May 15, 1873
116 185 70 Gentlemen Players July 17, 1873
119 190 5 no MCC Surrey Club July 31, 1873
121 193 57 no Gentlemen of MCC Kent August 6, 1873
125 200 69 no WG Grace’s XI Kent September 25, 1873
135 216 22 Gentlemen Players July 2, 1874
141 226 94 Kent and Gloucestershire England August 3, 1874
144 230 27 Gloucestershire Surrey August 24, 1874
145 231 53 Gloucestershire Sussex August 27, 1874
148 235 28 no South North May 17, 1875
149 237 71 MCC Yorkshire May 24, 1875
150 238 82 South North May 27, 1875
153 244 36 Gloucestershire Sussex June 10, 1875
157 252 17 Gentlemen Players July 1, 1875
159 255 92 South North July 15, 1875
174 284 72 Gentlemen of the South Players of the North May 18, 1876
177 290 38 South North June 1, 1876
178 291 45 South North June 5, 1876
183 300 90 Gentlemen Players June 29, 1876
185 303 33 Gentlemen Players July 6, 1876
190 312 60 Gloucestershire Nottinghamshire July 27, 1876
192 317 91 Kent and Gloucestershire England August 7, 1876
198 326 39 South North September 7, 1876
198 325 41 no South North September 7, 1876
203 336 58 South North May 21, 1877
207 342 52 Gloucestershire Sussex June 11, 1877
213 351 61 South North July 23, 1877
224 369 47 MCC England May 13, 1878
233 384 63 Gentlemen Players July 4, 1878
259 428 85 Gloucestershire Middlesex August 14, 1879
278 459 89 Gloucestershire Yorkshire August 23, 1880
283 468 64 Gloucestershire Middlesex June 13, 1881
284 470 100 Gentlemen Players June 30, 1881
290 482 80 Gloucestershire Middlesex August 11, 1881
306 507 56 Gloucestershire Yorkshire July 31, 1882
308 510 86 Gloucestershire Lancashire August 10, 1882
370 620 76 Gentlemen Players July 2, 1885
420 703 74 England XI Australians September 13, 1886
435 731 97 Gloucestershire Yorkshire July 25, 1887
453 765 95 MCC Oxford June 4, 1888
577 986 99 Gloucestershire Sussex August 4, 1892
742 1265 93 no Gloucestershire Sussex August 1, 1898

We now know that the reasoning was backed by data. However, we still do not have proof that this was the only reason for WG to declare the innings.

Was this a good enough reason? If not, let me ask two simple questions:

1. WG’s fondness for numbers, especially ones pertaining to his own career, is well-documented. If he did not notice that 93 was ‘missing’, who did? Who maintained data of a nature this obscure?

2. Even if one assumes it was a coincidence, why would a run-glutton like WG declare with no result in sight but a century 7 runs away?

I leave these questions to the reader.

Brief scores:

Gloucestershire 244 (Reginald Rice 61; Cyril Bland 4 for 97, Walter Humphreys 4 for 91) and 341 for 8 decl. (Cyril Sewell 67, Reginald Rice 63, WG Grace 93*; Walter Humphreys 3 for 80) drew with Sussex 364 (CB Fry 93, Billy Murdoch 60, Francis Marlow 77; Stanley Brown 4 for 100) and 20 for no loss.