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May 17, 1895. In his 47th year, WG Grace scored his 100th hundred in First-Class cricket and went on ton compile 288. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the blisteringly cold day on which history was made at Bristol.
The Indian Summer
It had been accepted as the autumn of cricket’s first and foremost patriarch. But suddenly, in his 47th year, one saw WG Grace trace the sunny zenith of an Indian summer.
In fact the word ‘Indian’ is appropriate in more ways than one – and played a rather crucial role in the very first match of the season played by the great man. When MCC led by WG took on Sussex in early May, KS Ranjitsinhji appeared for the first time for the county that would forever be associated with him. At slip he caught the champion for just 13 in the first innings. The Indian prince followed that up by top-scoring with an unbeaten 77 of dash and dazzle.
In the second innings WG had made just 14 when he snicked again and this time Ranji put him down at slip. The old man proceeded to make 103, his 99th hundred in First-Class cricket, all the while pulling Ranji’s leg incessantly. It was Ranji who got the big wicket in the end, with his rather unheralded right arm slows. He actually went on to capture six.
On the last day of the match Sussex, set 405 to win, started out at eight for one.Ranji walked in at the fall of the third wicket and electrified the crowd with 150 runs laced with oriental magic. Then, with the first ball he sent down in the match, WG bowled the genius. Sussex was all-out for 385. WG’s wonderful year had started out. Alongside, another star had started to shine from Far East.
The hundredth century
In his third match that season WG led Gloucestershire against Somerset at Bristol. The match began to no particular shining prospect as far as the home team was concerned. Lionel Palairet and Gerald Fowler added 200 in scintillating fashion before it was left to the old man to get the latter stumped. He picked up five for 87 from 45 five-ball overs.Somerset, in spite of the great start, wereall-out for 305.
By the time stumps were drawn on the first evening, Gloucestershire were 58 for two, Grace on 32.It had been a valiant display against Ted Tyler and Sammy Woods who had displayed every weapon and trick. The father of modern batsmanship looked unconquerable.
Even for an English May, the next morning dawned dry and bitterly cold. The slight, graceful Clifton schoolboy CL Townsend started out on a grand partnership with WG.
No one had scored a hundred First-Class hundreds before. Few had even contemplated such a feat was possible in those days of dicey wickets. As news began to spread that WG was attacking the bowling, and hence the record, crowds began to come in from all over Bristol and the surrounding country. There was an anticipation of history in the air, as well as the sheer thrill of watching a middle-aged man endowed with the zeal and zest of a schoolboy.
The score mounted. The energy and class remained the same, so did the cold. And at long last the batsman entered the proverbial nervous nineties. One of the scorers thrust out his hand from the scoring box and raised two fingers. It was not the sign of victory. Rather, it was a helpful indication that just two more runs were required.
WG was visibly nervous. CL Townsend later said, “This was the only time that I ever saw WG flustered.” But someone else was feeling the jitters at least as much. Sammy Woods, normally thoroughly competitive, seemed to have developed unwonted diffidence during the last few overs. According to Townsend, “Poor Sam Woods could hardly bowl the ball, and the Doctor was nearly as bad.”
The previous season Bobby Abel had been out to a ‘gift’ ball sent down to him at 99. Woods, the violently hostile fast bowler, now trotted up and sent down a low full toss on the leg side. WG, to the tearful relief of all and especially the bowler, drove it hard and true for four.
The cheers were wild. Hats and walking sticks were thrown into the air. The fielding side joined in spontaneous applause. WG raised the peak of his cap towards both sides of the ground and then settled down with renewed vigour. By lunch he had reached 159.
At the other end, CL Townsend was given out leg-before five short of his century. But WG proceeded steadily towards his second hundred. When he did get there, another storm of cheering broke out. A figure was seen walking towards the centre, bearing a tray with a bottle of champagne and glasses. Some say that it was WG’s brother EM who brought it out. Others say it was engineered by EM but brought out by the brothers’ Century Club friends. Some say it was a magnum bottle. Some others say there were two of normal size. Whatever be it, play was suspended for a few minutes as the fielders drank to the Champion’s health.
WG went on to score 288. The hosts ended at 474. The Rev AP Wickham, who had crouched behind the wicket all through the innings in his faded Harlequin cap, said that the giant allowed only four balls to pass the bat.
In the second innings, medium pacer William Murch picked up eight and Gloucesterhsire won by nine wickets.
Aged 47, WG passed 1000 runs in that extremely cold May. He went on to score 2346 runs at 51.00 that summer, with nine hundreds. To celebrate his 100th century, WG arranged a private dinner party. For the occasion he had 18 plates made by Coalport china, engraved with his signature in the centre, encircled with the details of his centuries. The manufacturer gained Grace’s permission to sell copies of this plate with the portrait of the master in the centre instead of the signature.
In later years, Colin Cowdrey celebrated his hundredth hundred in a similar way and the tradition was carried on with commemorative plates for later centurions like Geoff Boycott and John Edrich.
Somerset 303 (Lionel Palairet 80, Gerald Flower 118; William Murch 4 for 72, WG Grace 5 for 87) and 189 (Sammy Woods 47; William Murch 8 for 68) lost to Gloucestershire 474 (WG Grace 288, CL Townsend 95, Ted Tyler 4 for 160) and 19 for 1 by 9 wickets.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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