WG Grace: The Father of Cricket
In a First-Class career that lasted 43 years, WG Grace 54,211 runs with 124 hundreds and also took 2,809 wickets 240 five-fors and 64 ten-fors © Getty Images
WG Grace, born July 18, 1848, is a character of near mythical proportions, striding across the pages of cricket history like a Colossus. Arunabha Sengupta traces the life and times of a man whose legend continues to be too difficult to capture in a single article.
WG Grace is a legend even in the elite club which allows only sublime, hallowed names to pass through its forbidding doors. He is a colossus even among the grandest giants who have walked across 22-yards brandishing willow or leather.
During the last quarter of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th, only the Queen, if in her full regalia, and arguably Mr William Gladstone, were the only ones more readily recognisable to the common man within the shores of England. If this common man was inclined to enjoy the pleasures of a day in the sun watching the intricacies of the noble game, the ranking probably altered, pitchforking Grace to the top.
There were several instances when trains were held up — either because a sighting of WG made the porters abandon their chores to shake the great, huge ham of a hand, or perhaps the journey could not begin because WG himself was saying farewell to someone on the platform. No one complained. Rather the news of that famed figure nearby created a flurry of activity, hundreds craning their necks to catch a glimpse of that massive frame, of that immense beard, of that man who strode much larger than life.
It is rumoured that CB Fry’s bearded housemaster at Repton was once mistaken for WG by a porter at the Nottingham station. It was the high point of an otherwise modest life. Yet, such mistakes were rare. For WG’s beard was famous and unique, even in those days when facial hair sprouted luxuriant and lavish, manfully and without apologetic trimmings. Among all this serious vegetation, WG held his own, miles ahead in texture and density, much like his dominance in the batting charts through most of the 1870s. Ernie Jones courted immortality by hurling a ball through the bush, and apologising with, “Sorry Doctor, she slipped.”
With the backdrop of his cricket in general, and batsmanship in particular, there developed around his beard an aura compatible with the pictures of The Creator as portrayed in the pages of the Old Testament. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail the Almighty is depicted sending his knights out in a quest for the grail. The face of the Heavenly Father that speaks stirringly to those splendid gentlemen is actually the animated image of the bearded WG. His was a celebrated beard that took the baton of famous facial fungus from the greying Karl Marx and carried it proudly to the next century, before passing it on to the likes of George Bernard Shaw.
WG looms like a leviathan from the cricketing past, with his immense girth and unparalleled beard, and it sometimes becomes difficult to look past this titanic figure and glance at the man’s incredible feats on the cricket field. He is embossed on the pages of cricketing chronicles as a legend, as an almost fairy-tale character. GK Chesterton once said that Pickwick was the true English fairy and WG, the bulky sprite, was a prodigious Puck in a truly English midsummer day’s dream.
In all these folklores, it is sometimes difficult to gauge the brilliance of WG the cricketer. It is difficult to imagine why on cricket grounds, notices were displayed, “Admission threepence. If Dr WG Grace plays admission sixpence.” It is difficult to relate to the stirring imagery of WG’s contribution to the game — he turned the old one-stringed instrument into a many-chorded lyre. It is difficult even to realise that at one point of time when WG had taken his first steps on the cricket field the figure had been lithe and the beard was yet to appear.
WG Grace in stance postion © Getty Images
Gloucestershire has come to be known as the shire of the Graces. The name persists even after the emergence of the likes of Gilbert Jessop, Wally Hammond and Tom Graveney. It was here that a recently married Dr Henry Mills Grace moved after travelling half a dozen miles from Somerset, thus robbing the latter county of the glory that will bedeck Gloucestershire for eternity.
It was at Downend that the doctor set up his home, visiting patients untiringly by the day and getting up at five to practice his cricket. Wife Martha Grace (née Pocock) was a tall, strong, imperious woman who arguably knew more about cricket than the most addicted gentleman following the game. It was not far-fetched, as she gave birth to one great cricketer after another and stood watchfully while they trained, often reprimanding a poor stroke or delivery of punishable length. Later, she sat in her pony carriage beside the Clifton Ground as WG, EM, GF and other scions of the Grace clan ruled over their opponents. She obviously watched with considerable pride, but was never without the word of sharp criticism for a lapse with the ball, bat or in the field. She kept scrapbooks throughout the career of her sons, until the day of her death in 1884, and these were apparently very nearly Wisdens in their own right.
EM and WG were locked in battle with Lancashire at Old Trafford when a telegram arrived in the ground announcing the passing away of Martha Grace. AN ‘Monkey’ Hornby, captain of Lancashire, stopped the match immediately, allowing the two stricken Grace brothers to start off to attend their mother’s funeral. The matriarchal role in the development of the Grace supremacy cannot be exaggerated.
WG was born in 1848, seven years after the other great cricketing Grace, EM. Henry Grace had been born in 1833, Alfred in 1840 — able cricketers both who did not quite match the exploits of the two talented brothers. Two years after WG, the youngest Grace brother was born, GF or Fred, the fantastic stroke-maker, a fast bowler of quality and an electric fielder. Fred Grace tragically passed away two weeks after playing his only Test match in 1880.
Uncle Alfred Pocock, a keen, intelligent cricketer himself, was perhaps the most influential figure behind the development of young WG. The training took place in the carefully laid out cricket pitch at the Grace house — The Chestnuts. The brothers batted, bowled and fielded under the avuncular eyes, and perhaps the four Grace sisters performed some nifty work in the field as well. There were other fielders as well, perhaps the best in the land. Don and Ponto, pointers both, and Noble, a wise old retriever, chased with a great deal of purpose. Ponto could stop a hard shot better than most human fieldsmen. But, according to Bernard Darwin, this canine showed a true conservative’s scepticism for EM’s batting innovations, especially his penchant for pulling the short ball irrespective of where it pitched.
There were a few visits to the town by the travelling All England Elevens, to play against the local twenty-two. George Parr, William Caffyn, Julius Caesar — big names all — played in Downend. Once a genial giant named Alfred Mynn, who had just stopped dominating the cricketing fields with his own feats, stood as umpire. William Clarke was impressed by young EM’s work as a long-stop and presented him with a bat sporting a spliced handle with a strip of whalebone down the middle.
WG trained assiduously, spending hour after hour at the wicket. He mastered the defensive straight bat before entering double figures in terms of age. And soon he was adept at playing front as well as back, a trait rare in those early days of cricket when most batsmen specialised in one of the two. Uncle Pocock’s adage stuck, “Do not allow the bowler to stick you up, or it is all over with you…” Forty years later, WG had dipped those words of wisdom in characteristic colour while advocating, “Get at the beggar before he gets at you.”
In his 15th year, WG suffered a serious attack of pneumonia. There was a period of tussle between life and death, a phase when the future of cricket hung in balance as he lay on his sick bed. When he recovered, he started growing tall. Henry, EM and Alfred remained of medium height and stocky build, but WG soon was a strapping lad of over six feet. He soon developed into a reputed club cricketer and also participated in athletic contests. He was often the winner in 440-yard hurdles. The 70 seconds that he clocked while winning one of these races at the Crystal Palace was highly creditable for those days.
EM was already making his reputation as an attacking bat, cunning lob bowler and the best point that had ever been seen. WG’s entry into First-Class cricket followed shortly, and soon tales of his exploits became legendary across the kingdom.
The huge chasm between WG Grace and the rest of the players
How good a player was WG?
His career spanned 40 — mostly a tale of unqualified success, perhaps with a small dip in between before another supreme period in his late forties. Even snapshots of his brilliance will assume the proportions of a robust collection of Wisdens. Let us look at some particulars.
When WG entered the scene in the mid-1860s, he played as an amateur. Although he later caused much heartburn by making much more from cricket than the professionals who lived off the game, he still represented the Gentlemen against the Players in the two annual matches.
In the 27 years prior to WG’s arrival, the Gentlemen had managed to win just seven games. The sides had been evenly matched in batting strength, but the menial task of bowling was more of a professional endeavour. The Professionals especially scored over the Gentlemen in the domain of fast bowling. George “Tear ‘em” Tarrant and James Jackson were formidable, and the amateurs often capitulated to their fearsome pace on bad wickets.
The advent of WG changed all that. Here was a player who relished fast stuff, could defend against it with aplomb and hit them at will. For the next eighteen years, the Players managed just seven wins. Not only did he bring balance to the encounters, WG soon feasted on the Players attacks and essayed some of his most memorable and devastating knocks against them. Additionally, with his cunning bowling he snared many a batsman to their downfall. Till the end of his career, the triumphs of the Players remained restricted to a few.
Perhaps WG could bridge the gap between the two sides because he was actually a professional at heart, plying his trade in the guise of an amateur. However, let us look at some of his other achievements.
During the 10 years from 1868 to 1877, there was an enormous chasm between WG and the rest of the batsmen. He topped the averages each year, but for one slightly mediocre 1875 in which he finished second while boasting the highest aggregate. In most of the years, the next best man in English cricket struggled to achieve half of WG’s numbers.
In the dry, sunny summer of 1871, WG’s knocks sparkled with glittering gems. The season commenced what is accepted as the glorious high noon of his career. He scored 2739 runs at 78.25 while the brilliant Richard Daft came second in the table scoring at 37.66. WG hit 10 hundreds while the next best number was two. If he did fail in one innings it almost went without saying that things would be set right with a big hundred in the second. Often he scored proportions of the team’s runs that hovered near unity.
By 1876, the perfect golden day of his high summer, it was said, “Modern cricket seems to have resolved itself into a match between Mr. Grace on one side and the bowling strength of England on the other.” From 11th to 18th August that year, he performed miracles that gelled perfectly with the divine dimensions of his beard. Runs flowed in a turbulent torrent. It started with 344 at Canterbury for MCC, followed by 177 at Clifton, and ended with 318 not out at Cheltenham — the latter two for Gloucestershire.
Through his career, he topped 1000 runs in 28 seasons, and 2000 on five occasions. During his halcyon days, he also topped the bowling average in 1867, and captured the highest number of wickets in those very seasons while his bat was ruling the English grounds — 1874, 1875 and 1877. In all, he captured more than 100 wickets nine times.
There was no better batsman in the history of the game till then, and there have been few since. And very few English bowlers of the day could claim to be undisputedly better than him with the ball.
By 1878, WG had married, had a child and finally followed the footsteps of his father and brothers to get his medical degree. On becoming a doctor, he sought to cut down his cricket. He had already conquered the English grounds and set the foreign fields of Australia and America ablaze with his deeds. For a season or two, his forays to the county grounds remained limited, and it reflected in the figures. But then came that Australian Demon bowler called Fred Spofforth.
Without a deferential bone in his body, Spofforth was the one bowler who did not buckle under the enormity of WG’s name. He dismissed the great man twice at Lord’s in 1878 to defeat the strong Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) side. While English bowlers often opined that WG should use a smaller bat to make it an equal game, Spofforth revelled at getting past that same broad blade. In many ways it was this new challenge offered by this spindly fast bowler that prompted WG to continue. He hit 152 on his Test debut in 1880, the first-Test ever played in England. Soon enough he regained his prolific touch. With the advent of a gamut of talented batsmen, Arthur Shrewsbury in particular, his dominance was no longer as absolute as in the 1870s. But, he thrived through the 1880s.
By the start of the 1890s, his fondness for food and whiskey told eloquently on his figure. Yet, the runs continued to flow in abundant gushes until 1895 when it became a deluge. At the age of 47, he enjoyed the Indian summer of his career. As many as 2346 runs rushed forth at 51.00 with nine hundreds. The following year 2135 more were scored at 42.00. The legend was deemed ageless.
Till 1899, it was unthinkable that an England XI could be formed without WG choosing himself as the first name on the list. It was as he walked out to open the English innings for the last time in a Test match that he told his youthful partner CB Fry, “Remember, I am not a sprinter like you.” Even WG with his inexhaustible energy had to stand aside for the flow of time to overtake him. But, he went on for years in domestic cricket, scoring his final First-Class hundred on the day following his 56th birthday.
The 10 years of dominance by WG Grace
||Hundreds in the Season
In 1888, the year the colossus turned 40, Archibald Stuart Wortley painted a portrait of WG. It remains displayed in the Long Room at Lord’s. WG is depicted with bronzed cheeks, dark and bushy beard, right foot squarely along the popping crease, the left forward with the toe raised. Charles Kortright, the fearsome fast bowler, once warned a batsman that only WG was allowed to cock his toes at him. The bat is raised high in full backlift, and the great man looks at ease, balanced and eager to attack.
Legend has it that the artist had asked, “But Dr. Grace, would you stand as easily if the game were in a tight place?” Grace’s answer had given a glimpse of his philosophy of batting, “Certainly, because after all I should only be facing the next ball.”
Grace forever faced the next ball. He scored 54,211 runs in First-Class cricket at 39.25 with 124 hundreds. The numbers cannot be judged in absolute terms. The heyday of Grace was in the 1870s, a period of precarious wickets, where batting was an arduous, formidable task. The pitches were evil. The rules were different. While batting at Lord’s if one did not hit the ball into St John’s Wood Road, every run, be it four or six or more, had to be run. The number of times WG shuttled up and down the wicket belies belief, especially if the girth of the later years is taken into consideration. Yet, he batted for days, while his newest partners got drained while running his runs. WG at the wicket was indefatigable.
There was this energy which fuelled the run machine, piloted by his quick eye and immense physical strength. The hard hits and often quick scoring of this phenomenal batsman was built on the foundations of the straight bat as instilled by the patient instruction of Uncle Pocock.
WG was not the most elegant of batsmen. As Andrew Lang put it, “There is something monumental in his stance at the wicket, wholly free from a false refinement.” He did not possess the rapier like strokes of Victor Trumper or the magical footwork of KS Ranjitsinhji. He lacked the polished composure of Jack Hobbs and also the great ability of clear the arena with every stroke as Gilbert Jessop. However, he still ruled the cricket pitch all through his playing days. As Ranji put it, “He turned (batting’s) many straight channels into one great winding river.”
Yes, the doctor was a synthesis of all styles seen in cricket till then. He played forward and back with equal ease. He played off-side strokes with the same efficiency as leg hits, and could clout the short ball with the horizontal bat. He could hit all round the wicket and do so all day without any sign of weariness. The one absolutely original stroke he perhaps lent the craft of batting was a hard push to leg with a straight bat. He is supposed to have said, “I don’t like defensive strokes: you can only get three off them.”
He was known as a continuous accumulator rather than a spectacular hitter. Yet, leaving balls alone, something the modern game considers a virtue, was alien to his mental make-up. He hit the balls hard and almost always. Parson Wickham, who kept wicket during a big WG hundred, later said that through the long innings WG had let only four balls go through without attempting a stroke. And every ball would be struck with the middle of the bat. When in 1884 the visiting Australians complained that the English batsmen were using bats wider than allowed by the rules, most of the offended home side players measured their blades in indignation. WG however just laughed it off. He did not care how much they shaved of his bat. All he wanted was the middle.
It was almost impossible to set a field to him. Brought up on a steady diet of games against odds, 18 or 22 fielding men, he could find gaps with ease against elevens. Captains would switch fielders around to find balls whizzing past the just vacated spot.
Professional bowlers were often overjoyed to see him depart, and celebrated his dismissal with caps thrown in the air. Once, having missed him off a caught and bowled opportunity, Tom Emmett was disgusted enough to fling his cap on the ground and stomp on it. He also kicked the ball to the boundary. WG encouraged him, “Kick it again Tom, it’s always four to me.”
WG kept his weight chiefly on the right foot, but could move back and cut with ease, off balls that many would play off the front foot. He especially loved fast and medium fast bowlers, with respect for Tom Emmett, George Freeman and Demon Spofforth. He enjoyed scoring off the faster offerings at brisk rates. Once he hooked Fred Morley’s fiery pace for two sixes off his eyebrows.
He was perhaps at his best on wickets with venom. He once got rousing applause at Lord’s for stopping four consecutive shooters. And while he disliked the ‘slinging’ bowlers, he liked to deal with them with forthrightness. Once hit on the body by Jack Crossland, much to the vehemence of the crowd. WG painfully limped to the boundary, asked the spectators to mind their own business, and then proceeded to hit Crossland out of the attack and pile up a positively sadistic hundred. With the slow bowlers, he would rather watch them in the air than be deceived off the hand.
There are some conjectures that had he played sin this day and age, with the field settings and restrictive bowling, the colossus would not have risen to dominate as he had in his own era. However, it is difficult to digest such thoughts. WG might have had a brief frown on his magnificent brow, and there could have been a thoughtful tug on his beard. But, then, I would bet on the runs flowing as usual through gaps in the field hitherto unexplored. Genius thrives in any day and age.
As a young man WG bowled a round arm version of medium pace, with his arm rising as high as the laws would allow. Gradually he bowled slower, with subtle guile that was almost too plain to be devious. Yet, batsmen fell to his snare in dozens.
Bob Thomas, the old umpire who had watched WG closely, went as far as to remark that had he not been the best batsman of all time, he would have ended as the best bowler. The truth is perhaps not that extreme. WG was not the greatest bowler of his time, and neither would he have become one. But, he was very good, as near great as possible without entirely deserving the sobriquet.
He accumulated 2809 First-Class wickets, at the average of 18.14, with 240 five wicket hauls and 64 ten-fors in his 870 matches. One cannot end with figures such as these without copious quantities of guile. And that he had in plenty. With the ball he was deception itself, a great huge man rushing in with the ball with the red and yellow cap topping the hair and beard infested head. And the end result was a looping lobbed ball that confused and befuddled the batsman. Few could resist having a mighty heave and many ended up in the hands of Fred Grace, and later others, at long leg. As a deviation, he sometimes got his man caught by EM at point. Often enough, he himself ran to a position between silly mid-off and cover and pouched return catches induced almost by will.
Against Nottinghamshire in 1877 he captured 17 wickets in all, the last seven off 17 balls without conceding a run. It was not plain donkey drop bowling which got wickets by plain luck. There was far more craftiness in the fray. He sometimes even bowled a googly without knowing it, the sway of his bulk as the ball left his hand with a slight leg-break, could, with the aid of helpful wind, achieve the results of an off-break. He knew the weakness of every batsman, and preyed on them. And if young players resisted the temptation of clouting his looping deliveries high towards the leg boundary, his own piping voice could be heard across the wicket, “Now lad, if you keep doin’ that I am going to take myself off.”
Whenever a rookie batsman faced him, WG murmured, “I’ll get you out boy.” And if the youth looked too crestfallen on dismissal, he was known to say, “Come along to the nets in the morning, and I’ll show you how to play the ball.” WG’s head crafted the dismissal, but his heart was big enough to share the secrets of survival to the youngster.
As a young man, WG was an excellent outfielder. He could be a brilliant cover-point, but in later years specialised in the point position. Part of the preference was due to his intention to chatter to the batsman, trying every trick in and around the game to get his attention and wicket.
In his early days his throws from long were fast and accurate, often executed on the run, the ball bowled in rather than thrown. When the Australian Aborigine Cricketers toured in 1868, he beat their champions in a competition for throwing the ball. At The Oval, he threw distances of 116, 117 and 118 yards in successive attempts, and triumphed in the event. At Eastbourne he once covered 122 yards.
Later he chose point over slip — the latter position he disliked. Yet, he did try his hand in wicketkeeping occasionally when the regular stumper was indisposed. In the family, EM was supposed to be the better fielder, and perhaps the best in England till the advent of Arthur Jones and Gilbert Jessop. But, WG was not too far behind. Even as he got bulkier with age, his hands retained the agility to swoop at balls. A reporter wrote during his American trip, “It would seem as if the ball were fascinated by Mr Grace’s basilisk eye for it seems to jump into his hand.”
On his first trip to Australia, there was an encounter with a swarm of flies in the small town of Stawell. WG’s ham like hand went bang on the table, slewing 76 flies with one blow. It was the hand of a fast moving master fielder.
Yet, WG was at his best when he fielded off his own bowling. Completing his delivery he would gallop to the silly mid-off and bring off certain catches of rare brilliance, off strokes almost the batsmen were almost hypnotically dictated to make. In the Old Trafford Test of 1888, he held four catches which would never have been considered chances at all.
There is also the story of WG bowling a characteristic flighted ball on the leg stump and the batsman taking a mighty swipe. It soared in the air to the square leg and WG bounded diagonally like a raging bison, warning the stationed fielder there of probable catastrophe if he tried to interfere, and somehow held on to an astonishing catch at full gallop. The departing batsman was heard muttering, “That chap won’t be satisfied till he’s keeping wickets to his bowling.”
WG held 876 catches in all, and only the long-armed Frank Woolley has caught more. And then there was the opportunistic lurking in the field, which resulted in Sammy Jones being caught out of his ground while doing a bit of gardening in the famous Test of 1882. WG claimed he was teaching the young lad a lesson. Spofforth was not amused. He scythed through the batting after Harry Boyle had dismissed WG for 32. It gave birth to the Ashes and the classic WG lament, “I left six men to get 32!”
WG was supreme, not only in the assessment of fellow Englishmen but also his foes. When someone suggested Billy Murdoch was as great, Alec Bannerman was full of scorn. “Murdoch? Why, WG has forgotten more than Billy ever learnt.” Murdoch himself paid a rich and rather rustic tribute to the legend, “What do I think of WG? Why, I have never seen his like and never shall. I will tell you my opinion, which is that WG should never be put underground. When he dies his body ought to be embalmed and permanently exhibited in the British Museum as ‘the colossal cricketer of all time’.”
Memorial of WG Grace at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, 1996 © Getty Images
“Is Dr Grace in?” asked a nervous patient at the surgery door.
The answer floated back, “Of course he’s in. He’s been batting ever since lunch time on Tuesday.”
CB Fry once remarked that WG was the only man to receive a medical degree for his operations on the cricket field. The moment we talk of WG and his medical pursuits, we are faced with a veritable storehouse of such quips. Very few of these are really true.
He did not race to his medical diploma as eagerly as he was known to approach a century. But, he did do justice to his profession in many ways. And often he was not paid for his efforts, neither did he demand payment. It was in stark contrast to his cricket — which he pursued ostensibly as an amateur.
In Bristol, as a parish doctor and general practitioner to the large working-class, he performed the role of a physician with responsibility and a great heart. He did not really neglect the patient for his cricket as widely believed. Often he would be seen walking briskly along the streets of his parish, dressed in a roughish tweed suit, sometimes pausing to talk to stray children and dogs. Often a family short of fuel or food would find the doctor producing a bag of coal or a basin of soup. He would also bully and browbeat some friends into giving the unemployed men of the locality some sort of jobs. If the smell of brewing soup enticed him, he often stayed back in the patient’s house, joining the family for dinner. In winter, his top hat was an excellent target for snowballs, but the kids knew that retribution would follow them in its icy way. WG’s pickup was smooth, the throw accurate and the assailant was usually paid back in kind.
Sometimes his medical methods were rather unusual. When a drunken sweep stinking of beer demanded a tonic, WG responded, “What you need lad is exercise and not medicine.” Following this, he called out to his maid, “Mary, fetch my boxing gloves.” The patient rushed out, completely cured, screaming, “The great big b***** wants to fight me!”
FS Ashley Cooper said of his friend, “For years after he left Bristol, poor people would relate how, after a tiring day in the field, he would visit them, not in a professional capacity, but as a friend, doing much to alleviate pain and spread cheerfulness.”
WG’s treatment was often carried out on the cricket field. Joe Hadow made a running catch at deep square leg to dismiss WG and stumbled forward to hit his head against the projecting metal edge of a stand. WG, on his way back to the pavilion, administered first aid with gentle firmness reserved for someone who had made a catch of a genuine six hit.
More significantly, WG saved the life of old Gloucestershire cricketer and cricket writer ACM Croome in 1887. Croome gashed his throat against one of the spiked railings in front of the pavilion of Old Trafford and the cut was deep and potentially fatal. WG held the jagged edges of the wound together for nearly half an hour as messengers scurried to find surgical needles. WG had been bowling all day and but for his stamina and nerve it would have been near impossible to keep holding the position without twitching finger or thumb.
There were occasions when he remained up all night with a difficult case and returned to the ground the next morning to hit a hundred or pick up a bushel of wickets. And as in his own chamber, sometimes the methods of medical practice on the field were slightly unorthodox. Kent amateur CJM Fox stooped sharply to field a hard hit, overbalanced, and put his shoulder out in the fall. EM ran to him, signaling to the pavilion. WG bustled out and for the next few minutes the crowd were treated to a peculiar scene. EM sat on the unfortunate lad’s head as WG grabbed his arm and began to pull, with his foot as fulcrum. After a terrible and painful pause, a loud crack was heard and the shoulder went back into place. “You’re a very lucky young man,” WG exclaimed while leaving the field.
The legend of WG Grace lives on long after his death. Here, a cricket fan dressed as WG Grace, entertains the crowd during Day Two of the Fourth npower Ashes Test between England and Australia on August 26, 2005 at Trent Bridge in Nottingham © Getty Images
The Great Cricketer
Did Grace really tell the umpire that the people had not turned up to see his decisions but had come in hordes to see him batting? Did he really replace the bails and carry on batting as if the ball had never been close to the stumps? Did he really try to wiggle out of dislodged bails by saying, ‘there’s a strong westerly?’ Did he call ‘The Lady’ when the opposition skipper spun the coin and chose to bat with a grunt regardless of whether it was Queen Victoria or Britannia that landed face up with the fair mantle of femininity?
We can never be sure. Too many years have passed and the factual fragments are inseparably clustered with the imaginary immensity of apocrypha surrounding the legend. Many of the stories are told and believed with the disclaimer, “Just the sort of thing the Old Man would have said.”
Tom Emmett did perhaps say, “He ought to have a littler bat.” And later, subjected to relentless run-making, “It’s Grace before meat, Grace after meat, Grace all day, and I reckon it’ll be Grace tomorrow.” And still later, “The better I places ’em, the better he pastes ’em.”
The same sentiment was repeated by James Shaw of Nottinghamshire, “I puts them where I likes, but that beggar, he puts them where he likes.”
WG himself was of no intellectual pretensions. If he said something funny it was direct and without hidden meanings. When a young batsman told him he did not mind where he batted, “I never made a duck in my life,” the doctor snapped back. “No blob eh? Then No 11 for you. Not enough experience.” He did not say it to be cruel. He firmly believed in the concept.
His profound response to the question on how to play a difficult ball was actually a reflection of his simple wisdom, “I should lay the bat against the ball.” It holds true for life.
He was artful on the field. He educated umpires, as he put it sometimes seriously and often with a wink. Some county umpires did need education. “How often have I told you that if he catches me after the ball has gone out of the ground, it’s six to me?” However, WG ensured often enough that the lessons imparted were one dimensional.
Francis Thomson said of him, “The long whiskered Doctor that laugheth the rules to scorn.” But, it was more of playing within the rules and stretching them to the limits. It was EM who was more prone to confuse the umpire. Once he went too close to the batsman and appealed for obstruction when the bat hit him during the stroke. WG generally did not entertain these methods. “Obstruction be blowed. Catch the ball and never mind bamboozling the umpire.”
Yes, after a series of appeals turned down, mostly due to powerful stares of WG over his domineering beard, Kortright had knocked his middle and off stump down with a yorker and had followed it up exclaiming, “Surely you’re not going Doctor, there’s one stump still standing.” Yet, this can as well be a rich figment of the fast bowler’s imagination. But, as long as the story is good no one minds.
But, there were many occasions when WG himself was on the receiving end of quips, intended or otherwise, and he blissfully lacked the sharpness of tongue to retort with the necessary bite.
There was the young street cricketer who had been trapped leg before by his opponents and had protested. When WG, the only adult in sight, was approached to make a decision, he had said, “You were out, old man. Better go like a sportsman.” The lad had retorted, “Garn. What’s an old buffer like you know about cricket?”
And then there was the servant girl who went to London to visit Madam Tussaud’s. When Grace asked her, “Mary, did you see me there?” the reply was, “Oh no sir, we’d have to pay sixpence extra to go into the Chamber of Horrors.”
WG had a keen sense of his worth and talent, which led him to squeeze the maximum profit out of his ventures on the cricket field at home and away. His artfulness on the field and professionalism — shamateurism according to many — was perhaps a result of country wisdom. But he remained inherently simple. Even when he faced off with the Australians regarding Billy Midwinter, it was a crude endeavour to make the talented cricketer play for Gloucestershire by hook or by crook. The attempt of snaring him away from the Australian team was perhaps not very straight, but it lacked sophisticated villainy.
The mind of WG is best encapsulated by this last anecdote I will share about him. At Chestnuts, he was awakened in the middle of the night by a loud thud and a yell of agony. A tramp had sought to raid the larder and had met with the misfortune of being trapped with the heavy window sash falling on his hands. When EM got back and demanded of WG what he had done with the intruder and whether he had handed him over to the police, WG responded. “Medical etiquette. I dressed his wounds. First-class job too. But hand him over? Oh no, not my patient. I just went round and gave him a running kick and let him go.”
This simple beaming humour characterised the great man. Every one of his patients agreed — no airs about him. He lived just nine more years after giving up the game. He appeared in events, flagged off cycle races, spoke at important occasions… even a glimpse of the man in his car passing through a village would bring normal life to a standstill.
And with his simplicity he struggled to understand the conflicts of World War One and was saddened by it. Cricket’s social historian Derek Birley, while not very charitable to WG’s gamesmanship and money making methods in The Willow Wand, wrote: “bleakness (of the war) was exemplified in November (actually October) 1915 by the death of Grace, which seemed depressingly emblematic of the end of an era.”
October 23, 1915: WG Grace is carried to his final resting place © Getty Images
Eight years later, in 1923, when the decision was being made about the final inscription for the great memorial gates at Lord’s, the authorities sought learned opinions. Poets sent in their suggestions in classical languages, wordsmiths coined glittering expressions of glory. But, finally it was wisely decided to go with Sir Stanley Jackson’s simple phrase that summed up the simplicity and the monumental magnitude of his contributions:
“To the memory of
William Gilbert Grace
The Great Cricketer”
In pictures: WG Grace’s cricketing career
(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)