Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the amazing exploits of WG Grace during one of his most celebrated purple patches, 136 years ago. It stunned the cricketing world, even in those days of limited communications.
In the hilarious British comedy movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are asked by God to set out on their epic quest. While Arthur and his knights were played by the members of the Monty Python group, God was depicted on screen by an animated image of WG Grace!
The flowing beard did bear uncanny resemblance with the images of the Old Testament Almighty one comes across. But, there were more reasons for such divine parallels. And none more so than the saga that ended on August 18, 1876, feats accomplished when he was a strapping youth of 28.
It took the Biblical God seven days to make the world, and it took WG Grace one day more to shake its foundations with his exploits.
August 11 to August 12
On August 10, under blazing sunshine, Grace went down to Canterbury to play a 12-a-side First-class game for the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) against Kent. Much of the first day was spent in a modest leather hunt, as Kent piled up 453, aided by a 154 by captain Lord Harris.
Grace opened the batting on Friday, the first day of this sparkling period, and was out for 17. MCC, no doubt worn out by the exertions of the previous day, were all out for 144.
Following on after tea, Grace opened the innings again and played a freer game than usual. In his own words, “As I had to play at Bristol the following Monday, and did not think we could save the match, I meant to get home as soon as possible. Consequently I opened my shoulders to the bowling.”
But, he had to wait. His hitting was hard, but never reckless, and brought him his century in 45 minutes. By close of play, MCC were 217 for four, Grace on 133.
The next day, he remained busy. Runs flowed in a deluge of Biblical proportions. At first, Charles Absolon and William Foord-Kelley, the two main bowlers of Kent, were keen to get hold of the ball to take the big wicket. As the day wore on, however, their ardour cooled down. Lord Harris had great trouble persuading them to bowl at all.
Partners came and went, and, just before time ran out, Grace was caught for 344, out of a total of 546. Bell’s Life records, “He scored ... without positively giving a chance; and his hits consisted of fifty-one 4’s, eight 3’s, twenty 2’s, and seventy-six singles.”
The match ended in a draw. William Yardley, who spent the whole time in the field against him, confessed that in every sense it was the hottest time he was ever likely to experience – in this world, at any rate
Thus, Grace did not get a restful Saturday, and spent most of the Sunday travelling across the country to Bristol.
August 14 to August 16
After a good night’s sleep, Grace turned out for Gloucestershire against Nottinghamshire at Clifton. Opening the batting on the first day, he piled up 177. In those days we ran out most of the hits on the Clifton College Ground. My score was made up of one 7, two 6’s, one 5, twenty-three 4’s, four 3’s, nine 2’s and twenty-one singles, Grace says in WG – Cricketing Reminiscences and Personal Recollections.
Two days after that, on August 16, he captured eight second innings wickets to ensure a ten wicket win.
He called the 177 the filling in the eight-day sandwich. Not because it was meatier, but because, as in railway refreshment rooms, it was smaller than the other two slices.
August 17 to August 18
The next match was at nearby Cheltenham against Yorkshire.
There is a legend that the Notts players, travelling back to Trent Bridge after the hammering, met the Yorkshire-men coming down from the north at Cheltenham railway station and gave them a shuddering account of what Grace had been up to.
Fast bowler Tom Emmett is said to have chuckled, “Maybe you’re reight, but afore we’d let him knock us about klike that against Yorkshire, we’d shooit him. Eevn t’Big ‘Un couldn’t do it three times.”
However, as Grace strode to the wicket on the first day, he gently said to Emmett, “You’ll have to get me out today. I shan’t get myself out.”
By the end of the first day, Gloucestershire were 353 for four, with Grace on 216. The bowlers had toiled and suffered.
After heavy rain delayed the start on the second day, Grace kept batting with William Moberly keeping him company. At this stage some bowlers did mutiny.
Ephraim Lockwood, the Yorkshire captain, was not really in full control of the team. When he asked Allan Hill to come on to bowl, he begged off. Seeing this, Emmett cried, “Make him bowl. Th’art captain.” To this Hill retorted, “Bowl him thi’sen, Tom. Tha’rt frightened.” Whereupon Emmett picked up the ball and bowled three of the widest wides in succession.
Grace carried his bat, scoring an unbeaten 318, while rain ensured a draw. He recounts, “As this score was made against the first-rate bowling of Yorkshire, I consider it the best innings of my career.”
The eight miraculous days had brought him 839 runs, dismissed twice – at an average of 419.50!
(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)