For great men, discretion is often the better part of valour © Getty Images

October 27, 1891. It was probably the only day when WG Grace walked. Arunabha Sengupta recounts the match in Colombo when the great man reversed his life-long policy and admitted he was out in spite of the umpires thinking otherwise.

Did WG Grace really tell the umpire that the people had not turned up to see his decisions but had come in hordes to watch 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 his way out of dislodged bails by saying, ‘there’s a strong westerly?’

Of course, amidst all the stories that tend to grow in stature and mythical content with retelling, some of this was genuine. He did throw down the stumps when young Sammy Jones walked out to pat a divot. He did glare at the umpire often enough to make him change his mind and stop the raising finger halfway.

In that immortal match between Gloucestershire and Essex in 1898, the fearsome fast bowler Charles Kortright did trap him plumb and then got him to snick behind the wicket off successive balls. On both occasions, Grace glared down the wicket, his gaze bristling with hypnotic power. The umpire was bullied into shaking his head. Finally, Kortright grabbed the ball, stomped back to his mark and sprinted in, propelling the ball out of sheer fury, perhaps sending down the fastest ball ever bowled. The middle-stump was knocked out of the ground and the leg stump flew halfway to the boundary. Grace paused for a while, perhaps waiting for a belated call of no-ball or plainly gobsmacked by the delivery. And then he turned to walk back. It was then that Kortright shot the immortal line after him: “Surely you’re not going, Doctor? There’s still one stump standing.”

There is no doubt that given a choice and some influence over the umpires WG preferred to bat on forever.

Yet, even the greatest of them fall prey to circumstances.

It was late October in 1891, but as the pride of P&O Cruises, Arcadia, moored in Colombo, it was stiflingly hot and humid.

Grace was now 43, and the captain of Lord Sheffield’s England side on their way to Australia. He charged an enormous £3,000 as his touring fee. Additionally it was a long cricketing holiday for himself, wife Agnes and their two youngest children, the 13-year-old Bessie and six-year-old Charles.

The voyage had been comfortable enough. Grace, Drewy Stoddart, Bobby Abel, Johnny Briggs, Bobby Peel and the others had played an odds match at Malta while sporting Lord Sheffield’s colours. They had been entertained during the journey by the usual deck games and evening parties. There had been a Christy Minstrel performance as well, with Briggs playing a lead role while Grace stood looming with blackened face and powdered beard. Bessie Grace even won an egg and spoon race.

The only disgruntled passenger on Arcadia was perhaps the great explorer Henry Morton Stanley on his way to a lecture tour in Australia. Yes, this was the man who had greeted Dr Livingstone with those immortal words in Ujiji on the banks of Lake Tanganyika. Boarding the ship in the Mediterranean, Stanley somehow founded it too crowded and did not even mention the presence of Grace and his men in the letters that he wrote on board and thereafter.

A year earlier, Billy Murdoch’s Australian team had played the Ceylon team at the Galle Face ground on an equal footing — a regular match over a day with 11 players in each side. Edward Christoffelsz had surprised many by claiming five wickets in the Australian first innings as the match had petered into a draw.

This time however, it was a usual odds game. There were 12 Englishmen and 18 Ceylon cricketers in the fray. A public holiday was declared in Colombo for the occasion and people flocked in to watch the game as the sun beat down without mercy.

As Grace and Stoddart went out to open the England innings, it was intolerably hot. The cricketers wore pith helmets, with cabbage leaves to protect them from the scorching sun.

In that broiling heat, the Ceylon bowlers started running in. Grace had scored 14 when a ball from Tommy Kelaart broke back towards the wicket. The great man managed to keep it out, but in the process dislodged the bail. Neither wicketkeeper Algernon Whiting nor the bowler saw him hitting his wicket. Nor did the umpires.

A muted appeal that followed was negated due to lack of enough evidence to topple the leviathan at the crease. But, by then Grace had had enough of the heat and humidity. He nodded and said, “That’s all right, I’m going anyway.” And with these words the great man headed for the shelter of the shadows.

Stoddart struck 70 that day as Grace watched from the shaded sidelines, well protected from the sun. The match ended in a draw, with the captain of England opting to bowl only during the late hours when the sun had become mellow after the blistering journey, and clouds had gathered to provide some relief. He bowled just 4.4 overs and picked up two wickets when the play was halted by rain.

In retrospect, Grace’s decision to walk —perhaps the only time in his life — was a wise one. The following day, Stoddart showed up with ‘his arm to elbow in one big blister and face a study of red.’

Brief Scores:

Lord Sheffield’s XI 143 (Drewy Stoddart 70; Allen Raffel 4 for 41) drew with Ceylon XVIII 70 for 10 (Johnny Briggs 6 for 31).

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)