WG Grace William Woof
WG Grace (left) had figures of 120-81-90-3. William Woof had 114-71-101-5. These were remarkable figures, despite the fact that they sent down four-ball overs Getty Images

The glory days of Gloucestershire were a thing of the past by 1885, but WG Grace was not a man to concede defeat so easily. Though the golden 1880s were past him, he continued to deliver with both bat and ball, often unaided. In a supreme test of endurance against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge, the 37-year-old WG sent down 120 four-ball overs in an innings, taking 81 maidens, in a spell that ended July 24, 1885. Partnering him was William Woof, whose 114 overs included 101 maidens. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at one of the most fascinating displays of attritional cricket.

EM Grace was not an active cricketer anymore. In fact, he did not play a single First-Class match in 1885. WG was past his supreme phase of the 1870s. Fred Grace, alas, had passed away. Billy Midwinter was back in Australia. And JJ Ferris was yet to be signed up.

Despite the general deterioration in form, WG still loomed large in Victorian England. His 1,688 runs (at 43.28 with 4 hundreds) were next to only Walter Read s 1,880, but he finished 5th on the averages chart. His 117 wickets (at 18.79, 8 five-fors, 2 ten-fors) were only behind George Lohmann s 142 and John Beaumont (129), though he did not feature too highly on averages. He also took 31 catches.

Of the five men to take hundred wickets that season was WG s Gloucestershire teammate William Woof: he took exactly 100 wickets at 17.84. A left-arm fast bowler to begin with, Woof was advised to bowl spin by Monkey Hornby early in his career.

Grace himself rated Woof very highly. He wrote in Cricket: Without doubt he is one of the best slow left-hand bowlers at the present time, and on a sticky wicket as good as anyone. He has great command of the ball, and has a good break from leg; and now and then, without a change of action, he can put in a puzzling one which comes with his arm and gets quickly off the pitch. For Gloucestershire he has been invaluable for years, and, with myself, has had to bear the brunt of the bowling.

Grace was not the only one. Woof is undoubtedly the best professional bowler that the county has unearthed, wrote Horace Hutchinson in Cricket (I wish cricket writers of the era would come out with more original names; imagine the plight of the researchers!).

While WG had an uncanny habit of taking wickets, Woof was the untiring workhorse for the county. In Amazing Grace: The Man who was W. G., Richard Tomlinson wrote: While accurate, Woof was not much of a match-winner; yet hour after hour he soldiered on, holding an end as Grace alternated with [Herbert] Page s second-string bowling.

Indeed, between them, Woof and Grace shared 71 per cent of Gloucestershire s bowling burden, and accounted for 73 per cent of the wickets. But more significantly (for our story) they bowled 79 per cent of maiden overs.

Maiden marathon

Nottinghamshire were easily the stronger of the two sides in 1885, including a plethora of Test players. The side they fielded for that day had eight men who played Test cricket before or after the match in question.

They list included of Arthur Shrewsbury (of Give me Arthur fame), probably the greatest batsman in contemporary England after Grace; ace all-rounder Billy Barnes; off-spinner Wilfred Flowers; medium-pacer William Attewell; the batsmen Billy Gunn, John Selby, and William Scotton (the iconic stonewaller); and wicketkeeper Mordecai Sherwin.

Shrewsbury took first strike. Scotton accompanied him to the crease. As expected, Grace shared new ball with Woof. And they bowled, and bowled, refusing to concede a run…

Scotton s ability to stonewall had already attained legendary status. In the 1886 Ashes Test at The Oval, Grace and Scotton added 170 for the first wicket in 225 minutes before Scotton would fall for 34. Punch parodied Lord Tennyson s Alfred:

Block, block, block

At the foot of thy wicket, O Scotton!

And I would that my tongue would utter

My boredom. You won’t put the pot on!

Oh, nice for the bowler, my boy,

That each ball like a barndoor you play!

Oh, nice for yourself, I suppose,

That you stick at the wicket all day!

And the clock’s slow hands go on,

And you still keep up your sticks;

But oh! for the lift of a smiting hand,

And the sound of a swipe for six!

Block, block, block,

At the foot of thy wicket, ah do!

But one hour of Grace or Walter Read

Were worth a week of you!

Doomsday arrived when Scotton exceeded all expectations by reaching 3 in 5 minutes. Then, perhaps out of guilt from the acceleration, he spent an hour without scoring a run. Remorseful, he spent another half an hour on the same score, and all was normal with the world.

Meanwhile, even Shrewsbury found things a bit difficult. At one time Woof bowled 13 consecutive maiden overs (though these were four-ball overs).

But Scotton lasted, and a desperate Grace tried out his entire repertoire of change bowlers, from the pace of Thomas Gregg and John Painter to the slow bowling of his cousin Walter Gilbert to the right-arm mixed-bag of Herbert Page. He even tried Frank Townsend and his innocuous underarm bowling, but to no avail.

To his credit, Scotton did not really lag behind by his standards. Once he got his eye in following that phase when he scored 4 in over an-hour-and-a-half, he scored freely (by his standards, that is). In fact, by the time he fell for 46, caught Grace (presumably at point) bowled Woof, the total was only 159.

Neither Barnes nor Gunn lasted, and at stumps the score read 203 for 3, Shrewsbury having already made it to 120. The innings ended the day after on a competitive 291.

Grace and Woof could not bowl Nottinghamshire got out cheaply (though the last 10 wickets technically fell for 132), but they did tie them down for long enough. Nottinghamshire had to bat 276 overs (184 six-ball overs) to reach their total, though a chunk of that was probably consumed by Scotton.

As expected, Grace (120-81-90-3) and Woof (114-71-101-5) did the bulk of the bowling. To save the users the task of conversion, Grace had sent down 80 six-ball overs and Woof 76. It was not devastating bowling, but a supreme test of endurance for the two men who formed the backbone of the Gloucestershire attack in the mid-1880s.

Grace also set a new record for most maiden overs in an innings. He went past Alfred Shaw, who had figures of 98.3-74-50-5 for South (of England) against North in 1876, Grace s golden year. Shaw had bowled Grace cheaply in the first innings, but the great man masterminded a chase of 190 with 114 not out.

Most maiden overs

Bowler O M R W BPO Team Against Venue Season
WG Grace 120 81 90 3 4 Gloucestershire Nottinghamshire Trent Bridge 1885
John Rawlin 122.1 81 87 2 4 GF Vernon’s XI South Australia Adelaide Oval 1887-88
Alfred Shaw 98.3 74 50 5 4 North South Trent Bridge 1876
Alexander Watson 114 72 85 3 4 Lancashire MCC Lord’s 1884
William Woof 114 71 101 5 4 Gloucestershire Nottinghamshire Trent Bridge 1885
Alexander Watson 113.2 71 117 4 4 Lancashire Yorkshire Bradford 1887

As is evident, WG s record has been equalled by Rawlin, but not broken. Given the nature of cricket (and, of course, 6-ball overs), it is unlikely to be broken.

What followed?

Flowers claimed Grace for 0 and 10, which meant that Gloucestershire were doomed for the match. They were bowled out for 142 and 123. The only man to cross 30 was the last man to bat, Gloucestershire No. 11 and wicketkeeper James Bush in the second innings.

Coming out at 83 for 7, he hit whatever he could to score 32 in a stand of 40. He left Edward Griffiths stranded, who carried his bat with a Scottonesque 24.

The match got over on the third morning, mostly due to Flowers (4 for 49 and 7 for 40).

Brief scores:

Nottinghamshire 291 (Arthur Shrewsbury 137, William Scotton 46; WG Grace 3 for 90, William Woof 5 for 101) beat Gloucestershire 142 (Wilfred Flowers 4 for 49, William Attewell 3 for 36) and 123 (Wilfred Flowers 7 for 40) by an innings and 26 runs.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)