WG Grace scored 28 and one in his last Test for England © Getty Images
WG Grace scored 28 and 1 in his last Test for England © Getty Images

June 1, 1899. The start of the last ever Test played by WG Grace. Curiously, it was the debut of two supreme cricketers, Victor Trumper and Wilfred Rhodes. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the Test that convinced the father of modern cricket that his days for England were over.

He’ll grow old and stiff some day

Some 30 years ago, WG Grace had swept the board at a domestic sporting event. The prize-giver had looked at the other participants and consoled them with the words, “Never mind. Never mind. He’ll grow old and stiff some day.”

That day had been long postponed. But, when the Australians arrived in 1899, it seemed that advancing age and growing bulk had at last drawn an end to his career as far as England was concerned. Gloucestershire was a different matter, Grace would continue to reign there for several more years. But, when he led his men to take the field against Australia at Trent Bridge, it was quite apparent that his days of national duty were fast coming to an end.

It was the eternal battle between mind and body. WG as always, yearned to play the Australians, strengthening his resolve with a tug on his old beard. However, this time he was having second thoughts. He had grown very, very heavy and had begun to feel that he was no longer up to it. He loved to get out there under the sun to take on the old foe, but often could not drag himself out. In the games leading up to the Nottingham Test that summer, he had not crossed 50 even once. Unfortunately, his age had done so almost two years earlier.

As so often happens with one who has played for so many years, he dreaded saying the decisive words. So, at the age of 51 years and 317 days, he was once again the first name on the team list, captain of England. Only one man has played Test cricket at a more venerable age — Wilfred Rhodes at 52. Curiously, that Nottingham Test of 1899 turned out to be the debut for the Yorkshire all-rounder.

Under Parr’s tree

WG Grace is seen here sitting in the centre.
WG Grace is seen here sitting in the centre.

Unlike the earlier years, England now had a central Board of control with a single selection committee. Grace was one of them, of course, along with Lord Hawke and the Warwickshire captain Herbert Bainbridge. They were joined in the panel by Yorkshire’s Stanley Jackson and Sussex’s CB Fry. The last choice was rather strange, since Fry’s county record till then was quite ordinary and had not played a home Test yet. His two Tests in South Africa in 1896 were as yet of dubious official status. However, he had impressed Grace with a fluent 80 against the Australians for London County. Besides, the Indian prince KS Ranjitsinhji had strongly recommended him. And the Oxford classics scholar, champion sprinter and the previous holder of the long-jump world record was not really daunted by the illustrious company.

It was the first ever Test played at Trent Bridge. And sadly the Nottinghamshire great Arthur Shrewsbury was left out of the team. If, as in the earlier years, the Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club had selected the team for the Test played on their home ground, Shrewsbury would have surely made the team. However, with Grace too slow to field anywhere but at point, the committee felt they could carry only one veteran. Fry later revealed that Shrewsbury’s apparent cowardice against Ernie Jones in 1896 was also being punished.

Hence, as the Test unfolded, there was the depressing sight of the Nottinghamshire champion watching the game from under George Parr’s tree, sitting beside CB Fry’s mother. When Fry joined them, Shrewsbury did not hide his disappointment. “I think you might have played me on my own ground,” he said.

Remember, I’m not a sprinter like you

England went in with a shortage of quick bowlers. Tom Richardson, Bill Lockwood, Arthur Mold and Charles Kortright were all either out of form or injured. However, the batting was a roll call of great names. WG, Fry, Jackson, Billy Gunn, Ranji — that year reinstalled as heir to the Nawanagar throne and in the midst of a 3000 run season, Tom Hayward and Johnny Tyldesley were as good a line up as any. Although Archie MacLaren missed the game due to a teaching commitment, there was plenty of depth with the willow. The bowling was shouldered by the master medium pacer Jack Hearne, and the Yorkshire duo of George Hirst and debutant Rhodes.

Among the Australians, there was a debutant as well. Walking in to bat at No. 6 was a tall, lean, handsome youth answering to the name Victor Trumper. Seldom has the start and swansong of two such sublime greats coincided so poetically in the history of cricket.

It was not quite a happy outing for Grace. One knew he was coming to the end of his career for England, but nothing had been announced. Neither had he himself made up his mind. As Australia batted first and made 252, he was roundly jeered by the Nottingham crowd smarting from the omission of Shrewsbury. His tardy movements on the field came in for a lot of criticism as well.

WG Grace at the end of the first day’s play.
WG Grace at the end of the first day’s play.

Trumper, in his first ever innings, was bowled by Hearne for a duck. The other young gun of Australian batting, Clem Hill, scored 52. Grace bowled 20 overs without taking a wicket.

On the second morning WG walked out to open the innings with young Fry. As they walked down the pavilion steps, Grace looked quite cheerful. Brushing aside his beard as though he meant business, he turned to Fry and said, “Look here, Charlie Fry, remember I’m not a sprinter like you.”

WG Grace (left) walking out to bat.
WG Grace (left) walking out to bat.

Grace looked quite cheerful. Brushing aside his beard as though he meant business, he turned to Fry and said, “Look here, Charlie Fry, remember I’m not a sprinter like you.”

In 1896, Ernie Jones had sent a ball through the beard of WG. This time, it was perhaps the memory of speed that saved an accident as the great man ducked in time to his first ball. Umpire Valentine Titchmarsh called it a no-ball — for overstepping, not for throwing as Jones was wont to be during his days. However, many felt that Grace resembled a dinosaur in his movements.

Many singles were not run — Grace had explained that he was not a sprinter. And the openers took no twos. When Monty Noble had the England captain snicking one behind the wicket, it was the end of a painstaking struggle. The partnership had been worth 75, but Grace’s share had been a sketchy 28.

Fry went on to score 50, and Ranji chipped in with 42, but Ernie Jones with five wickets halted England at 193. When Australia batted again, Grace was booed for dropping Hill early in the innings. He did hold a sharp one handed catch to dismiss the batsman off Jackson, but by then the left-hander had scored 80. Joe Darling declared at 230 for 8 to allow Australia a good part of the third and last day to try and bowl England out. Trumper scored just 11 in his second outing, losing his stumps to Jackson.

It’s all over, Jacker, I shan’t play again

Ranji to the rescue — or was it Barlow?

For a while it looked as if the tourists would snatch a win. Grace’s last innings ended in disappointment, Harry Howell bowling him for one. Fry, Jackson and Gunn followed quickly to make it 19 for four. However, the visitors had Ranji to contend with. They dropped him on 29, and then the prince took several unnecessary quick singles to drive Wisden’s Sydney Pardon to the verge of apoplexy. “What should have possessed him to attempt short runs when there was nothing to gain and everything to lose, one cannot pretend to explain.”

At 30, Frank Laver threw down the stumps, and it looked as if Ranji was short of his ground. He was walking off when umpire Dick Barlow, the former England player, called him back. An incensed Laver cried out, “Barlow, you are a cheat.” The allegation may be debated, but eventually Ranji remained not out on 93 and the Test was saved.

Darling had other issues with Barlow’s officiating as well. According to him, the umpire had given Hill run out in the first innings in a manner more suited to a player. “Possibly Hill could have been out, but what we took exception to was Barlow’s attitude in giving Hill out. The wicket was hit in the throw and Barlow, before anyone had time to appeal, jumped up in the air just as an excited player does in a close match with his arms stretched out and yelled for all he was worth, ‘OUT’”.

Lord Harris withdrew Barlow from the next Tests saying he had ‘misplaced loyalties to his old team.’

It’s all over, Jacker

On the train back to London, Grace turned to Jackson, the man who would succeed him as captain, and said, “It’s all over, Jacker, I shan’t play again.” The ground, he said, was getting too far away from him.

He met Lord Hawke and Bainbridge at the Sports Club and informed them that he was standing down. They tried to make him change his mind, and for a while he seemed to vacillate. Fry arrived at this juncture and WG turned to him. “Here’s Charles. Now Charles, before you sit down, we want you to answer this question, yes or no. Do you think that Archie MacLaren ought to play in the next Test match?”

According to Fry, he had no idea what the vote was actually for. “I thought it was merely the question of Archie coming in for one of the batsmen, perhaps myself.” MacLaren had not played a First-Class match that season due to his teaching commitments, but Fry said, “Yes.” That settled the issue. Grace never played for England again. Jackson was appointed captain.

A day later he scored 50 against Jones and the other Australian bowlers for MCC at Lord’s.

Brief scores:

Australia 252 (Joe Darling 47, Monty Noble 41, Syd Gregory 48, Clem Hill 52; Wilfred Rhodes 4 for 58, Jack Hearne 4 for 71) and 230 for 8 decl. (Monty Noble 45, Clem Hill 80) drew with England 193 (CB Fry 50, KS Ranjitsinhji 42; Ernie Jones 5 for 88) and 155 for 7 (KS Ranjitsinhji 93*).

(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)