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WG Grace in his youth © Getty Images

July 12, 1876. It was the year of WG Grace, the year when he established his already firm foothold on the pedestal at the top of British cricket hierarchy. Even by Grace’s lofty standards in the decade, 1876 was a watershed year — one where he scored 839 runs in 8 days, and more. He also scored his only known quadruple-century that season, albeit not in a First-Class match. However, as was the case with WG, this incident, too, had a story. Abhishek Mukherjee narrates the tale of a happy scorer.

1876 was an impossible year even by WG Grace’s standards. He was the leading cricketer in the world even before the season began, and went on to consolidate his position with performances that boggle the mind almost a century-and-a-half later. He did not merely score runs or take wickets: he single-handedly steamrolled his oppositions into submission, even in odds matches, where Grace played for a team of 11 against a team of 22 (all of whom batted and fielded).

In all cricket in 1876 Grace scored 3,669 runs from 38 matches at 59, claimed 211 wickets at 17, and held 77 catches. In 26 First-Class matches alone he amassed 2,622 runs at 62 and snaffled 130 wickets at 19, not to speak of 46 catches.

These numbers boggle the mind, for the second name on the runs chart was that of Ephraim Lockwood, whose 1,261 came at 32. In terms of wickets Grace finished next to only Alfred Shaw’s 191 wickets. And while Grace scored 7 hundreds, nobody else managed more than 3.

Topping charts, of course, was nothing new for Grace. Between 1868 and 1877 he topped the runs charts every time barring 1875 (the year when Grace was assigned to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, which cut down his cricket commitments).

In 1871 and 1873 he scored more than twice the next man on the list. In the same period he topped the hundreds chart every year as well (he shared the honours in 1875 and 1877). In 1871 he scored 10 of them, while nobody managed even 2. And barring 1868, he got most fifties as well (though he had to share in 1869 and 1874).

1871 was perhaps the better year in terms of domination, but the big runs came in 1876, especially during a phase in August, when his run-making reached heights never scaled before, especially at First-Class level. When MCC followed-on against Kent at Canterbury, Grace made amends for his first-innings 17 and slammed a chance less 344 in 380 minutes — the first First-Class triple-hundred, bettering William Ward’s 278 by some distance. Earlier, he had sent down 77 four-ball overs in the Kent innings, taking 4 for 116.

The feat should have been enough to keep a man quiet for some time. Not Grace. The Canterbury match got over on a Saturday. Grace traveled to Clifton (Google Maps estimates the distance at about 188 miles, or about 300 kilometres) to play Nottinghamshire for Gloucestershire. The match started on Monday. Grace went in first and scored 177, and took 1 for 69 and 8 for 69 (from 68 four-ball overs).

Gloucestershire won on Wednesday. On Thursday they hosted Yorkshire at Cheltenham (42 miles, 68 kilometres away from Clifton). Once again Grace went in first, and by Day Two amassed 318 in 430 minutes, carrying his bat through the innings.

This, after Yorkshire great Tom Emmett was certain (as Grace wrote himself, in Cricket) that “the big ’un has exhausted himself, and cannot do the century trick thrice in succession. If he does, I mean to shoot him, in the interests of the game; and I know there will be general rejoicing, amongst the professionals at least.”

Emmett tried, but managed 2 for 94 from 51 overs, and towards the end of Day One the Yorkshiremen refused (literally) to bowl at Grace. Emmett probably had to exercise supreme self-restraint to prevent himself from shooting Grace. He would simply utter in despair: “It was Grace before lunch, Grace after lunch, Grace all day.”

Rain prevented Gloucestershire from winning the match, but Grace, with 2 for 48 from 36 overs, helped reduce Yorkshire to 127 for 7.

In other words, Grace scored 839 runs in 8 days at 419.50. He also claimed 15 wickets and 6 catches from these matches, and travelled about 370 kilometres. All sources cite that it was one of the hottest summers, but that did not seem to affect the great man at all.

But the quadruple-hundred happened a month before that.

The build-up

Grace started 1876 on a, well, sort of high. He traveled around England with his own United South team, defeating sides all over the country almost at will. Since several matches were played against 22-member sides, he managed quite a few surreal figures, the most spectacular being 15 in an innings to bowl out Swansea for 40.

Then came the two big matches, for South against North, where he scored 145 runs and took 11 wickets. He turned out thrice for Gentlemen against Players in the space of ten days: his 309 runs came at 62 and the 27 wickets at 17; there were also 6 catches. The Gentlemen won two matches and drew the other.

In short, he was in ominous form. But even that did not prepare the poor men of Grimsby who took field that morning after Grace won the toss and went in with Tom Humphrey on a wicket he thought was “perfect”, with the grass “closely cut for about forty yards square, but the rest of it a little bit long”.

Anthony Meredith, who dedicated an entire chapter to the innings in WG Grace: In the Steps of a Legend, wrote that “the grass had only been cut on the pitch and its immediate surroundings, so the ball was going to stop dead everywhere else.”

Reverend Charles Warren, local vicar and Grimsby captain, was not happy with the groundsman (and his opening bowler), former Hampshire fast bowler Jack May. How would anyone get runs on this outfield? The ball would stop!

Of course, Rev. Warren had other reasons to be angry, as was Jabez North. Grimsby had raised £100 to get Grace and his men here. North, Secretary of Grimsby and landlord of Greyhound Inn, had paid a substantial part of this; he was also a part of the match.

The locals at Grimsby wanted to see the Graces along with Henry Jupp, Richard Humphrey, and other big stars. Grace got Jupp and Humphrey all right, but Henry’s cousin William and Richard’s brother Tom were nowhere close to challenging their illustrious relatives.

Grace was, if anything, at least as angry, for three of his teammates had missed the train and had not turned up. There was an altercation before the match (if that is a word that can be used for a conversation between WG in his pomp and a good-natured vicar), and as always, a relentless WG walked out to toss.

“I thought it inadvisable”

 The pair added a mere 6 when it happened. The ball thumped on those humongous pads that once used to belong to the legendary Alfred Mynn. There was a huge appeal, and as Simon Rae wrote in WG Grace: A Life, he was “plumb in front”.

The fielders at Worsley Ground knew Grace was out, perhaps even the titan himself. Even umpire William Mortlock knew he was out, but he did not raise his finger.

As per Robert Lincoln (who played in the match) in Reminiscences of Sport in Grimsby, Mortlock was asked that evening why he did not give Grace out. The response was singular: “I did it all for the best. They [United South of England XI] really had such a bad team that I thought it inadvisable to give him out early in the game.”

To be fair, Mortlock was not alone. Grace himself recollected in Cricket: “I can just remember that the Twenty-two thought our team rather a weak one.”

Exactly why Mortlock thought Grace led a weak side eludes logic: other than WG, the side still had his brother Fred Grace and cousin Walter Gilbert, both of whom were emerging as outstanding all-rounders. True, it was not a full-strength side, but it was far from being “a weak one”, especially against a group of inexperienced cricketers.

The ‘bad team’ reached 217 for 2 by stumps with WG on 130, Fred in tow. One of the two wickets to have fallen was that of Henry Holmes, leg-before to William Parke; Meredith wrote that Holmes was “umpired out” by the other umpire, J Anthony.

“I should like to break a record”

Grace plundered bowling the next morning, Fred playing perfect foil. Then, before lunch, a boy ran on to the ground with a telegram from the Grace household. An anxious Fred was the first to know that Agnes, or Mrs WG Grace, had given birth to their second child.

The first son, also christened William Gilbert Grace, was born almost two years back. The second would be named Henry Edgar Grace, Henry being the name shared WG’s father and eldest brother. Henry Edgar would go on to become Vice-Admiral in the British Navy.

Grace, of course, stopped play immediately. Whether he should have is questionable, but on a cricket field in 1876 England his word was gospel. He treated players of both teams and officials to champagne, raised a toast to Agnes, and uttered an ominous line: “I should like to break a record and celebrate it.”

Fred eventually holed out to North for 60 in a 259-run stand, but WG was relentless. With cousin Gilbert joining force, Grace scored on mercilessly, placing the ball with surgical precision in a field of 22 men to find boundaries at regular intervals.

He had scored 268 for South against North at The Oval five years back. That stood as his career-best till this day, when he raced to his first triple-hundred, albeit in a Second-Class match.

The two cousins put up 155 by the time stumps were called, Gilbert having scored 104 of them. However, Grace had batted at such breakneck pace till Gilbert’s arrival that his 314 was way past half his side’s 537 for 3, their score when stumps were called.

“Well, you deserve it”

While Grace was amassing runs, the three-day match was already petering out to a draw (United South had to take 44 wickets, if you remember). The crowd was not interested. Even Grace’s superlative batsmanship was not enough to tempt them.

“The third day, financially, was an awful one,” recalled Lincoln. “The public, undoubtedly, were tired of seeing him at the wickets and stayed away.” One could not blame them, for in the process of approaching a monstrous individual score, Grace had as good as killed the match.

“The crowds voted with their feet and stayed at home,” wrote Rae, “they had seen enough.” The fielders were tired, of course, but Grace walked out, fresh as a giant daisy, in no mood to relent.

Gilbert fell for 116, and the lower middle-order did not respond. However, William Palmer helped Grace add 39 for the 8th wicket, and though Pooley was run out for 4, Surrey fast bowler William Carter hung around.

Grace continued. Ward had scored 278 back in 1820, which stood as the highest First-Class score till Grace would overhaul it a month later (see above). However, it was also the highest score in any form of cricket till Edmund Tylecote amassed 404 in a Second-Class match, for Classicals against Moderns, in 1948. It was the first recorded quadruple-hundred, and was suddenly under threat.

Carter hung on gamely as Grace kept scoring runs. He was dropped twice, at short-slip and long-leg, but by that time he was already past 350. “Up to 350 I did not give a chance,” wrote Grace in Reminiscences. He might well have added “barring the one to an umpire” inside parentheses.

Unfortunately, there was no way the sparse audience could find out how much he had scored; for that matter, W Skelton and W Wainwright, the scorers, expectedly had a tough time in keeping up as well.

By the time Mortlock eventually raised his finger to give Carter leg-before, his ‘bad team’ had piled up 680. Grace, the man he had let off, returned unvanquished.

The cricketers returned to pavilion, all but one of them fatigued. They were anxious to know the individual scores, but none more than the great man himself. He was informed he had fallen one short of the 400-run mark.

But this was Grace, no mere mortal. The instructions were as clear as that famous high-pitched voice: “Oh, make it 400.”

Most cricketers would have objected to this, but not Sam Haddelsey, who was playing for Grimsby: “Well, you deserve it.”

And thus, 399 became 400; and 680 became 681. The innings included 157 singles, 58 twos, 6 threes, 21 fours, 4 sixes (had to be hit out of the ground), and, er, one ‘bonus run’.

The footnote on the CricketArchive scorecard tells the story: “Bowling in the United South of England Eleven first innings adds 1 run under. WG Grace actually scored 399* but at the end of play when his score was discovered it was agreed to add a run on.”

While cricket historians generally stay away from using superlatives for the innings (which, despite its gargantuan volume against 22 fielders, was an act in selfishness), Charles Alcock was mellifluous in praise: “Can one do aught and wonder at the masterly skill in placing the ball — the skill of the batsman — but admire the splendid physique that could alone accomplish such a feat? No paint can add to the beauty of the lily, nor will gilding improve refined gold. To extol W. G. Grace’s merits as a cricketer would be superfluous.”

Tylecote’s record remained intact, though Wisden did not forget to mention that the innings was “the highest score ever obtained against odds.”

When Grace himself recollected the innings in Reminiscences he wrote: “It was estimated that I was thirteen and a half hours at the wicket. During that time I had faced fifteen different bowlers. What made the innings remarkable was the presence of twenty-two fieldsmen in the field.”

What followed?

The innings got over at 4.30, leaving no chance of a result. Even then, Grace had Warren stumped, and caught Haddelsey and May. The hosts reached 88 for 11 when stumps were called.

He collected his share from the gate money, paid his teammates, and left — not to see his newborn son — but to Huddersfield. The next day he would open batting for United South against United North. As he strode out, he told his partner Gilbert “I am going out to bat for the fourth day in succession and have not yet lost my wicket.”

Brief scores:

United South of England XI 681 (WG Grace 400*, Fred Grace 60, Walter Gilbert 116; John Sensecall 3 for 126) drew with Grimsby XXII 88 for 11 (Frank Silcock 6 wickets, Fred Grace 4 wickets).

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