Today is the birthday (1848) of William Gilbert “W. G.” Grace, MRCS, LRCP, an English amateur cricketer who was important in the development of the sport and is widely considered one of its greatest-ever players. Back when I played cricket in the 1960s we all knew about W.G. but I think we generally dismissed him as some old duffer from the 19th century who typified the sport 100 years previously – gentlemanly, leisured, and dull. How wrong we were. I’ll set the record straight here. Fair warning: if you don’t know anything about cricket, I’m not going to help you.
Grace (commonly called W.G.) played first-class cricket for a record-equaling 44 seasons, from 1865 to 1908, during which he captained England, Gloucestershire, the Gentlemen, Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), the United South of England Eleven (USEE) and several other teams. He came from a cricketing family: the appearance in 1880 of W. G. with E. M. Grace, one of his elder brothers, and Fred Grace, his younger brother, was the first time three brothers played together in Test cricket.
Grace dominated the sport during his career, both as a batsman and a bowler (although he is best known as a batsman). His technical innovations and enormous influence left a lasting legacy. He is held to have invented modern batsmanship and to have championed the constant need for practice and careful analysis of technique. He generally captained the teams he played for at all levels because of his skill and tactical acumen (which was noted because, unlike other players of his day, he played to win at all costs so that his actions were not always considered “sporting” although always within the rules).
Grace took part in other sports as well: he was a champion 440-yard hurdler as a young man and played football for the Wanderers. In later life, he developed enthusiasm for golf, lawn bowls and curling.
Grace was born in Downend, near Bristol, on 18 July 1848 at his parents’ home, Downend House, and was baptized at the local church on 8 August. He was called Gilbert in the family circle, except by his mother who called him Willie, but otherwise he was universally known by his initials W. G. Downend is near Mangotsfield and, although it is now a suburb of Bristol, it was then “a distinct village surrounded by countryside” and about four miles from Bristol.
Grace began his Cricketing Reminiscences (1899) by answering a question he had frequently been asked: was he “born a cricketer”? His answer was in the negative because he believed that “cricketers are made by coaching and practice”, though he adds that if he was not born a cricketer, he was born “in the atmosphere of cricket.” His father and mother were “full of enthusiasm for the game” and it was “a common theme of conversation at home.” In 1850, when W. G. was two the family moved to a nearby house called “The Chesnuts” which had a sizeable orchard and Henry Grace organized clearance of this to establish a practice pitch. All nine children in the Grace family, including the four daughters, were encouraged to play cricket although the girls, along with the dogs, were required for fielding only. Grace claimed that he first handled a cricket bat at the age of two. Apart from his cricket and his schooling, Grace lived the life of a country boy and roamed freely with the other village boys. One of his regular activities was stone throwing at birds in the fields and he later claimed that this was the source of his eventual skill as an outfielder.
Grace never went to university as his father was intent upon him pursuing a medical career. He said he would have gone to either Oxford or Cambridge if his father had allowed it. Instead, he enrolled at Bristol Medical School in October 1868, when he was 20.
Grace recorded in his Reminiscences that he saw his first great cricket match in 1854 when he was barely six years old. He says he himself played for the West Gloucestershire club as early as 1857, when he was nine years old, and had 11 innings in 1859. The first time he made a substantial score was in July 1860 when he scored 51 for West Gloucestershire against Clifton; he wrote that none of his great innings gave him more pleasure.
The details of Grace’s first-class career are disputed, but CricketArchive recognizes 1865 to 1908 as its span and lists 29 teams, the England national team and 28 domestic teams, represented by Grace in first-class matches. Cricket in the 1860s underwent a revolution with the legalization of overarm bowling in June 1864 and Grace himself said it was “no exaggeration to say that, between 1860 and 1870, English cricket passed through its most critical period” with the game in transition and “it was quite a revolutionary period so far as its rules were concerned.” For the uninitiated, cricket was originally played with the bowler delivering the ball underarm, that is, with the hand lower than the waist. Modern softball notwithstanding, such a delivery means that the ball travels slowly to the batsman. Roundarm bowling (hand between shoulder and waist height), developed in the 1830s and sped up the pace considerably. Then in 1864 delivering the ball from any height, including over the shoulder (overarm) was allowed. This change dramatically altered cricket, giving the bowler a wide variety of options in terms of speed and action. In turn, batters had to adjust, and Grace was a critical player in this regard.
Grace was still 15 when the 1864 season began and had turned 20 when the 1868 season ended and he began his medical career by enrolling at Bristol Medical School on 7 October 1868. In the interim he became widely recognized as the finest cricketer in England. Just after his 18th birthday in July 1866, Grace confirmed his potential with an innings of 224 not out for All-England against Surrey at The Oval.
Grace had another outstanding season in 1870, during which Gloucestershire acquired first-class status, and Derek Birley records that, “scorning the puny modern fashion of moustaches,” he grew the enormous black beard that made him so recognizable. In addition, his “ample girth” had developed; he weighed 15 stone (95 kg) in his early 20s. Grace was a non-smoker but he enjoyed good food and wine; many years later, when discussing the overheads incurred during Lord Sheffield’s profitless tour of Australia in 1891–92, Arthur Shrewsbury commented: “I told you what wine would be drunk by the amateurs; Grace himself would drink enough to swim a ship.”
Grace became the first batsman to score a century before lunch in a first-class match when he made 134 for Gentlemen of the South versus Players of the South at The Oval in 1873. In the same season, he became the first player ever to complete the “double” of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in a season. He went on to do the double eight times in all.
There was speculation that Grace intended to retire before the 1878 season to concentrate on his medical career, but he decided to continue playing cricket and may have been influenced by the arrival of the first Australian team to tour England in May. At Lord’s on 27 May, the Australians defeated a strong MCC team, including Grace, by nine wickets in a single day’s play. According to Chris Harte, news of the match “spread like wildfire and created a sensation in London and throughout England.”
Grace made three overseas tours during his career. The first was to the United States and Canada in August and September 1872. At the time baseball in the U.S. was still in its infancy, and cricket was popular (it did not wane until the early 20th century). Matches were played in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, London (Ontario), New York, Philadelphia and Boston.
Grace visited Australia in 1873–74 as captain of “W. G. Grace’s XI”. On the morning of the team’s departure from Southampton, Grace responded to well-wishers by saying that his team “had a duty to perform to maintain the honour of English cricket, and to uphold the high character of English cricketers.” But both his and the team’s performance fell well short of this goal. Most of the problems lay with Grace himself and his “overbearing personality” which quickly exhausted all personal goodwill towards him. There was also bad feeling within the team itself because Grace, who normally got on well with professional players, enforced the class divide throughout the tour.
Grace’s most significant test match was England v Australia in 1882 at The Oval. Thanks to Australian bowler Spofforth, who took 14 wickets in the match, Australia won by 7 runs and the Legend of The Ashes was born immediately afterwards (The Ashes trophy is awarded to the winner of England v Australia test matches – origin stories are tedious). Grace scored only 4 and 32 but he has been held responsible for “firing up” Spofforth by using a particularly unsporting, but legal, act to get one of the Australian players out.
Having ended his international career in 1899, Grace then began the last phase of his overall first-class career when he joined the new London County Cricket Club, based at Crystal Palace Park, which played first-class matches between 1900 and 1904. Despite his age and bulk, Grace continued to play minor cricket for several years after his retirement from first-class play. His penultimate match, and the last in which he batted, was for Eltham Cricket Club at Grove Park on 25 July 1914, a week after his 66th birthday. He contributed an undefeated 69 to a total of 155–6 declared, having begun his innings when they were 31–4. Grove Park made 99–8 in reply. The last match of any kind that Grace played in, though he neither batted nor bowled, was for Eltham v Northbrook on 8 August, a few days after the outbreak of the First World War.
Grace died at Mottingham on 23 October 1915, aged 67, after suffering a heart attack. He is buried in the family grave at Beckenham Crematorium and Cemetery, Kent.
People who do not understand cricket are astounded to learn that test cricket matches take up to 5 days to play. Until the 1980s the matches started on a Thursday and concluded on a Tuesday with Sunday off as a rest day. A standard day of test cricket consists of 3 sessions of 2 hours each, the breaks between sessions being 40 minutes for lunch, and 20 minutes for tea. I know this sounds frightfully English, but breaks for lunch and tea are not only important for the maintenance of the players’ stamina, but can be vital components in strategy. For the 2013/14 Ashes tour of Australia by England, the English were ridiculed by the Australians when they produced their dietary requirements. Under the headline “England’s cricket team demands silver service” the Sydney Morning Herald printed extracts from an 82-page document containing 194 recipes that should be used in following the “Test catering requirements” demanded of host venues by Chris Rosimus, the performance nutritionist of the England & Wales Cricket Board:
After the first day of every Test match, the following must be available in the England dressing room 20 minutes before the end of play:
Moroccan spiced griddled chicken fillets with lime and coriander mayo
Lamb and pea kofta kebabs with mint yoghurt
Roasted vegetable and halloumi kebabs with red pepper dip
Ginger and garlic king prawn kebabs with garlic mayo
Selection of wholewheat French bread pizzas (parma ham and tomato/feta and red onion)
Selection of sandwiches (grilled aubergine, red pepper, red onion and basil puree; Cajun salmon, yoghurt and cucumber; Thai citrus chicken and rocket; avocado, raw slaw and butterbean; turkey breast, basil and pine nut)
Almond and cinnamon flapjacks
Banana and peanut bars (protein-based Maximuscle)
Chocolate and coconut truffles.
Take your pick.
The sandwiches are both intriguing and appealing. I’m most especially drawn to the yoghurt and cucumber. Cucumber sandwiches have been a mainstay of tea time in England since Victorian times. They were routinely served at my college at Oxford at tea time in Trinity term. They are simplicity itself, and very refreshing on a hot summer’s day. You use white bread, cut off the crusts, butter both slices, and fill each sandwich with thinly sliced cucumber (with salt to taste). Delicious. I haven’t had one in decades. Of course, you can dress them up with yoghurt, mayonnaise, or cream cheese (or whatever), but a plain cucumber sandwich and a cup of tea is hard to beat in the late afternoon.