Saturday, April 2, 2016

Why W.G. Grace is considered one of the greatest batsmen ever. Excerpt from Indra Vikram Singh’s book ‘Don’s Century’

W.G. Grace (right) with K.S. Ranjitsinhji
Inarguably, the first great batsman was W.G. Grace. He is credited with developing batting technique as we know it today. Another wizard who joined Grace during the later stages of his career, K.S. Ranjitsinhji wrote in The Jubilee Book of Cricket (1897): “He revolutionized batting. He turned it from an accomplishment into a science….. Before W.G. batsmen were of two kinds; a batsman played a forward game or he played a back game….. It was bad cricket to hit a straight ball; as for pulling a long hop, it was regarded as immoral. What W.G. did was to unite in his mighty self all the good points of all the good players and to make utility the criterion of style. He founded the modern theory of batting by making forward and back play of equal importance, relying neither on one nor the other, but both….. I hold him to be, not only the finest player born or unborn, but the maker of modern batting. He turned the old one-stringed instrument into a many chorded lyre.”

The emergence of Grace saw significant developments in the game. In 1864, over-arm bowling was approved. Grace was then able to develop batting technique that countered this revolutionary over-the-shoulder style of delivering the ball. Cricket received the impetus it required. County cricket began the same year, as was Wisden first published.

The popular image of Dr. William Gilbert Grace is that of the Grand Old Man, portly, ageing, with a flowing grey beard. But his best came very early in his career. It is reckoned that he was at eighteen years the best batsman in England, and consequently the world. That was in 1866 when, as Vic Marks wrote in The Wisden Illustrated History of Cricket: “W.G. was creating new standards that no one else could reach.” Playing for an England XI against Surrey, Grace scored 224 not out in a crushing victory of an innings and 300 runs. Marks recounted: “On the last afternoon his captain gave him permission to pop off to Crystal Palace to run in a 440-yard hurdle race - he won. Three weeks later he scored 173 not out for the Gentlemen of the South against Players of the South at The Oval, having already taken seven wickets whilst bowling unchanged throughout the Players’ innings.”

Grace’s halcyon days were in the pre-Test cricket era. Peter Hartland reflected in his book The Balance of Power in Test Cricket 1877-1998: “Picture him in 1873 as a 25-year-old, already known for prodigious feats in track and field athletics. At this stage he scored more runs in his short cricketing career - over 10,000 - than anyone else in history to date, at more than double the average. His career average was now 61, the next best being (reputedly the best professional batsman of the 1860s and 1870s) Richard Daft’s 29. Grace was literally twice as good as anyone who had ever played. With a step-change in broad-batted technique, if not in style, he was the first to show that cricket could be a batsman’s game; that bowlers could be forced on the defensive for long periods. The remarkable thing to remember about Grace is not so much his cricketing longevity, remarkable though that was, but the fact that he established a lead over his contemporaries which has never been equalled.”

It must be remembered that Grace had to play on pitches in the 1860s that were terrible for batting. Hartland continued, “….. pitches, still rough and ready with scant regard for evenness or slope, had barely improved. The only tool in regular use was the scythe, complementing the work of rabbits, sheep and, on one reported occasion at Lord’s a brace of partridges.”

Batting was a hazardous exercise as W.G. Grace’s own observation on wickets bears out: “Many of the principal grounds were so rough as to be positively dangerous to play upon and batsmen were commonly damaged by the fast bowling. When the wickets were in this condition the batsmen had to look out for shooters and leave the bumping balls to look after themselves. In the sixties it was no unusual thing to have three shooters in an over.” And there were only four deliveries in an over in those days!

Later the tracks did improve somewhat, and it is no coincidence that in 1871, around the time the heavy roller came to be used, Grace became the first batsman to score 2000 runs in a season - 2739 runs at an average of 78.25 with 10 hundreds, including two double centuries. That was an age when there was a clear demarcation between the amateurs and the professionals, or the Gentlemen and the Players, as they were called. The Gentlemen were the aristocrats of the game and invariably batsmen, while much of the hard labour, bowling, fell to the lot of the Players. Most of the time it was the Players who triumphed but as Marks recorded “Only during the Grace era did the Gentlemen dominate the fixture. W.G. seemed to save his best performance for the occasion, which serves to emphasise the fact that it was the most important game in the cricket calendar.”

That awesome hitter Gilbert ‘Croucher’ Jessop wrote in the July 1923 edition of The Cricketer International: “In the early days the success of the Gentlemen depended almost entirely on the ‘Old Man’. Fifteen centuries in all did he collect against the ‘Professors’ and on two of the occasions he exceeded the double century. His brightest and best patch occurred before I was born, when in consecutive innings from 1871-73 he took toll of the Players bowling to the extent of 217, 77 and 112, 117, 163, 158 and 70. And in those days, mind you, the wickets, to say the least, were not quite up to the standard of modern days. Yet against ‘rib-roasters’, ‘nose-enders’ - yes, even ‘shooters’ - did the Old Man keep his end up and calmly pursue the path which leads to centuries. Rare indeed was the occasion when ‘W.G.’ gave his wicket away, and yet few balls in the course of a long innings passed his bat.”  

(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email
Follow Indra Vikram Singh on Twitter @IVRajpipla.)

Don’s Century
Published by Sporting Links
ISBN 978-81-901668-5-0, Fully Illustrated
French Fold 21.5 cm x 28 cm, 188 Pages
Price Rupees 995

Indra Vikram Singh’s latest books published by Sporting Links:   
A Maharaja’s Turf  ISBN 978-81-901668-3-6   
The Big Book of World Cup Cricket  ISBN 978-81-901668-4-3   
Don’s Century  ISBN 978-81-901668-5-0   
Crowning Glory  ISBN 978-81-901668-6-7

Distributed in India by:  Variety Book Depot, AVG Bhawan, M-3, Middle Circle, Connaught Circus, New Delhi-110 001, India. Tel. + 91 11 23417175, 23412567.

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