|W.G. Grace's last Test match, Nottingham, June 1899.|
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.”
W.G. also bowled accurate medium-paced to slow leg-cutters and became the first to perform the double of 1000 runs and 100 wickets in a season in 1873.
Grace came up with a stupendous performance in The Gentlemen versus The Players match at Lord’s in 1876. Opening the batting, he scored 169 out of the team’s total of 449. He then bowled 97 four-ball overs, taking three for 81 and six for 41 as The Players collapsed for 219 and 132 in their two innings. That year he became the first batsman to score a triple century in first-class cricket and, as if to celebrate, hit another, two innings later. His sequence of scores were 344, 177 and 318 not out, and in the month of August piled up 1279 runs.
The 1870s were a golden period for Gloucestershire in the County Championships, W.G. and his brothers, Edward Mills and George Frederick, with a team composed entirely of amateurs won the title jointly with Nottinghamshire in 1873, and then on their own in 1874, 1876 and 1877, and never thereafter.
Hartland continued, “When the Test match era began in 1877, the process of allowing the batsman as fair a chance as the bowler, though reasonably advanced, still had a long way to go.” In the early 1880s, the heavy roller was complemented by the grass mower, which were used over tended soil. This made life a bit easier for batsmen. Given the awesome stature that he had already acquired, it seemed almost inevitable that W.G. would score a hundred on his Test debut. He did, at the Oval in 1880, the second such distinction after Charles Bannerman’s feat in the inaugural Test at Melbourne in 1876-77. Grace’s 152 helped England win by five wickets. Australian terror Fred Spofforth was injured during that Test, but Grace was at his best against fast bowling.
His duels with Spofforth were exhilarating, one such occasion being in what came to be known as ‘Spofforth’s match’ at the Oval in August 1882 when Australia lost at home for the first time. It was this Test that led to the creation of the Ashes. On a treacherous wicket rendered well nigh unplayable due to rain, England were set 85 to win. At 51 for two, with Grace still at the wicket, victory seemed in sight. But he holed out to mid-off for 32, and England collapsed to 77 all out. Spofforth took seven wickets in each innings, and the rest is history.
In 1886 Grace performed the astounding feat of scoring a hundred and capturing all ten wickets in an innings in the same match. He hit up 104 in MCC’s only innings, and bagged two for 60 and ten for 49, against Oxford University.
As late as 1895, at nearly 47 years, Grace was a rejuvenated man. He resurrected his career by becoming the first to score over 1000 runs in May, a cherished achievement at the beginning of the English season when it is generally cold and damp, and the ball darts around; and to notch up 100 first-class hundreds, achieving the coveted landmark in the game against Somerset at Bristol. As if to celebrate, he went on to hit up 288 out of a total of 474. Grace was the lone man to achieve these two distinctions in the 19th century. He topped the run tally for the season with 2346 runs. The next year he made his third triple century, two decades after he had compiled his first two.
Amazingly, Grace was captain of Gloucestershire from 1871 to 1898. He led England in 13 Tests, playing 22 in all and scoring 1098 runs at an average of 32.29 with two centuries both at the Oval against Australia, 170 being the highest in 1886. Though he played his last first-class match in 1908, when he was sixty, the same year that Bradman was born, W.G.’s career was effectively over by the close of the nineteenth century. His final appearance at Lord’s for The Gentlemen was in 1899. He was still captain but did not bowl, and batted only at no. 7, instead of his customary position at the top of the order. He scored 78 before being run out, his age and bulk unable to meet the demands of sprinting up and down the pitch with youthful partners.
As Marks noted: “The Gentlemen won by an innings, which was hardly surprising since the side contained many of the men who were to become legendary figures of the Edwardian era (Archie) MacLaren, (C.B.) Fry, (K.S.) Ranjitsinhji, and F.S. Jackson. On the Players side was a 21-year-old Yorkshireman Wilfred Rhodes, who was to have the rare privilege - and pain - of bowling to both W.G. and his Australian counterpart of the next generation, Donald Bradman.” Grace aggregated 6008 runs for the Gentlemen against the Players - more than twice the next man - and also took 276 wickets.
In addition to his three first-class triple centuries, Grace knocked up 10 double centuries in his tally of 126 three-figure knocks. He made up 1000 runs in a season 28 times, the only other player to achieve it so many times being Frank Woolley. Grace scored a hundred in each innings of a match thrice. His career aggregate of 54,896 runs at an average of 39.55 was then a record. It is remarkable that in such a long career played on uncovered wickets of dubious quality, Grace did not bag a single pair. Lord Harris paid his tribute later: “Grace was just as watchful when his score was 200 as when he was on 0 - and just as reluctant to leave the wicket on dismissal.” He also took 2876 first-class wickets at an average of 17.92 and, as was only to be expected from a man of his temperament, a brilliant fielder off his own bowling. Amazingly, even a century later, W.G. Grace is still fifth in the all-time rungetters list, and sixth among the wicket-takers, in the first-class arena.
Vic Marks, in The Wisden Illustrated History of Cricket, summed up the career of cricket’s first superstar: “W.G. Grace was to dwarf all others in the period 1865 to 1900. He became as celebrated as Queen Victoria herself. Unwittingly Grace carried the game of cricket into the modern era almost single-handed.” There is indeed little doubt that he transformed the game and the public’s awareness of it. Perhaps appropriately, the last word on Grace should come from his memorial biography published under the auspices of the MCC. Sir Home Gordon eulogised, “That he will never have an equal in the future is to us equally an axiom because never again will the conditions under which it is played be so difficult as they were when he built up his reputation by demonstrating his superiority alike over them and over his contemporaries, a position he holds for decades.”
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