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WG Grace, who gave birth to modern cricket, achieved pinnacle never conquered

By Harsh Thakor* 

WG Grace was the pioneer in giving the game of cricket its form and defined a new epoch or era in sport. None contributed as much in the evolution of the game. Rarely has any sportsman and no cricketer ever as much ruled or governed the course of the game or exuded as towering a presence.
Grace was born in 1848, on July 18th, into a cricketing family, being born the fourth son of Martha, wife of the cricket adoring Henry Mills Grace, a practicing doctor. WG was fortunate to have his upbringing in middle class England when cricket fever was simmering at it’s boiling point. About 175 years after his brith, and 150 years since Grace became the first ever to score 2,000 run and take 100 wickets in a single season, it is worth remembering his contribution.
It is very hard for any adjective which would do justice to the sheer impact of Grace, who would pull crowds like magnet. No sportsman possibly touched longevity or popularity in such realms of as much manifested an invincible emperor. Arguably WG was the greatest player to have ever stepped on a cricket pitch. None as much personified the game. No cricketer ever as much tormented the opposition or commanded such a presence e on a cricket field. Grace transcended cricketing heights unscaled. Arguably, till then none scaled sporting achievements at such a colossal height.
Grace demonstrated his athletic prowess as a young man as a champion runner and hurdler. He would have been a character fit for a Charles Dickens’ novel, being an epitome of glory of Victorian society. No cricketer ever as much tormented the opposition or commanded such a presence on a cricket field. He demonstrated his athletic prowess as a young man as a champion runner and hurdler.
Grace sowed the seeds for the germinating of the art of batting footwork, pioneering the frontward and backward movements. He literally founded the theory of modern batting, as attributed by CB Fry. His game was built on a well organised ffootwor, with the bat very close to the pad, ability to see the ball and judge length early, and immaculate judgement in which stroke to execute.
In the view of Henry Roselyn, “The key to Grace’s greatness was his ability to conquer all kinds of wickets.” Put him on a sun baked sand heap or on a stretch of ground well prepared, he was equally difficult to dislodge. Grace was a spectacular fielder in the covers, once throwing a cricket ball at a stunning distance of 122 yards. In 1868, he flung a cricket ball 116.117 and 118 yards at the Oval. Above all, he manifested the spirit of winning.
Historian CLR James was critical of Grace’s virtual relegation or being obliterated from histories of nineteenth Century England. In his view, Grace created a platform for organised sport and games to divert people from the lethargy or dullness of offices and factory life. James wrote that Grace converted cricket into the most complete expression of life in pre-industrial England. Personally, I am critical of WG breaking the game’s rules and thus violating spirit of the game. Grace manifested that morally it was not a Gentleman’s game then.
I recommend readers to refer to Richard Tomlinson’s ‘Amazing Grace: The Man who was WG’ which is a masterpiece in its own right or a most illustrative and lucid biography. Also useful are Henry Blofeld in ‘Cricket’s Great Entertainers', and ‘The Centurions’ by Patsy Hendren which sums up all sides of his cricket and personality. On 23rd October, 1915 he left for his heavenly abode, just after the advent of World War 1.

Cricketing Career 

Grace gained his introduction into cricket in a practice area on the site of a flattened orchard grave where his family practiced. On the advent the Crimean war in 1854, the six year old Gilbert observed his father and maternal uncle playing together. He first set foot on the field in formal cricket at the tender age of fifteen, representing Bristol against All England, scoring 32 and 22. One season later he scored his first century, for South Wales CC against the Gentlemen of Sussex.
At the age of eighteen, in July 1866, he scored an unbeaten 22 for England against Surrey at the Oval, and 173 not out for Gentleman of the South.
In 1871 he became the first person to aggregate over 2000 runs in an English season, at a phenomenal average of 78.In 1873 Grace became the first ever to score 2000 runs and capture 100 wickets in a single season. He repeated this feat for 7 successive years.
In 1876 Grace scored mammoth unbeaten 400 in a minor match against United South of England, with even the birth of his son not making him retire. That season he aggregated 2622 runs at an average of 62. At Canterbury Grace explored zones in cricketing virtuosity unscaled, when amassing 344, after his team had a first innings deficit of 329. Two days later, representing Gloucestershire against Nottinghamshire at Clifton, he scored 177, and then captured eight for sixty nine, to facilitate a 10 wicket victory. A day later, Grace scored 318 not out, out of 528. In August he amassed more runs than any cricketer ever did in a complete season.
In a period from 9th to 18th May Grace averaged 419.5 amassing 839 runs, which scaled heights no cricketer ever had even come close, reminiscent of a merciless combing operation. It included a 257 and 73 not out at Gravesend, 298 at Bristol and 169 at Lords. In 1895,at the age of 46, he became the first batsmen to score 1,000 runs in May and the first ever to reach the landmark of 100 centuries. In Pelham Warner’s view Grace improved with age, referring to his staggering haul of 5-29 against the Austaralians, in 1902. In Gentlemen v players match he scored 15 centuries and took 2,782 wickets, in 41 years.

Statistical Heights and Degree of Supremacy

WG’s sheer supremacy over his contemporaries is illustrated by the fact that when he averaged 78.25 in 1871, no one else averaged more than 37.66.From 1868 to 1880 he topped the batting averages 10 times, including seven consecutive to 1874. Grace scored 54 first class centuries from 1868t to 1876, with no one else even scoring 10. He averaged more than 49 in first class cricket when no one exceeded 26, or aggregated even one third of Grace’s total runs.
Grace in his overall career amassed 54,896 runs and scored 126 centuries in 872 matches, and captured 2876 scalps. He was the first ever to score 1000 runs and take 100 wickets in a season and performed the double on 8 occasions.
In test cricket Grace amassed 1098 runs at an average of 32.29 in 22 tests, scoring 2 centuries and five 50s. It is hardly outstanding compared to later greats, but he only entered the international arena at the age of 32. His unbeaten 152 at the Oval was England’s first ever century scored by player at home, and won his country the game by 5 wickets. As a skipper, he led England in 13 tests, which included 8 victories. At the age of 50 years and 320 days, he remains the oldest player to captain a side in a test match.

Personal Character

As a person Grace was larger than life and remained a schoolboy at heart, till the very end. He adored boisterous, practical jokes. He abhorred reading. WG was a caricature of opposites. He could be as petulant and infuriating, as entertaining. He was as charming and benign on one day and on the other abrasive and whimsical. WG was champion of virtue, when it suited him but on another day would cheat to turn things in his favour. Often, he could be staggeringly rude. Although portraying a gentleman, no one was more mercenarily inclined.
Grace was possibly the equivalent today of a cricketer minting money like Sachin Tendulkar which his earnings manifested, as he was for a prolonged period a professional. No doubt he did not live in a time when he could multiply his wealth, as the superstars of today. Had Grace played in the modern era, he would probably have amassed more fortunes than any cricketer. In 1895, he raised a total of 9073 pounds, for 3 testimonials opened for him, and five years later, after starting London county, was paid 600 pounds, a year. On both the Australian tours twice he always founded ways of earning a bob or two more, in spite of earning 1,500 pounds and 3,000 pounds, respectively. On expiring, he left behind 7,278 pounds.
It must be said that Grace had a humanist or compassionate side to him, looking after the poor in his practice and offering medical services in innumerable benefit matches.
Grace often resorted to cheating or bending the rules in his favour. On countless occasions after being bowled he would replace the SF Barnes shared his experiences of how Grace admitted knocking a delivery off him and so did EJ Smith and Nevill Knox, who was denied a wicket after the fielding side celebrated. Grace retorted when not walking, “I didn’t come here for nothing, nor did the spectators. Play On!”
Once in a most ungamely manner he ran out Sammy Woods, without giving a warning, who was absent mindedly gardening outside his crease when the ball was still not declared dead. This acted against the spirit of the game. I have no doubt that he adjusted or manipulated rules to benefit himself. Grace did not have the feeling to call back the dismissed player. Similarly, he got opposing batsman Richard Barlow dismissed for technically playing the ball twice. Perhaps his gamesmanship was not destructive, but undoubtedly he behaved in an autocratic manner. Often Grace would claim catches he never caught or bounced and taunt the umpires, leading to major clashes with them.

Assessment and Place Amongst the Greatest

If one weighs the conditions Grace played in, with grass uncut on pitches, Grace transcended cricketing genius or skill in zones not traversed. 121 of his total hundreds were scored on underprepared tracks. I cannot conceive the greatest cricketers of modern times or of even the last century, emulating Grace. Grace faced the likes of bowlers like Jackson, Arrant, Spofforth, Peate, Shaw and later Richardson, Lockwood, Lohmann, Peel and Giffen.
With a gun on my head I would place WG Grace by a whisker on top of the tree amongst the pantheon of greatest cricketers. Bradman was much more impressive statistically or even Gary Sobers, but to me for sheer extent of impact and longevity, he overshadowed both, and championed more adverse conditions.
I agree with late John Woodcock for ranking Grace at No 1 overall. However it is very debatable or subjective. Geoff Armstrong and Cristopher Martin Jenkins placed Grace at 2nd place, behind Bradman while David Gower ranked him at 8th place, behind even Tendulkar, Viv Richards and Shane Warne.
In 1924 Lord Hawke asserted that a batsmen of the stature of Grace would never be reborn. Quoting Hwake, “Without hesitation I would say that Grace is the greatest that ever lived, but also the greatest tat ever can be, because no batsmen in future will have to play on such bad wickets where Grace displayed overwhelming superiority over his contemporaries.”
In my personal view no time machine could accurately scale the comparative achievements of Grace as a cricketer with Bradman, or later Sobers and Tendulkar. Still I would have backed WG to plunder runs if he had played in Bradman’s era, like an emperor annexing territory after territory, in benign batting conditions, with his sheer hunger for runs and creativity. Bradman had played in the absolute pre-war peak, on the treacherous pitches of the 1870s and 1880s, it is hard to conceive him surpassing or equalling Grace’s achievements. Grace, in the 1930s or 40s, had he been playing, may well have scaled peaks of scores of over 300 and 400. Morally, respecting era, Grace’s landmarks of fifty first class centuries, under the age of 27, was as stupendous as Bradman’s efforts.
In 1924 Lord Hawke asserted that a batsmen of the stature of Grace would never be reborn .Quoting Hawke, “Without hesitation I would say that Grace is the greatest that ever lived, but also the greatest tat ever can be, because no batsmen in future will have to play on such bad wickets where Grace displayed overwhelming superiority over his contemporaries.”
Quoting Patsy Hendren, “WG Grace was simply the greatest player the game has ever known, or will ever know. He created modern cricket by his own example and force of personality. Although ten batsmen have surpassed his total of 126 centuries, none of them have been as pre eminent in their times as WG.-be it Hobbs, Bradman, Hammond or Viv Richards.”
I would not still select Grace in my all-time XI, with a complete transition in the game in the last century and recent decades.
---
*Freelance journalist

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