Monday, 1 November 2010

Ashes advent calendar: WG Grace

(the first in a series of trivia articles counting down to the First Test in Brisbane)
What is left to be said about William Gilbert Grace? In his day he was, quite simply, the most famous sportsman on Earth, sport's first real superstar in fact, and even 95 years after his death he remains cricket's most iconic personality.

The bare facts are that in an astonishing 44 seasons of first-class cricket between 1865 and 1908 Grace scored over 54,000 runs including 124 centuries at an average of 39.45, scoring over 1,000 runs in a season in 28 of those years. These records would be incredible enough on the immaculately-tended, covered pitches of today, but when one considers the quality of many of the wickets he played on, his statistics can be elevated into the Bradman class. Perhaps the most extraordinary anecdote of WG's career was how in the space of just 10 days in 1876 he made scores of 344 against Kent, 177 against Nottinghamshire and finally 318 not out against Yorkshire (an innings Grace considered his best) making up a total of no less than 839 runs at an average of 419.50!!!

So the statistics clearly show WG to be one of the most skilled batsmen of all time, but the reason his fame persists goes much deeper. Until the advent of Test Matches, and even for some time after perhaps, the greatest fixture in the Victorian cricketing calendar was the Gentlemen versus Players matches where the best amateurs of the day would face the greatest pros. In status they were at or above the level of the FA Cup final today. Despite often making more money from matches than the paid professionals he played alongside Grace was at least nominally an amateur, and he virtually single-handedly swung the Gentleman v Players matches back from an extended period of pro dominance so successfully that after a run of 25 matches where the Players won 23 with one draw only one loss, the following 25 matches from 1865 saw only three wins for the Players, five draws and 17 victories for the Gentlemen.

Allied to this was his legendary gamesmanship. When asked at the toss to choose between heads (Queen Victoria) and tails (Britannia) it is said he would simply call "Woman". There's the immortal line of "They've come to watch me bat, not you bowl" after being trapped leg before in an exhibition match, leading the umpire to quietly allow the Doctor to remain. In another match one bowler, having time and again seemingly dismissed WG only for him to remain at the crease, bowled a ball that sent the stumps flying before sarcastically calling out as Grace trudged back "Going so soon Doc? Why, there's still one stump standing..." It should be said though that accounts of Grace from those who knew him reveal a man who away from the crease was warm, likeable and even modest.

However, it is one particular episode of Grace's gamesmanship that above all else earns him a place on this list. Samuel Percy Jones had come in at 99 for 6 during Australia's second innings at the Oval in 1882, with the touring team 61 runs ahead and proceeded to put on 15 runs with his partner. I let Wisden relay what happened next:
At 114 Jones was run out in a way which gave great dissatisfaction to Murdoch and other Australians. Murdoch played a ball to leg, for which Lyttelton ran. The ball was returned, and Jones having completed the first run, and thinking wrongly, but very naturally, that the ball was dead, went out of his ground. Grace put his wicket down, and the umpire gave him out.
Wisden's correspondent than goes on to sycophantically justify Grace's actions without actually stating them. Jones had good reason to feel the ball was dead - no fielders where showing much urgency and the ball could not be seen to be in a place of danger. In point of fact it could not be seen at all, as Grace had it pinned between chin and chest, camouflaged behind his famous beard. With Jones wandering out of his ground Grace retrieved the ball and whipped off the bails. No wonder the Australians were upset when the umpire lifted his finger! Australia only made 8 more, leaving England to chase just 85, but after Grace's antics Australian fast bowler Fred "the Demon" Spofforth was in no mood to let that happen. "This thing can be done" he told his team-mates before they took the field, and the rest is history...

Did you know: It is said that the cause of Grace's death, in October 1915 at the age of 67, was a stroke brought on by the over-exertion of shaking his fist at a German Zeppelin flying overhead...

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