An Irishman’s Diary on WG Grace, cricket’s first superstar
Centenary of last club match of the man who revolutionised cricket
WG Grace: his career as a first-class cricketer spanned almost 50 years
It has been said that during the last quarter of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, only Queen Victoria and William Gladstone were more readily recognisable to the common man in England than WG Grace. Known as “the father of cricket”, he played his last club match on July 25th, 1914, at the age of 66.
Standing at six foot two and with a flowing black beard, he revolutionised batting, brought cricket to the masses and made it the most popular spectator sport of the summer in England. Such was his popularity that in cricket grounds notices were displayed: “Admission threepence. If Dr WG Grace plays, admission sixpence.”
The statistics alone show what a phenomenon he was: more than 54,000 first-class runs spread across 44 seasons, including 839 in just eight days in 1876, when he hit a couple of triple-centuries; a thousand runs in May 1895, when he was nearly 47, and 2,800-odd wickets costing less than 18 runs apiece. It should be remembered that his achievements happened on much poorer pitches and with much tougher rules than in the modern game, which make his feats all the more impressive and render comparisons with any players since pointless.
He was born in Downend, near Bristol, where his father was the local GP, the eighth child in a family of nine. Both parents were strong cricket fans and the father cleared a space in the orchard where his children could train. Their uncle, Alfred Pocock, was their skilled coach.
He found school difficult but both Oxford and Cambridge would have welcomed him because of his cricketing prowess. However, his father wanted him to become a doctor and he enrolled in Bristol Medical School at 20. He certainly took the scenic route to qualifying, interrupting his studies frequently to exercise his major talent at the crease: he was a father of three in his thirties when he took his final qualification at Westminster Hospital.
His career as a first-class cricketer spanned almost 50 years and CricketArchive lists him as playing for 29 teams. Many of these were guest appearances, and his main teams were England, Marylebone Cricket Club, Gloucestershire, the Gentlemen (amateur rather than professional players), All-England (non-international), United South of England Eleven and London County.
It is extraordinary to think that he opened for England at the age of 50, and that at the age of 18 he had scored 224 not out for England against Surrey, in a match which he left halfway through in order to win a quarter-mile hurdles championship at the Crystal Palace. These are feats that would compare well with any modern athletic achievement.
His batting style belied his name, because it was more noteworthy for its strength than its elegance. However, he could vary his style with ease and one expert has written that he developed most of the techniques of modern batting. He soon added bulk to his height. Although a non-smoker, he liked his food and drink. Discussing the costs incurred during Lord Sheffield ’s profitless tour of Australia in 1891-92, a fellow player commented: “I told you what wine would be drunk by the amateurs; Grace himself would drink enough to swim a ship.”
There is a murkier side to the man’s image. In Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac, Geoffrey Moorhouse declared: “He was notorious for employing, in order to pursue victory or personal achievement, a variety of wiles and tricks that may be thought of as, well, hardly cricket.” Various sources refer to his gamesmanship, so there must be something in the charge.
More controversial still was his moneymaking. Because he was a medical doctor, he was classified as an amateur cricketer but he made a lot more money from the game than any professional. Moorhouse estimated that he got something like £1 million from cricket, and that in an era when there was no sponsorship or endorsements. This would explain why it cost twice as much to get into some English grounds if Grace was playing. It would also seem to make his status as an amateur player something of a nonsense.
On the other hand, there is evidence that in his medical practice he never sent poorer families he treated any bills.
Personal tragedy hit him in the form of the loss of two of his children and his younger brother. WG Grace died from a heart attack, aged 67, only a little over a year after hanging up his bat but his remarkable sporting achievements live on.