Legends March 25, 2013

The incredible legacy of WG Grace

In the space of eight days in 1876, WG Grace scored 839 runs, including two triple hundreds. He shaped the game we know today, inventing technique and influencing bowling

The image may be utterly familiar, but in so many ways, Grace is impossibly distant from us © Getty Images

"He has ability with the bat. He has two first-class triple hundreds." As back-handed compliments go, that's not a bad one. It came from Ravi Shastri as Ravindra Jadeja made a sweetly struck 40-odd at the Feroz Shah Kotla during India's first innings in the fourth Test. What Shastri didn't say was that Jadeja's feat is actually more extraordinary than that. Along with having another, older triple century that slipped Shastri's mind, Jadeja this year became one of just four players to have made two triple hundreds in the same season, and he is in august company: the others were Donald Bradman, Bill Ponsford and WG Grace.

Bill Ponsford got his in 1927-8, The Don eight years later in 1935-6. WG, though, beat the world to the punch, as he so often did. He made his 344 for MCC against Kent and 318 not out for Gloucester against Yorkshire over the course of three innings in eight days in August 1876, and the knock in the middle of them was the little matter of 177 against Notts - 839 runs, and not a bad week's work. During that fleeting summer heat wave, WG became, perhaps, the first cricketer to enter the zone.

The image may be utterly familiar, but in so many ways, Grace is impossibly distant from us. 1876 was the year that Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone, Custer died at the Battle of Little Bighorn and Mark Twain published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Benjamin Disraeli was the British prime minister, Winston Churchill was 18 months old and overarm bowling had been legal for 12 seasons.

Grace was 28, not yet qualified as a doctor, and had already been declared "the Champion Cricketer" by Lillywhite's Companion after his exploits in 1871, when he made 10 of the 17 first-class centuries scored that summer and became the first man ever to score 2,000 runs in a season. As Nottinghamshire's demon bowler Jem Shaw remarked after picking up Grace for a duck in the first innings of the South v North game at the Oval, and then watching him make 268 in the second, "I puts the ball where I likes, and he puts the ball where he likes."

WG had no coach, no sports science, no history to shape his play. From his imagination he summoned the game that we recognise today. On the bombshell pitches of the 1860s and '70s, the principal dangers were the ball that shot along the ground, and the lifter that reared unexpectedly from a length. Hawk-eyed, Grace dealt with the shooter by developing the back-foot game, keeping his right foot outside the line of leg stump and picking the bat up early, "with the handle just above my waist and the bottom of the blade almost on a level with the centre of the middle stump". He had brought Lord's to its feet by defending four shooters in succession in this way.

Instead of trying to avoid the lifting ball, Grace began to play that too, keeping it down with speed of hand. He used a bat of 2lbs 5oz, "heavy enough for anybody", with which he generated fearsome power on both the drive and the cut. Until Grace, bowlers prized flat-out speed above line and length but as he inflicted himself upon them, their philosophies changed too. So true was Grace's eye and so strong his trust in it that although he carried a box in his cricket bag, he often didn't wear one.

WG had no coach, no sports science, no history to shape his play. From his imagination he summoned the game that we recognise today.

On August 10 1876, he went to the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury as one of the 12 Gentlemen of the MCC to play Kent in a three-day match. Grace opened both the bowling and the batting. Kent made 473 in just over a day, WG taking 4-116, before MCC were knocked over for 144 and followed-on. Then it came. Concerned at first with catching an early train, Grace felt he batted "freer than usual". MCC had a hundred on the board in 45 minutes and he had his century by the end of the day. The next morning was a scorcher and Grace routed a tiring and dispirited attack, passing his own highest score of 268 and then the record in all cricket, William Ward's 278. He was chanceless as he became the first man ever to make 300 and the walloped another 44 before being dismissed by the occasional bowling of Lord Harris just before close.

He travelled to Bristol on his rest day and enjoyed a happy reunion with his brothers EM and Fred. All three played for Gloucester against Nottinghamshire and Grace made 177 in three hours as the heat wave continued. Still the Champion was not sated. After a ten wicket win, he went to Cheltenham to play Yorkshire, batted first on what he considered a shirtfront and made 216 before the close. The final day of the streak saw the weather break, but the rain eased after lunch, and Grace, although almost stranded short of his triple by a late order collapse, went on to carry his bat for 318.

As news of his feats spread across England they were met with a kind of baffled awe that would not return until the rise of Bradman. William Ward's innings had stood as cricket's highest score for 56 years, and Grace passed it twice in a week.

In all that August he made 1,389 runs, and as he recalled in his memoirs, that was "a total greater than any other batsman made in the whole year in first-class cricket". Grace might not have recognised the term, but the zone is probably the best description of those eight days, the moments when his greatness became unstoppable. Rather than Ponsford, Bradman and Jadeja, his fellow members of that exclusive club, what he achieved in the August of 1876 might well have been closer to something like Brian Lara's 375 to 501 streak; unprecedented in speed and weight of scoring.

Whatever else Ravindra Jadeja accomplishes in the game, to be within touching distance of the Grand Old Man is something to treasure.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here