1896 Ashes

WG Grace's close shave with a rough diamond

June 17, 1996

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This week's Test against India at Lord`s marks 100 years since a memorable victory against Australia, writes E. W. Swanton

A hundred years ago this week, a century before the first of this summer`s two Lord`s Tests begins, against India, a crowd without parallel in England assembled at Lord`s to see the first day of the Test match against Australia: 25,414 paid at the gate, members bringing up the total to almost 30,000.

England had won the Ashes at home three years before and had since retained them by the odd match of five in a memorable series Down Under. Patriotic feeling had been stirred by these successes, and crowning all anticipation was the presence once more as England`s captain of cricket`s majestic father figure, WG Grace, His triumphs of the previous year, 1895, the thousand runs in May and the 100th hundred which inspired an outburst of public acclaim, had raised WG to the height of a national symbol.

Here he was, coming up to his 48th birthday, massive, bearded, opening the England innings as he had been doing since that first Test at the Oval 16 years earlier, and making a solid 66. By the way, WG in this summer played 54 innings, scoring 2,135 runs with an average of 424, and for good measure bowled 553 overs and took 52 wickets. Who says our modern heroes play too much?

Retrospectively, this Lord's Test of 1896 appears as no ordinary milestone. It was W G`s last Test at Lord`s; it was the last of the three-Test series, before the addition of Trent Bridge and Headingley to the rota of the Oval, Lord's and Old Trafford brought the number of Tests on each Australian visit to five. Above all, this was the scene of the lastbut-one victory over Australia at Lord's in 100 years, the only other being `Verity`s Match` on a turning pitch after rain in 1934.

The match was dramatic in the extreme. Harry Trott won the toss for Australia on a perfect pitch, whereupon the great Surrey bowlers Tom Richardson and George Lohmann dismissed them before lunch for 53. By close of play, thanks to WG, Bobby Abel (also of Surrey), who made 94, and the Hon E S Jackson, with a brilliant 44, England had run up 286 for 8.

The crowd far exceeded the rudimentary seating and, to the discomfort of the Australians, encroached on to the field of play. They impeded Joe Darling from catching Jackson on the on side whereupon, according to Wisden, he "palpably gave away his innings", immediately putting up a catch in the same direction. Noblesse oblige, indeed.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph before the Lord`s Test against Australia in 1956, I speculated whether such a gesture might then be repeated, and imagined Keith Miller (then on his last tour) reacting as Jackson did. Forty years on, the gesture probably seems just endearingly quixotic.

The crowd on the second day was half that of the first, chiefly, thought Wisden, because the result was considered to be a formality. But Australian fighting powers had been underestimated. In a defiant partnership, Syd Gregory and his captain made hundreds in their side`s second innings of 347, and when rain overnight made the wicket difficult on the third day, England had to struggle hard before winning by six wickets.

MCC members alone can have watched the play in comfort, secure in the noble pavilion built six years before which stands unchanged today. By the time the next Australians came in 1899, the club had put up the Mound Stand. They had also appointed a notable secretary in Francis Lacey, of whom it was said that he dragged the MCC into the 20th century.

Cricket was on the march in Queen Victoria`s last decade, with other names such as Jackson and Stoddart getting ready to take over the leadership from W G and with a talented, responsible professional nucleus in support. This, so to say, was the springtime of the Golden Age, shortly to be adorned by such commanding figures as C B Fry, Jessop - 'the Croucher', J T Tyldesley, Archie MacLaren, Sydney Barnes, Wilfred Rhodes and the inimitable `Ranji`.

Those looking out behind their moustaches in the accompanying photograph were household names: Stanley Jackson, under whom, before he went off as Governor of Bengal, England in 1905 swept to triumph over Australia, the captain heading both batting and bowling averages; and Andrew Stoddart, who led England at rugby as well as cricket.

The tall figure at the back, William Gunn, of Notts, founder of the famous bat-makers Gunn and Moore, and uncle of Test cricketers George and John Gunn, was also a double international as outside-left for Nottingham Forest. He was the first professional to be elected to his county committee, being followed in that distinction by the man on his right, J T Hearne, of Middlesex, prince of medium-pacers (more than 3,000 wickets) along with Lohmann. The latter, a master of the bowling arts who actually took 112 Test wickets at 10 runs each, is seated on WGs left. A tragic figure, he seems to be showing perhaps the beginnings of the tuberculosis from which he died five years later.

Above Lohmann is Tom Hayward, mentor of Sir Jack Hobbs, who brought that greatest of professional batsmen from Cambridge to the Oval. At his feet is Bobby Abel, diminutive in size but formidable in accomplishment, who was tending his sports shop outside the Oval when I was a junior member of Surrey. The stalwart Richardson is deservedly seated, having bowled 58.3 five-ball overs in the match and taken 11 wickets.

Note how WG's physique outstrips them all - which brings me to the beard. This 1896 Test was probably the scene of the most famous ball ever bowled, the one by Ernest Jones that went through his beard. I raise the doubt because there is conflicting evidence. P F, who became Sir Pelham Warner, in his history Lord's 1787-1945, says that the first ball of England`s first innings was very short and very fast. J J Kelly, the wicketkeeper, "lost sight of it in Grace`s beard and it went to the sight screen". Lord Harris, in his reminiscences, confirms the ball, the place and the occasion and adds that it also touched the top of the bat handle - which, of course, probably made it a chance to the keeper.

The great Harris`s word was law. Yet Charles Fry, in his autobiography Life Worth Living, declared that the encounter had taken place previously at Sheffield Park. He was playing for Lord Sheffield`s XI there, as was Jackson, who went in first with W G and, according to Fry, said likewise. "What the hell are you at, Jonah?" or alternatively "What, what, what?" cried W G. Both versions agree on the immortal reply, "Sorry, doctor, she slipped". The question never to be answered is whether she slipped twice.

Fry says that W G emerged from the Sheffield Park match black and blue. What is not in dispute is that Jones was mighty quick. He seems also to have been something of a rough diamond. Asked at a reception whether he went to St Peter`s, the leading Adelaide school, he replied: "Yes, I drive the dirt cart there every Monday." Our Australian cousins had their characters, too, that fine day at Lord`s a century ago.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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