WG Grace: A Life

The good doctor in full

Serious scholarship and unflagging zest make this biography one of cricket's best life stories

Gideon Haigh

July 26, 2008

Text size: A | A

Around May 1997, ahead of the sesquicentenary of Dr WG Grace's birth, a perfectly adequate biography of the great man by a former Observer journalist, Robert Low, was published in England to appreciative reviews. By rights, such books being relatively few and far between, it should have kept the curious satisfied for a decade or more.

A year later, however, there hove into view W. G. Grace: A Life - twice the size, twice the depth - by Simon Rae, for five years the presenter of Radio 4's Poetry Please, whose only previous biography had been of the Georgian "peasant poet" John Clare. And little more has been heard since of the luckless Low, destined for an existence rather like that of other Australian keepers in the Gilchrist era.

It is a harsh critical verdict, but a just one, for Rae's is one of the best of cricket's life stories, a work of serious scholarship and unflagging zest. Grace's ghost writer once complained that "the task of getting material from him was almost heartbreaking"; Rae had no such difficulty with the ghost subject, bringing him back to rumbustious life. Huge, overbearing, obstinate, fearless, sentimental, kindly - Grace is seen in all moods and from all sides. Likewise, as with all the best cricket history, Rae shows a thorough conversance with history proper.

Not everybody was happy to worship at the Grace shrine. Max Beerbohm struck a satirical blow against the hearties' triumphalism with a cartoon in which a huge Grace with bulging biceps stands in the foreground with a minuscule cricket bat in one hand and a huge cheque in the other, while behind him the funeral cortege of one of his neglected patients sets off for the cemetery. Oscar Wilde would not have been allowed to see this in his bare cell, but even the prison walls could not keep the national obsession entirely at bay. The condemned guardsman in Wilde's poem "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" walked among the Trial Men with "a cricket cap [up] on his head".

Rae has a knack for empirical observation that refreshes what might have been run of the mill: rather than simply recapitulate Grace's maiden first-class hundred, for example, Rae notes that, as hits would have been run out at the time, it would have involved running 9000 yards in 22-yard units over two days.

Rae's conjectures are also subtle and diverting: Grace must have enjoyed the 1872 tour of North America more than most, for his copy of RA Fitzgerald's Wickets in the West is "one of the few volumes in his personal collection that shows signs of having been read avidly all the way through". Especially thorough and satisfying are the accounts of Grace's two tours of Australia, where the cricketer thoroughly belied his surname.

Among the host of Grace's legendary contemporaries, meanwhile, are to be found a lively supporting cast, ranging from Grace's kite-crazy grandfather to his dyspeptic journalistic chroniclers "Stiff" and "Strong".

A few enduring myths are gently debunked too. Frederick Spofforth's yarn about bowling to Grace as a young shaver in the nets in 1873 is disproved with the assistance of Ric Finlay; the famous story of Grace preserving the vital spark of AC Croome, impaled on the Old Trafford ironwork in 1887, turns out to have been tactfully embroidered.

At the end, nonetheless, Grace stands taller and broader than ever. As Rae points out, his first 50 first-class hundreds represented a third of the total number scored in England during the relevant period: a level of predominance unequalled since.

This is also a book uncommonly well served by its cover. Rather than a portrait or headshot - the preference, in fact, of Low's publishers - Rae's book is jacketed in a tinted photograph of Grace at practice, inclining back and across his stumps defensively. It evokes the period splendidly: Grace's Fallstaffian girth is girdled with a sash; the ribboned cap appears too small for the leonine, bearded head. Yet is also suggests something of Grace's preternatural mastery: the stride is huge and decisive; the back-lift is irreproachably straight; the address is perfectly side-on, with the right hand inching pragmatically down the handle; the concentration is yogi-like. It is a natural sportsman completely rapt in his task - exactly what is conveyed by the sophisticated word picture within.

W.G. Grace: A Life
by Simon Rae

Faber and Faber, 1998

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

RSS Feeds: Gideon Haigh

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Email Feedback Print
Gideon HaighClose
Gideon Haigh Born in London of a Yorkshire father, raised in Australia by a Tasmanian mother, Gideon Haigh lives in Melbourne with a cat, Trumper. He has written 19 books and edited a further seven. He is also a life member and perennial vice-president of the South Yarra CC.
Related Links
Players/Officials: W.G. Grace

    Boycott floored by an Indian trundler

Rewind: When Eknath Solkar got under the skin of Geoff Boycott, leading to a three-year self-imposed exile from Test cricket

    KP in prĂ©cis

Review: Using secondary sources, a newspaper journalist tries to decipher Kevin Pietersen and his career beyond the prima donna stereotype

    If you're drunk enough, you're good enough

Dave Podmore: Let us now reflect on Lord's and look ahead to the next Test

    'As you get older, you come to appreciate the tough times'

Jimmy Adams talks about the West Indian love for fast bowling, batting with Lara, and living a dream for nine years

Test streaks: 52 and 27 matches long

Anantha Narayanan: A look at the best batting and bowling streaks in Tests

News | Features Last 7 days

Ridiculed Ishant ridicules England

Ishant Sharma has often been the butt of jokes, and sometimes deservedly so. Today, however, the joke was on England

Vijay rediscovers the old Monk

The leave outside off stump has been critical to M Vijay's success since his India comeback last year. Contrary to popular opinion, such patience and self-denial comes naturally to him

England seem to have forgotten about personality

They have to see a glass that is half-full, and play the game as if it is just that, a game; and an opportunity

Bhuvneshwar on course for super series

Only 15 times in Test history has a player achieved the double of 300 runs and 20 wickets in a Test series. Going on current form, Bhuvneshwar could well be the 16th

Ishant's fourth-innings heroics in rare company

In India's win at Lord's, Ishant Sharma took the best bowling figures by an Indian in the fourth innings of a Test outside Asia. Here are five other best bowling efforts by Indians in the fourth innings of Tests outside Asia

News | Features Last 7 days