WG Grace: A Life July 26, 2008

The good doctor in full

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

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