WG Grace's chilly farewell
The changing English weather means that April can often be more pleasant than later months in the summer, which has led to the start of the season creeping over a decade or two from late April to almost the beginning of the month. In the past, cricket's administrators were no less keen on extending the season but there wasn't much help from the climate.
In 1908 the authorities opted to begin on April 20, a decision brought about by a very late Easter and a hope that an Easter Monday start would attract a decent holiday crowd. The only first-class match scheduled was that between Surrey and Gentlemen of England at The Oval, an oddity in that the next first-class fixture was not for another fortnight.
While the game itself was uneventful, it was to be the final one in the career of WG Grace, some 43 years and 865 matches after his debut - and the authorities' hope of good gate receipts from a large crowd were utterly scotched by the weather.
Grace, who was by then almost 60, had been in semi-retirement for several seasons following the downgrading of the status of his London County side. Such was his passion for the game that he kept his hand in with regular club cricket and the occasional first-class outing. The last of his 124 hundreds had been in 1904, and in 15 matches since then, he had scored 510 runs at 21.24.
By his own high standards that was poor, but when his age and physical state were taken into consideration, it was impressive, and in 1907 he had still managed three hundreds in club cricket. He readily accepted the invitation of the Surrey committee to bring down a side for the season opener in 1908.
The game at The Oval got underway on time, even though the ground was covered in sleet an hour before the mid-day start. But before long a combination of sleet and snow, allied to bitter cold, sent the players back into the warmth of the pavilion for half an hour.
A surprisingly good crowd somehow braved the conditions, and they were rewarded with some enterprising cricket as Surrey raced to 381 for 8 in four hours. Grace did little chasing, setting up his position in the slips, from where he never moved other than to bowl two overs.
The second day was pretty much the same, dogged by poor light and bitter cold. After Surrey had been polished off for 390, Grace opened the innings with Henry Keigwin, and when rain stopped play half an hour later, Gentlemen of England were 21 for 3.
Grace, however, remained, although he was not the dominating figure of his pomp. Slightly stooped, the physique was nonetheless unmistakable, even if the beard was not almost entirely grey. And despite not dominating as he once had, he played a stonewalling innings of 15 in an hour and a half before being bowled by Sydney Busher, a brisk seamer from Barnes, who was making his first-class debut. The Guardian praised Grace for watching the ball closely, while noting he had "lost much of his hitting power and is, of course, slow between the wickets".
Gentlemen of England were bowled out for 219, and then, following on, were dismissed for 130 in a little under two hours, losing by an innings and 42 runs. In all, the game had lasted just over nine hours.
But while his side offered little more than "feeble resistance", according to the Times, Grace managed to bow out on something of a personal high. He made 25 at around a run a minute, and "his driving and pulling was an object lesson to many a young player… he put plenty of power into his strokes, and his play was really wonderful considering his age. He was seldom at fault in his timing, and his placing generally was very accurate." He was again dismissed by Busher, and headed off to a smattering of applause from barely a hundred spectators. The Daily Mirror just said Grace's "scratch side had put up a sorry show".
Grace wasn't quite finished. On June 26 he made his final hundred at any level, 111 for London County against Whitgift Wanderers, and he also took seven wickets in the match for good measure. In August he made his last appearance at Lord's, the scene of so many of his great innings, for MCC and Ground against Dorset. He scored 33 and took 3 for 34 but injured his foot and missed out on a second innings. A keen compiler of his own records, he ruefully wrote that the injury robbed him of his 1000 runs for the season.
What happened next?
- Grace continued to play regular club cricket but spent more time at golf, bowling, and in the winter, curling and following the beagles. His final innings was for Eltham against Grove Park on July 25, 1914, when, aged 66, he scored an unbeaten 69. A fortnight later, on August 8, he took to the field for the last time, although he neither batted or bowled
- The authorities learned and it was not until 1921 the first-class season again attempted an April start
- In 2010 the BBC produced a play on Radio 4 about the match called The Last Days of Grace
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WG Grace - A Life by Simon Rae (Faber and Faber, 1998)
WG by Robert Low (Richard Cohen Books, 1997)
Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa