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1908

WG Grace's chilly farewell

An early-season game at The Oval in freezing cold over a century ago marked the exit of one of cricket's great legends

Martin Williamson

April 7, 2012

Comments: 7 | Text size: A | A

Snow and cold was the backdrop for WG Grace's final first-class appearance, Surrey v Gentlemen of England, The Oval, April 20, 1908
Snow and cold provided the backdrop for WG Grace's final first-class appearance © Daily Mirror
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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.


A small crowd for the season opener, Surrey v Gentlemen of England, The Oval, April 20, 1908
The newspapers centred on the paltry crowd and the wretched weather © Daily Mirror
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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

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? Email rewind@cricinfo.com with your comments and suggestions.

Bibliography
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

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by   on (April 8, 2012, 16:00 GMT)

great story,unfortunately i never played when it snowed but a 54i imagine i will still have the opportunity

Posted by   on (April 8, 2012, 13:24 GMT)

Just when I think I think I'm too old and creaky at 48 to be playing league Cricket along comes WG to remind me that I'm a mere youngster, thanks again WG.

Posted by johnathonjosephs on (April 8, 2012, 7:35 GMT)

I don't mean to demean Grace or any of the legends of old, but it is important one must see the context during the time period. From the birth of cricket up until the 1930's, first class matches were not taken very seriously. Cricket in those days were for the elite only and the matches were seen as very very laid back. Most of the time, the match would have spectators (only the rich) drinking and socializing literally a couple feet away from the boundary lines. Many times too, the cricketers would engage in talk with some of the spectators watching and would socialize a lot. Because of its elitist nature, often times, when the "right" person came up to bat, the bowlers would bowl easy balls to allow the batsman to get runs (especially old men). This was out of respect for the gentleman and for the gentleman to have confidence/honor in making runs. Evidence for this is shown in very old films (1930's)Thus when one says he made a century when he was 66, do not expect intense bowling

Posted by getsetgopk on (April 8, 2012, 7:11 GMT)

Amazing story, amazing cricketer, a hundred years on and it still fascinates the reader, Dr. Grace's love for the game lives on, forever!

Posted by 4test90 on (April 7, 2012, 12:45 GMT)

It is truly extraordinary how one man, who last played first class cricket over a century ago can still exert such an influence over cricket history - surely, there is no one in any other sport that can claim such a legacy - golf, football, basketball, tennis ? No, W.G is in a league of his own. Who else could be known by their first and middle initial only ?!?

Posted by   on (April 7, 2012, 11:11 GMT)

Great piece - thanks to Cricinfo for posting this. What a legend - a century at the age of 60 and 69no at 66!!! Gives hope to all us old fellows yet! His like we'll never see again.

Posted by   on (April 7, 2012, 9:22 GMT)

iv heard this story about Dr. Grace when he was playing in some match a young fast bowler bowled him out first ball and he calmly turned back fixed the stumps placed the bails went to the bowler and said something like ' this whole crowd is here to watch me bat not to see u bowl me out' and continued his innings LOL probably not true but still fascinating :p

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Martin WilliamsonClose
Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.

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