Personal recollections, 1896

W. G. Grace

THE editor of this ANNUAL has asked me to write a short account of Dr. W. G. Grace as I have found him during my cricket career. I fear I have but little that is new to add to all that has been already written about W. G., and I also find that five years' absence from first-class cricket, about a quarter of a man's first-class cricketing life, has made sad breaches in my memory.

I well remember the first time I saw the old man-as all cricketers love to call him; it must have been about '67 or '68 that a few of the Eton eleven were taken up to Lord's by Mr. Mitchell on a holiday for the express purpose of seeing W. G. bat, and thereby having our own ideas improved. It was a drizzly cold morning, and W. G. in a thick overcoat had a spirited argument with "Mike" as to the weather and the ground being fit for cricket, the former, caring little about standing as a model for us, thinking it was not; and the latter, caring little as to the particular match, thinking it was. I must have seen but little of W. G. between then and '72, except in Canterbury in the week, but in '72 I had a two months' experience of his comradeship during the tour in Canada and the States of Mr. R. A. Fitzgerald's team, the first amateur eleven that crossed the seas on a cricketing tour, and a right good eleven it was, the best strictly amateur team, I should say, that has ever been made up for that purpose. W. G. and poor Cuthbert Ottaway went in first, and generally put on 100 before the first wicket fell, a pretty good start, with the "Monkey," Alfred Lubbock, and Walter Hadow to follow on; and then what a bowling side it was, Appleby dead on the off stump every ball, and Billy Rose, about the best lob bowler I ever saw, at the other end, and W. G. and C. K. Francis as changes. But the history of the tour, is it not all written in "Wickets in the West," by that prince of cricket reporters, Bob FitzGerald himself? So I will not reproduce the time-honoured allusion to W. G.'s speeches, but content myself with bearing grateful witness to the kindly sympathetic consideration which characterised his comradeship. That tour commenced and cemented a friendship between us which I value at the highest.

From about '76 to '86 I saw a good deal of the old man's play in the big matches, and I shall never see such all-round play again. There may arise a bat as good, and at point and to his own bowling a field as good, and, of course, there have been and will be bowlers as good, but I doubt one generation producing two such all-round cricketers. And remember, my young friends, that this super-excellence was not the result of eminent physical fitness only, it depended a good deal also on the careful life the old man led. He did not play brilliantly despite how he lived, as some, whose all too brief careers I can remember, did, but he regulated his habits of life with such care and moderation that his physical capacity was always at its best, and has lasted in the most marvellous manner. I shall always hold that W. G. was the best and pluckiest field to his own bowling I ever saw. The ground he used to cover to the off-and with the leg break on of course the majority of straight balls went there-made him as good as a twelfth man. He used to have his mid-on nearly straight behind the bowler's arm so as to cover the balls hit straight back. I fancy I've noticed that he has not tried for long leg catches so much since poor dear Fred Grace, the safest catch I ever saw, went home, but it may be only fancy. And then the hot 'uns I've seen him put his hands to, half volleys hit at ten yards distance, low down, with all the momentum of a jump in and a swinging bat, catches that looked like grinding his knuckles against the sole of his boot, but I never saw the old man flinch. And that reminds me of a rather humorous incident when England played the Australians at the Oval late in the year in 1880. We had seen very little of them that year, as, in consequence of the affair at Sydney in '79, they could get no good matches arranged, but late in the year the sore was healed and a match arranged.

Percy MacDonnell was in and Fred Morley bowling, and for some reason, obscure to both of us I should think ever since, W. G. and I agreed that he should go silly mid-off. The wicket was not a slow one, and, under any circumstances, Percy MacDonnell was not the sort of bat to stand close up to on the off side. Well, presently Fred bowled one of his half volleys on the off, MacDonnell gave it the full swing of his powerful shoulders, and the first thing that everyone realised subsequently was that it had hit the old man. He had no time to stoop, or dodge, or move a finger, but luckily for him, it hit him on the heel of his boot, and he was none the worse. I saw W. G. blink his eyes and look at the batsman in that searching way that others besides myself must have noticed I should think, and he stayed there till the end of the over-after that we though he might be more useful further back.

I always thought the old man depended rather too much on the umpire for leg before, particularly when I was on the opposite side. He crossed the wicket so far to the off himself that he could not in many instances judge with any accuracy whether the ball pitched straight or not, and I don't think a bowler ought to ask for leg before unless he is pretty sure as to the pitch. I remember one day at Canterbury, the wind was blowing pretty strongly across the ground, and W. G. was lobbing them up in the air to get all the advantage of the wind. I kept on fetching them round to sharp long leg-I never hit him square-or trying to, and every time the ball hit my leg he asked, and every time he asked Willsher shook his head, and the old man was getting almost savage, when, at last, I got my left leg too much to the off, and the ball went through my legs and bowled me. Of course, W. G. held that was proof positive that all the others would have hit the wicket too, whilst I held that that was possible, but that none of them had pitched straight.

Another reminiscence connecting him with Canterbury Week is that weary day-or day and a half I might say-when he made his 344. We had got a big score in our first and only innings, and had got M. C. C. out for something small. I thought it rather odd, for the wicket was all right, and our bowling was not very deadly, and my forebodings were well founded. It did not matter what we bowled for that day and a half, most balls went quite impartially to the boundary. Mr. Foord Kelcey always declared in after years that about five o'clock on the Friday evening, all our bowling being used up, he and poor dear old "Bos" (Mr. C. A. Absolom) went on permanently!

On the whole, however, I think in those days we used to get rid of W. G. pretty luckily when we met him, but he gave us a severe taste of his quality at Clifton one year, over a century each innings. When he had got 98 second innings I thought perhaps a bad lob might produce results. Henty was no longer a member of the Kent team, or he would have gone on, as he always did when we were in serious difficulties, without taking his pads off, but either Mr Patterson or I could bowl quite as bad a lob as he ever did, so one of us, I forget which, went on, and sure enough something did result. The old man hit a fourer, scored his second century in the same match for the second time in his career, and stumps were drawn. Some people said I did this on purpose to let him get his second century, but that allegation was not founded on absolute knowledge, and a bad lob when a man is well set is sometimes luckier than a good ball.

A lucky selection came off in one Gentlemen v. Players' match at the Oval. I was not playing myself, but I saw the ball bowled.The captain of the Players' team had been asked whether there was anybody in particular they wanted to play, and he-either Dicky Daft or Bob Carpenter I think-said they would like to have Emmett, because he might bowl Dr. Grace out early, and sure enough Tom bowled him, and first ball I think.

I have referred to poor Fred Grace's fine fielding, and I recall an incident at the Oval in a match we played late in the year for the benefit of the sufferers by the sinking of the Princess Alice, an excursion boat. Fred was bowling, W. G. was point, and I was mid-off. The batsman skied one so high on the off side that we three had quite a little conversation which of us should have it. It was a horribly cold day, and I had no particular fancy for it, and when Fred said he would have it I was quite ready to resign, knowing he was certain to hold it, which he did.

I do not know whether it is fancy, but I shall always believe that W. G.'s later style of batting is quite different from what it was between '70 and '80. Now he plays the regulation back and forward strokes, but at that time he seemed to me to play every good length straight ball just in front of the popping crease, meeting it with a perfectly straight bat every time, but a kind of half stroke, only possible when great experience of the bowling, a very clear eye, and great confidence are combined. Remembering how many straight balls he used to place on the on side in those days, and the improbability therefore of the full face of the bat being given to the ball at the moment of impact, his extraordinary accuracy of eye can perhaps be realised.

I did not expect when I left England in 1890 ever again to play in a first-class match with my old friend; and-though but for a broken finger I might have done so at Gravesend this year-I fear my expectations will be realised, but I had the opportunity of taking a part in paying him what I know he holds to be as great a compliment as ever was paid him-viz., the decision of the Marylebone Cricket Club to give its support to the National Testimonial which was so enthusiastically started this year. I gave my vote for that decision, not merely because I regard W. G. as the most prominent exponent there has ever been of the finest and purest game that has ever been played, but also because the old man is the kindest and most sympathetic cricketer I have ever played with. As I said in proposing his health some years ago at a banquet the Kent County Club gave in his honour, I never knew a man make a mistake in the field but what W. G. had a kind word to say to, and an excuse to find for him, and I doubt if I could conclude with anything in praise of my old friend which would be truer or more gratifying to his feelings than that.

© John Wisden & Co