A tribute, 1916

W. G. Grace

It is thirty years since I ceased to play regularly with WG and a period such as that plays havoc with one's memory of particulars; but as one of the few left who played with him in the great matches of the seventies and eighties I feel that though one's thoughts are concentrated on a far different field, I ought to try, before it is too late, to leave on record my recollections of him and his play.

I suppose it has been difficult for the present generation, who have seen occasionally at Lord's or in some country match his massive form, to realise that in the seventies he was a spare and extremely active man. My old comrade, Mr. CK Francis, reminded me when we attended his funeral, that in 1872, when Mr. Fitzgerald's team of Gentlemen visited Canada and the United States, WG's playing weight was no more than 12 stone 7 lbs.; he was a magnificent field in any position, but more especially in fielding his own bowling he was unsurpassed.

For a long time during his career he fielded regularly at point, and though those who had seen both considered his brother EM far the better of the two in that place, he was quite first rate. He was a long thrower in his earliest days, but quite early in his career, when he sometimes went long field, preferred to bowl the ball up to throwing it. He was always when at point on the look-out for a batsman being careless about keeping his ground, and you would see him occasionally face as if about to return the ball to the bowler, and instead send it under arm to the wicket-keeper, but I never saw him get anyone out that way.

He was originally a medium-paced bowler without peculiarity, meeting occasionally with considerable success, but in the seventies he adopted the delivery, slow with a leg break, by which he was known for the rest of his great career, and added to his otherwise extraordinary capacity as a cricketer. He must have been by nature a great bat and field, but he made himself, by ingenuity and assiduity, a successful bowler: and though I never knew anyone keener on having his innings, I am by no means sure he did not prefer the other department of the game; at any rate, it was very difficult to take him off once he had got hold of the ball. It was "Well, just one more over" or "I'll have him in another over or two," when one suggested a change. The chief feature of his bowling was the excellent length which he persistently maintained, for there was very little break on the ball, just enough bias to bring the ball across from the legs to the wicket; not infrequently he bowled for catches at long leg, and when his brother Fred was playing was often successful in trapping the unwary, for with a high flight and a dropping ball it is difficult to avoid skying a hit to leg.

Fred Grace was as sure a catch as I ever saw, he caught the celebrated skyer hit by Bonner at the Oval, certainly a very high one. But a better still I thought was one he caught one very cold September day at the Oval in a match played for the benefit of "The Princess Alice" Fund. GF was bowling and a tremendous skyer went up, which obviously belonged to mid-off where I was standing. I was not particularly keen about it, and there was plenty of time for me to say "Who's going to have this?" "I will," said GF, and he held it sure enough.

The success of WG's bowling was largely due to his magnificent fielding to his own bowling. The moment he had delivered the ball he took so much ground to the left as to be himself an extra mid-off, and he never funked a return however hard and low it came. I have seen him make some extraordinary catches thus; he had also the additional chance of the umpire making a mistake over an appeal for lbw. He crossed over to the off so far and so quickly that he could not possibly see whether the ball would have hit the wicket, but he generally felt justified in appealing.

On one occasion at Canterbury with a high wind blowing down the hill he was having much success, and asking every time he hit the batsman's legs. He could not get me caught at long leg for I always hit him fine, but he asked every time I missed the ball; I kept remonstrating, and he kept responding indignantly until at last I put my left leg too far to the left, the ball passed through my legs and hit the wicket, upon which he argued that all the previous balls would have done the same, whilst I argued that that and all the others had not pitched straight. He always had his mid-on very straight behind him to make up for his crossing to the off. He seemed quite impervious to fatigue, and after a long innings would gladly, if allowed to, bowl through the opponents' innings. It is right to dwell thus much on his bowling for though not a brilliant he was a decidedly successful bowler, and with a wind to help him actually difficult. But, of course, he will go down to fame as the greatest batsman that ever played, not as the greatest bowler; and I should judge that that description of him is justified. I happen to have seen and played on the average wickets we had to play on before the days of the very heavy roller, and also on the wickets batsmen now enjoy and bowlers groan over. I was too long after his time ever to see Fuller Pilch bat, but I fancy it would be a very fair comparison to pit WG's performances against Fuller's, and great batsman as the latter was, I cannot believe he was as great as WG

I have elsewhere dilated, at such length as to prohibit repetition here, on the difference between the wickets of my earlier and of my later experience, the far lower level of batting averages in the seventies, as compared with those of the nineties and subsequently, is ample proof of the improvement of wickets, for the bowling has certainly not deteriorated, and it should be remembered that W. G. was making as huge scores on the more difficult wickets as his successors have done on the easier.

The great feature of Fuller's batting was his forward play, he used a bat with a short handle and abnormally long pod, so that, whilst he could smother the ball, and drive and play to leg, he could not cut: whereas WG could hit all round, he used every known stroke except the draw which had become all but obsolete when he commenced first-class cricket; and he introduced what was then a novel stroke, and one more adaptable to the break-back bowling which he had as a rule to meet, than the leg-break bowling which was common in Pilch's time, viz.: the push to leg with a straight bat off the straight ball, and his mastery of this stroke was so great that he could place the ball with great success clear of short leg and even of two short legs. It was not the glide which that distinguished cricketer Ranjitsinhji developed so successfully, or a hook, but a push and a perfectly orthodox stroke.

In his prime he met the ball on the popping crease, neither the orthodox forward nor the backstroke; it was a stroke entirely unique in my opinion needing remarkable clearness of eye and accurate timing: it is easy enough to play thus when one's eye is in, but when at his best he commenced his innings with it. He stood very close to the line from wicket to wicket and made great use of his legs in protecting his wicket, not be it understood, by getting in front of the wicket and leaving the ball alone, for no batsman left fewer balls alone, but bat and legs were so close together that it was difficult for the ball to get past the combination. So much so that the unfortunate umpires of those times were constantly being grumbled at either by the bowlers for not giving him out, or by him for being given out. JC Shaw, in particular, who remarked once: "I puts the ball where I likes, and that beggar he puts it where he likes" was constantly appealing to heaven -- as he had failed in his appeal to the umpire -- that he had got him dead leg-before; and WG remonstrating in that high-pitched tone of voice "Didn't pitch straight by half-an-inch."

I cannot remember his ever -- when in his prime--slogging: he seemed to play the same watchful, untiring correct game as carefully towards the close as at the commencement of a long innings: and there was no need for he had so many strokes and could place them so clear of the field, and with such power that when runs had to be made fast his ordinary style was enough to secure all that was wanted.

He was quite untiring during the longest innings, and just as anxious and watchful for every possible run whether he had got to save his duck or had already made 200 and he was very fast between the wickets, and just as reluctant to leave the wicket whatever his score was as was Harry Jupp, but more observant of the rules, practice and etiquette of the game than that stolid player, of whom a story was told that playing in a country match he was bowled first ball. Jupp turned round, replaced the bails, and took guard again; "Aint you going out, Juppy?" said one of the field. "No," said Jupp, and he didn't.

I may repeat another story I have recorded elsewhere how I caught Jupp once at point close under his bat and close to the ground, that he showed no inclination to go and, so it was declared, that I said in a voice so thunderous: "I am not going to ask that Jupp, you've got to go," that he did go.

WG was desperately keen for his side to win, and consequently was led, in his excitement, to be occasionally very rigid in demanding his full rights, but he was so popular, and had the game so thoroughly at heart that such slight incidents were readily forgiven him and indeed more often than not added to the fund of humourous stories about him. When the luck of the game went against him his lamentations were deep, and his neighbourhood to be temporarily avoided, except by the most sympathetic. Alfred Lyttelton used to tell a delightful story of how in a Middlesex v. Gloucestershire match WG, having been given out for the second time caught at the wicket for a small score, he retired to the dressing tent with his shoulders so humped up and his whole aspect so ominous that the rest of the Gloucestershire XI were to be seen sneaking out of the back of the tent to avoid an interview.

His ability to go on playing in first-class cricket when age and weight had seriously increased was quite remarkable. He was a most experienced and skilful anatomist of his own body, and knew how to save the weak points, but in addition he was always a most plucky cricketer. Standing up as he had to to the fiercest bowling sometimes on most fiery wickets, and putting his hand to everything within reach no matter how hard hit, he had of course at least his share of painful contusions, but I cannot in the year that I was playing with him remember his ever standing out or flinching: and I have seen him playing with badly bruised fingers.

He was so immeasurably above everyone else for many years, that the lines about Alfred Mynn naturally occurred to one as appropriate also to him, substituting batting for bowling and Gloucestershire for Kent:--

"But the Gentlemen of England the match will hardly win Till they find another bowler such as glorious Alfred Mynn" and "Till to some old Kent enthusiasts it would almost seem a sin, To doubt their county's triumph when led on by Alfred Mynn."

I am sure it seemed to us who played with him in the great matches of the seventies and eighties that with WG to start the batting both the Gentlemen and England must be invincible, but Australian bowling took down our pride somewhat and taught us some useful lessons. When the Gentlemen of England were playing in Canada and the States in 1872 we used to grumble because WG and Cuthbert Ottaway used generally to put up 100 before a wicket went down, leaving some of us who fancied we could also do well if we had the chance, little to do when our time came.

He was then and always a most genial, even-tempered, considerate companion, and of all the many cricketers I have known the kindest as well as the best. He was ever ready with an encouraging word for the novice, and a compassionate one for the man who made a mistake.

The soubriquet "Old Man," and it was a very affectionate one, was an abbreviation of "Grand Old Man," copied from that given to Mr. Gladstone by his admirers, and indeed he was the Grand Old Man of the Cricket World and the Cricket Field. It is I suppose natural if the present generation who have never seen him play cannot realize what he was to the cricketers of mine. He was a land mark, a figure head, a giant, a master man, and to most of those who are left I imagine it must be as difficult as it is to me to imagine cricket going on without W. G. He devoted his life to it, and was perhaps as well-known by sight to the public as any man in public life; for he played all over England, in his younger days with the United South of England Eleven--managed, if I remember right, by Jim Lillywhite -- against odds; later as County Cricket increased the Gloucestershire matches took him to all the great cricketing counties; but I think he would have said that his home in first-class cricket was Lord's; he was a most loyal supporter of MCC cricket, and the admirable likeness of him by Mr Stuart Wortley shows him batting on that historic ground, the combination of man and place surely most appropriate: the greatest cricketer in the history of the game batting on the most celebrated ground in the world.

He has gone and it is difficult to believe that a combination so remarkable of health, activity, power, eye, hand, devotion and opportunity will present itself again; if not then the greatest cricketer of all time has passed away, and we who saw his play, were encouraged by his invariable kindness, and gloried in his overwhelming excellence, may well think ourselves fortunate that a few of our cricketing years fell within his long cricketing life. It was a shock to hear that W. G. was no more; the crowd at his funeral, at a time when many of his greatest admirers were occupied with war work, was the best proof of the respect, admiration and affection he had won. The well-known lines in remembrance of Alfred Mynn pray that the Kentish Turf may lie lightly on him; it now provides a calm and honoured home to the remains of

WG GRACE.

© John Wisden & Co
 
Sponsored Links

Why not you? Read and learn how!