One hundred and fifty years ago this month, one of cricket's most famous and enduring players made his first-class debut, at Kennington Oval. It started badly for 16-year-old William Gilbert Grace - he made a duck batting at No. 3 for Gentlemen of the South against Players of the South - but thereafter for him the match was a triumph. With the ball he took 5 for 44 and 8 for 40 as his side won by an innings.
Although this was Grace's first-class bow, he had already played a fair amount of good cricket. To the modern eye, the game then would have looked bizarre. Much of the bowling would have been roundarm, most pitches were poor, often dangerous, meaning runs were at a premium and the scoring rates slow, while players wore striped or spotted shirts and white trousers held up with a belt, and quite often bowler hats.
Grace had first played for his father's club a day after his ninth birthday, batting at No. 11 and scoring 3 not out. In 1860, two days after his 12th birthday, he scored his first club half-century for Clifton, earning him a bat from his godfather as a reward. In August 1863, aged 15, he played his first proper representative match for a Bristol & Didcot XVIII against the multi-talented All England XI. He scored 32 as Bristol beat the professionals, who were weary after a summer criss-crossing the country, by an innings. A local press report described Grace as "a lanky, loose-limbed youth full of life and vim". The stocky, heavily bearded figure beloved by cartoonists and the public later in his career was some way off.
Schooling did not interfere with his cricket. Grace had left his school during 1862 and thereafter was home-tutored by his brother-in-law.
In June 1864 he was invited to play for the All England XI at Bath, a remarkable honour for someone still only 15. He was run out for 15 but was not disappointed, as "I had played for the All England XI". He was then invited to join the South Wales side on their annual tour of London. While there was no association with Wales, various Graces had been included on the tours for several years, and with his brother EM still travelling back from Australia, Henry Grace suggested his younger brother come along in his place.
The Graces' tour almost ended before it had started. The South Wales captain asked Henry if WG could sit out the second game as an old MCC member wanted a match. Henry was having none of it and said unless WG played not only would they both return home, no Graces would ever play for the side again. The captain wisely backed down.
In his first match, against Surrey at The Oval, WG scored 5 and 38 and then at Hove he made 170, his first hundred; he added 56 second time round. Given the row over his possible omission for the game, it was ironic that South Wales played with only ten men. EM's ship was expected to arrive during the match and so he was included in the XI, but in the event he did not dock until late on the first day.
That was followed by WG's first appearance at Lord's, where he made 50 in a drawn game against MCC. While he was to make many much higher scores, the Lord's pitch at the time was abysmal and two counties refused to play on it. It was uneven, pockmarked with holes and pebbles, and balls could rear or shoot from the same spot, while the creases were marked by cutting a strip in the turf. The only boundary was in front of the pavilion; everything else had to be run out.
Returning home, Grace enjoyed reasonable success in the remainder of the summer, although he made a pair playing for XXII of Bath against the All England XI at the end of the season.
His breakthrough came in 1865, when he scored 2169 runs in all at an average of 40, including 300 in his 13 first-class matches. He was effective with the ball as well, taking 20 wickets at 13.40. Against the United England XI at Bath he took four wickets in an innings win for Lansdown. The three Grace brothers - WG, EM and Henry - took all 19 wickets to fall to bowlers. From there WG travelled to London under his own steam, a few weeks ahead of the South Wales side who he had once more agreed to play for.
On June 22 came his first-class debut for Gentlemen of the South against Players of the South at The Oval. He was sent in at No. 3 - he later said it was "a compliment which I keenly felt I had not justified" - but was dismissed for 0, lured down the pitch by a slow, flighted delivery from Farmer Bennett and then stumped by Heathfield Stephenson.
He more than made up for his failure when Players of the South batted. Although overarm bowling had just been legalised, WG had learned under the old roundarm regulations and his action was described in the 1919 Memorial Biography as "a kind of slinging and his pace a kind of fast medium". He took 13 wickets for 84 and his bowling was, according to Scores & Biographies, "very effective… and his extreme youth must be taken into account". The Surrey club had the ball mounted and presented to him.
A fortnight later he was picked to play for Gentlemen against Players at The Oval. In the days before Test cricket - and through until the early 20th century - this fixture was one of the main ones of the season and just about the highest recognition a cricketer could hope for. For someone so young to be asked to play was an indication of how quickly Grace's reputation had spread. Although Gentlemen lost, Grace acquitted himself well, opening the bowling in both innings and taking seven wickets. He retained his place for the return match at Lord's a week later, opening the batting in both innings with EM, failing twice on a pitch described by team-mate Russell Walker as "almost unplayable".
He celebrated his 17th birthday at Islington, playing for Gentlemen of Middlesex against Gentlemen of England, scoring 48. As if to underline the casual approach to matches at that time, WG went to Lord's in mid-July to watch the second day of the MCC's match against Suffolk and found himself roped in to play for a Suffolk side two men short. That was during South Wales' tour in and around London, where he enjoyed success with both bat and ball. The highlight came against Surrey, when he took 8 for 72.
In late August he played for an England XI against Surrey at The Oval, again opening the batting with EM and scoring 35 in a rain-affected draw. His fame had spread but not as far as the Times, which called him "NG Grace" in its preview. That was a mistake nobody was to make in the years to come.
What happened next
- WG Grace was to dominate the game, and it was said "he found cricket a country pastime and left it a national institution". Such was his effect on Gentlemen v Players matches that from 1865 to 1906 he scored 6008 runs and took 276 wickets. Up to and including his first game, the Players had won 19 consecutive contests; thereafter until his last appearance they won only four.
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WG Grace: An Intimate Biography by Robert Low (John Blake Publishing Ltd 2010)
WG Grace: A Life by Simon Rae (Faber & Faber 1999)
WG Grace: His Life & Times by Eric Midwinter (George Allen & Unwin 1981)