In cricket's history, perhaps only Don Bradman has made as much of an international impact as WG Grace. Grace, however, played in an era when England's empire was at its height and his career spanned a period when sport changed from a casual pastime into a beast of global interest. Such was his fame that it was said that he was the best-known Englishman aside from William Gladstone.
WG Grace in the colours of London County
© The Cricketer|
But while there is no questioning Grace's reputation or ability, he was a prickly character, used to getting his own way both on and off the pitch. His falling out with Gloucestershire in 1899 highlighted this side of his personality.
While Grace was nominally an amateur - a vital distinction in a era where class was prevalent across all society - the reality was that he earned large sums of money from cricket, certainly more than any contemporary professional. And he was always on the lookout for ways to maximise his earning potential. Wisden noted: "He was, throughout his career, quite breathtakingly grasping when his eye caught the glint of hard cash."
In 1898 he received an offer from the Crystal Palace Company (CPC) in south London inviting him to help them form a first-class cricket club. Although Grace had captained Gloucestershire since their formation in 1870 - and since 1873 had almost single-handedly raised sides - he saw no conflict between continuing in that role and accepting the offer from London. He had, after all, managed to run Gloucestershire at the same time as he had played a considerable amount of other cricket for Gentlemen v Players, England, North v South etc.
Negotiations with the CPC culminated in an announcement in The Times on October 11, 1898 to the effect that Grace had agreed to run the London club and also to move from Bristol to Sydenham "to be able to devote his whole time and attention to the new club." The deal guaranteed Grace £600 a year and a share of gate money. Even Grace seemed to realise the response that this would provoke, for the following day the same paper published a telegram from him stating that he no intention of retiring from the Gloucestershire XI.
That winter, Grace moved to London and threw his energies into establishing the new venture, which included redeveloping the site at Crystal Palace. Gloucestershire, where is brother, EM, was still secretary, remained silent.
The 1899 season started with Grace, who was also England's captain, leading his side in a few matches, but perhaps what really concentrated minds in the west country was that four other Gloucestershire players were included in his first match. Grace also staged a coup by arranging a game between South of England and the touring Australians on his new ground. Over the two days, 18,000 paid to watch. From there, Grace journeyed a few miles to Blackheath to lead Gloucestershire in their first outing of the summer against Kent. Three more games around the Home Counties followed, with mixed results, but Grace did not appear to have any inkling that there was a potential problem.
On his return to Sydenham from the last of those games on May 28 that there was became all too clear when he discovered a letter from the Gloucestershire committee, who had met on May 16, curtly demanding to know which matches he intended to play for the county. Grace was livid, fuming that it questioned his loyalty and commitment in what he had already hinted was likely to be his final season with them.
CJ Posthuma and WG Grace prepare to toss before a London County game at Crystal Palace in 1901
© The Cricketer|
His response did not pull any punches. He resigned as captain, after making it clear he would have played in "nearly all our matches" and his final sentence was unambiguous. "I have the greatest affection for the county of my birth," he wrote, "but for the committee, as a body, the greatest contempt." Gilbert Jessop later recalled that the tone of Grace's response was a surprise as " a majority of them were close personal friends of the Old Man."
Friends subsequently urged him to retract this parting shot, but Grace was unrepentant. "Go back and tell the committee to underline it a hundred times," he told them. The committee accepted his resignation "with regret". Two months later he wrote of them that they were unable "to speak the truth and are a bad lot".
Within a fortnight, Grace had played his final Test and lost the England captaincy as well. His batting was as effective as ever, but he had become a liability in the field - he was, after all, almost 51 and nearly 18 stone - and had been barracked by the crowd. He told friends that "the ground was getting too far away". After the first Test at Trent Bridge he is reported to have sat on the train with his old friend FS Jackson and muttered: "It's all over, Jakker. I shan't play again." He didn't.
Grace's time in Sydenham was happy, although marred by personal tragedy with the premature deaths of his daughter and eldest son. Although the London County venture started promisingly when they were granted first-class status in 1900, the public never really warmed to what were essentially friendly matches, and in 1905 they lost that status and with it the ability to attract decent players. In 1908, the same summer that Grace played his final first-class match, the grounds and club were locked when the parent company ran out of funds.
His feud with Gloucestershire was, fortunately, short lived. In 1902 he was made a life member of the county and that same year took a side to Bristol to play in a charity match and was warmly received. That encouraged him to arrange home and away matches between London County and Gloucestershire in 1903. In June, he led his new side to victory over his old in what was to be his last game in the county, a fortnight after also winning the home leg. It was almost the last hurrah of London County, but the bridges had been mended.
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Wisden Cricket Monthly - Various
The Cricketer - Various
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 1998
WG Grace - A Life - Simon Rae (Faber & Faber 1998)
WG - Robert Low (Richard Cohen 1977)
Cricket At The Crystal Palace - Brian Pearce (Brian Pearce 2005)
Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo