He turned the old one-stringed instrument into a many-chorded lyre. As KS Ranjitsinhji put it, “He turned (batting’s) many straight channels into one great winding river.”
Before WG Grace, batting had been unidimensional. The greatest of them either played forward, or back. They specialised on the off-side or leg. They were grafters or hitters.
The doctor was a synthesis of styles witnessed in cricket through the decades before him. He played forward and back with the same dexterity. He struck towards the off-side and leg, played straight and could hit the ball with a horizontal bat when needed.
Besides, he could hit all around the wicket and scamper for his runs all day without any sign of weariness. Some of the stories may be apocryphal, but often Grace performed his monumental feats on the cricket field after being awake all night catering to patients. Nothing really made him eschew his approach of going for every run that came his way. “I don’t like defensive strokes,” he said, “you can only get three off them.”
WG was a colossus. Even among the mightiest giants who walked across 22-yards in the centuries old history of the game, he stands head and shoulders above all but a rare handful.
He was more than that. No one characterised late Victorian and Edwardian England than he. It is said that during the last quarter of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th only the Queen and arguably Mr William Gladstone were more readily recognisable to the common man in England. One may note that this statement takes into consideration Queen Victoria’s son, Edward VII, who ruled Britain from 1901 to 1910.
In another benchmark of popularity, WG was perhaps the most famous beard between Karl Marx and George Bernard Shaw, even in an era when facial fungus was abundant and flowing.
Yes, it is the beard we remember, having come across it through numerous surviving pictures. Often, in the photographs, that enormous bush is more grey than black. That and the girth. Rather pronounced girth. A result of his weakness for butter and whiskey.
And when one looks at these attributes, the uninitiated has his doubts. How good a player was he with these rather unathletic quirks? Is his greatness all a myth?
A look at the record books, especially if we do it superficially, gives us even less reassurance. WG averaged 32 in Test cricket, and 39 in First-Class matches. To the modern eye, these numbers are ensconced in mediocrity. So why the fuss, one asks? Why reports of notices on the ground, “Admission threepence. If Dr Grace plays admission sixpence.” Why does he loom like a leviathan over the cricketing past, and is universally acknowledged as the father of cricket? Why did another man of considerable girth, GK Chesterton, observe that Pickwick was the true English fairy and WG, the bulky sprite, was a prodigious Puck in a truly English midsummer day’s dream.
To answer the questions we have to adjust our vision to the times, of dicey pitches and rudimentary curatorship, when often grass was removed from the pitches by grazing sheep. We have to remember that photography, especially cricket photography, did not quite develop before 1890s, and by then WG was already in his mid-40s.
We have to go back to 1866 and find a young WG, all of 18 years of age, tall and strapping, the facial hair still less than glorified wisps, batting for England against Surrey. On the first day, he stroked his way to 224 not out. On the second morning, as England fielded, captain VE Walker generously gave the lad permission to leave the field. The athletic youth made his way to the Crystal Palace and won the quarter-mile hurdle race at the National Olympian Association Meeting. The 70 seconds that he clocked was highly creditable in those days.
Yes, WG was a champion athlete, a fantastic specimen of the sportsman. He was not always overweight with salt and pepper beard. Quite the opposite. For decades he was lean, lithe in spite of his great height, and the beard was pitch black.
How good a player was he?
His career spanned 40 years — mostly a tale of unqualified success, perhaps with a small dip in between before another supreme period in his late forties. Even snapshots of his brilliance will assume the proportions of a robust collection of Wisdens. But let us try to get an idea.
During his first great phase, the 10 years from 1868 to 1877, there was an enormous chasm between WG and the rest of the batsmen. He topped the averages each year, but for one slightly mediocre 1875 in which he finished second while boasting the highest aggregate. In most of these years, the next best man in English cricket struggled to achieve half of WG’s numbers. Yes, he was almost twice as good as his contemporaries.
Averaging 39 in First-Class cricket in those days was unthinkable. He played Tests after he was in his 30s, and did not play them regularly. But the 32 he averaged in the early days of this highest format of the game also placed him in the top bracket of batsmanship.
Perhaps 1871 was his glorious high. 23-year-old WG scored 2739 runs at 78.25. The next best was Richard Daft, scoring 565 at 37.66. WG hit 10 centuries. The next best was 2.
In 1876, from the 11th if August till the 18th he performed miracles that was akin to God creating the world in seven days. 344 at Canterbury for MCC, followed by 177 at Clifton and 318 not out at Cheltenham for Gloucestershire.
In 28 seasons he topped 1000, in 5 scored more than 2000.
Well, that is only about half the story. On 9 occasions he captured 100 wickets. In 1867 he topped the bowling averages. Those days he used to bowl round-arm at brisk pace. In 1874, 1875 and 1877 he captured the highest number of wickets, the same years that his willow was ruling the English grounds as never before. Down the years his bowling became slower, almost comical in the looping enticement, but he remained as canny as ever.
There was no better batsman in the history of the game till then, and there have been few since. And very few English bowlers of the day could claim to be undisputedly better than him with the ball.
To get a perspective of how great a batsman he was, let us look at the following table which underlines his deeds between 1868 and 1877.
|Year||WG Grace||Closest Rival||Hundreds in the Season|
|Runs||Ave||Name||Runs||Ave||WG Grace||Closest Rival|
In all he scored 54,211 runs at 39.25, playing majority of his cricket on precarious wickets. It was not only difficult to score runs, it could be arduous too. For a number of years when WG batted, one had to hit the ball out of the ground, or keep running for all the score. At Lord’s for instance, one had to hit the ball into St John’s Wood Road or every run had to be earned through shuttling between the wickets. WG did all that. The girth came later.
The 1860s and 1870s were not the only years of his greatness though. He enjoyed one of the most fascinating seasons in 1895, when he was 47. WG’s class was timeless.
At the same time, umpire Bob Thoms, who had watched him very, very closely, maintained that if WG had not been the best batsman of his time he would have ended as the best bowler. Perhaps that is an exaggeration. But he was good, very, very good. His wickets amounted to 2809, at 18.14, with 240 five-wicket hauls and 64 ten-fors in 870 matches. He was deception itself.
In 1877, even as he towered over the rest of the batsmen in the season, he captured 17 wickets against Nottinghamshire, the last 7 off 17 balls without conceding a run.
As a young man he was an excellent outfielder as well, a brilliant cover-point. As he aged, he moved to point, preferring that position to slip, with the intention of chattering to the batsmen and getting his attention, and eventually his wicket. He could throw from far, fast and accurate, often on the run. In 1868 he was just about 20 when the Aboriginal cricketers toured England. WG beat their best man in the competition of throwing the ball. But he was at his best while fielding off his own bowling. Sometimes he would follow through all the way to silly mid-off to bring off fascinating catches.
And then there are all the tales of his gamesmanship. Of his ‘educating’ umpires, of his running young batsmen out as they tried to pat down a divot on the pitch. Francis Thomson said of him, “The long whiskered Doctor that laugheth the rules to scorn.” But, it was more of playing within the rules and stretching them to the limits. And that was just peripheral to his phenomenal performances.
Yes, WG the cricketer was supreme. He took the noble game by the scruff of the neck and changed every dimension of it. He shaped it, moulded it, refined it and carried it into modern times.
He was the father of cricket in the truest sense of the word. He was, as the inscription on the memorial gates at Lord’s simply puts it — “William Gilbert Grace, the Great Cricketer.”