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WG Grace in Test matches and beyond, cricket’s first superstar

WG Grace, middle (credit: Wisden.com)
WG Grace, middle (credit: Wisden.com)

Given the awesome stature that he had already acquired in first-class cricket, it seemed almost inevitable that W.G. Grace would score a hundred on his Test debut.

So Grace did, at The Oval in 1880, the second such distinction after Charles Bannerman’s feat in the inaugural Test in Melbourne in 1876-77. Grace’s 152 helped England win by five wickets. Australian terror Fred Spofforth was injured during that Test, but Grace was at his best against fast bowling.

Peter Hartland wrote, “When the Test match era began in 1877, the process of allowing the batsman as fair a chance as the bowler, though reasonably advanced, still had a long way to go.” In the early 1880s, the heavy roller was complemented by the grass mower, which were used over tended soil. This made life a bit easier for the batsmen.

Grace’s exhilarating duels with Spofforth

His duels with Spofforth were exhilarating, with one such occasion being in what came to be known as ‘Spofforth’s match’ at The Oval in August 1882 when England lost at home for the first time. It was this Test that led to the creation of the Ashes.

On a treacherous wicket rendered well-nigh unplayable due to rain, England were set 85 to win. At 51 for two, with Grace still at the wicket, victory seemed in sight. But he holed out to mid-off for 32, and England collapsed to 77 all out. Spofforth took seven wickets in each innings, and the rest is history.

In 1886 Grace performed the astounding feat of scoring a hundred and capturing all ten wickets in an innings in the same match. He hit up 104 in MCC’s only innings, and bagged two for 60 and ten for 49, against Oxford University.

As late as 1895, at nearly 47 years, Grace was a rejuvenated man. He resurrected his career by becoming the first to score over 1000 runs in May of that year. It is a cherished achievement at the beginning of the English season when it is generally cold and damp, and the ball darts around. He also notched up 100 first-class hundreds, achieving the coveted landmark in the game against Somerset at Bristol.

As if to celebrate, he went on to hit 288 out of a total of 474. Grace was the lone man to achieve these two distinctions in the 19th century. He topped the run tally for the season with 2346 runs. The next year, he made his third triple century, two decades after compiling his first two.

Amazingly, Grace was captain of Gloucestershire from 1871 to 1898. He led England in 13 Tests, playing 22 in all and scoring 1098 runs at an average of 32.29 with two centuries at The Oval against Australia, 170 being the highest in 1886.

Though he played his last first-class match in 1908, when he was sixty, the same year that Bradman was born, W.G.’s career was effectively over by the close of the nineteenth century.

His final appearance at Lord’s for The Gentlemen was in 1899. He was still captain but did not bowl, and batted only at no. 7, instead of his customary position at the top of the order. He scored 78 before being run out, his age and bulk unable to meet the demands of sprinting up and down the pitch with youthful partners.

As Vic Marks noted: “The Gentlemen won by an innings, which was hardly surprising since the side contained many of the men who were to become legendary figures of the Edwardian era - (Archie) MacLaren, (C.B.) Fry, (K.S.) Ranjitsinhji, and F.S. Jackson. On the Players side was a 21-year-old Yorkshireman Wilfred Rhodes, who was to have the rare privilege - and pain - of bowling to both W.G. and his Australian counterpart of the next generation, Donald Bradman.”

Grace aggregated 6008 runs for the Gentlemen against the Players - more than twice the next man - and also took 276 wickets.

In addition to his three first-class triple centuries, Grace knocked up 10 double centuries in his tally of 126 three-figure knocks. He made 1000 runs in a season 28 times, the only other player to achieve it so many times being Frank Woolley. Grace scored a hundred in each innings of a match thrice.

Grace’s first-class career aggregate was a record at the time

His career aggregate of 54,896 runs at an average of 39.55 was then a record. It is remarkable that in such a long career played on uncovered wickets of dubious quality, Grace did not bag a single pair. Lord Harris paid his tribute later: “Grace was just as watchful when his score was 200 as when he was on 0 - and just as reluctant to leave the wicket on dismissal.”

He also took 2876 first-class wickets at an average of 17.92 and, as was only to be expected from a man of his temperament, a brilliant fielder off his own bowling. Amazingly, even a century later, W.G. Grace is still fifth in the all-time rungetters list, and sixth among the wicket-takers in the first-class arena.

Vic Marks, in The Wisden Illustrated History of Cricket, summed up the career of cricket’s first superstar: “W.G. Grace was to dwarf all others in the period 1865 to 1900. He became as celebrated as Queen Victoria herself. Unwittingly, Grace carried the game of cricket into the modern era almost single-handed.” There is indeed little doubt that he transformed the game and the public’s awareness of it.

Perhaps appropriately, the last word on Grace should come from his memorial biography published under the auspices of the MCC.

Sir Home Gordon eulogised, “That he will never have an equal in the future is to us equally an axiom because never again will the conditions under which it is played be so difficult as they were when he built up his reputation by demonstrating his superiority alike over them and over his contemporaries, a position he holds for decades.”

(Excerpt from Indra Vikram Singh's book 'Don's Century').

WG Grace was a formidable figure even while walking out to bat.
WG Grace was a formidable figure even while walking out to bat.

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Edited by Rohit Mishra
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