“The crowd has come to watch me bat, not to see you bowl”
There was nothing graceful about Wiliam Gilbert Grace’s words when he asked the bowler to continue bowling after being given out LBW by the umpire for 6 in a club game in 1876. Such was his bravado that the umpire allowed him to carry on. Grace, popularly known by his initials, WG, went on to make 400 not out.
While it was not anywhere close to an act of sportsmanship, there was not much wrong in what WG said. He was the most popular sportsman in the country by a distance even though he was only 28 when he pulled off this pompous act. In modern-day cricket, more than 100 years after the first Test was played in 1877, there are still a few examples of cricketers touching unrivalled heights at that age. Sir Don Bradman, Wasim Akram, Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli are some examples.
WG started playing at the age of nine, representing his West Gloucestershire Cricket Club which was founded by his father, Henry Mills Grace. Born into a privileged family, WG used it to his full advantage to cherish his love for cricket. At 12, he recorded his first fifty for the club - 51*.
At 15, when South Wales’ captain wanted to drop Grace after the first match (which he only played because his elder brother, EM Grace, had not returned from the tour of Australia), Grace’s father intervened threatening the club to be deprived of anyone from his family representing the club ever again. The skipper backed down giving WG another game where he amassed 170 and 56 not out against Gentleman of Sussex at Hove, aged only 15, to become a well known figure in English cricketing circles.
While Grace claimed that series to be his first introduction to first-class cricket, cricketing books suggest that his first-class debut came in the next season - in 1865, when he took the field for Gentleman of South against the Players of South, at the age of 16. Bowling figures of 13 for 84 helped him earn a place in the Gentlemen v Players fixture.
In an era where Test cricket was yet to come into existence, Gentlemen v Players was the most reputable fixture of the time. Grace found a place in the fixture aged only 16.
Till 1962, cricketers were classified as Gentlemen (Amateurs) and Players (Professionals). While Professionals’ daily livelihood depended on playing cricket alone, amateurs made intermittent appearances on the cricket field with a different source of primary income. Grace was an amateur who was following the footsteps of his family and pursued medical science along with playing cricket.
Gentlemen’s sporadic appearances handed them a disadvantage against the more regular Players. At the time of Grace’s first participation in the fixture, Gentlemen were on a 19-match losing streak. Grace’s brilliance single-handedly lifted the team to 27 wins in their next 39 matches (only four losses).
At 18, he became the biggest name in cricket when he got into an All-England team and tonked 224 not out against Surrey. On paper, this was his maiden first-class hundred. Currently, only Sachin Tendulkar can claim such popularity at 18. At 21, he was recruited by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). By now, he was so good that his opposition players were asking him to play with a smaller bat.
The same season, he was widely applauded for recording his 10th first-class century. Little did people know he would go on to score 114 more becoming the first man to score hundred first-class hundreds. In 1876, he introduced the world to a triple hundred, scoring 344 against Kent playing for Gentlemen of MCC. A week later, he notched up another triple hundred - 318* for Gloucestershire against Yorkshire. In between, there was a 177 against Nottinghamshire. In total, he amassed 839 first-class runs in a little over a week.
He loved cricket so much that his honeymoon in 1973 was celebrated on a tour of Australia as the captain of WG Grace’s XI in 15 tour games. The aforementioned incident when he scored 400 runs came on the day when his wife was giving birth to their second child. He played 44 seasons of first-class cricket, ending his career in 1908, aged 61. His sons - WG Grace Jnr. and CB Grace ended their careers in 1906.
Grace piled up 54,211 runs. His bowling was not talked about much but he snaffled 2,809 wickets. An amateur by status, he earned more than most of the professionals. His medical training and practice were regularly hindered by his presence on the cricket field.
At Test level, Grace made his debut in the 1880 Test against Australia at The Oval. Opening the innings with his brother, EM, he scored 152, becoming the first England player to score a hundred on debut. The team also included his younger brother, Fred Grace, hence making it the first occasion of three brothers playing in a Test XI. Unfortunately, Fred passed away two weeks after the Test.
In the 1882 Test at Oval, Grace’s act of running out Sammy Jones in an unsporting manner fired up Fred Spofforth who responded with a 14-wicket haul in the match leading to England’s defeat. The repercussions of the result in the British media gave birth to the Ashes. At 51, he played his last day of Test cricket on this day in 1899. It was also the debut for two upcoming icons - Wilfred Rhodes for England and Victor Trumper for Australia.
Grace scored two hundreds in a tally of 1,098 runs while bagging 9 wickets representing England in 22 Tests, all against Australia. Like it is the case with most cricketers of his era, it would be unfair to judge him based solely on his Test record.
He was undoubtedly the first cricketer to hold superstar status and was revered as the ‘Father of Cricket’. His medical degree monikered him as ‘The Doctor’ or ‘Doc’.
Beginning his career carrying the innocuous looks of a nine-year old and ending with the most famous pot-belly and beard in the game at 61, Grace’s presence can still be seen at Test cricket in England since he is the favorite and most acknowledged get-up avatar of cricket fans.
Grace died post a cardiac arrest at his home in 1915. Unverified reports say that he was still playing club cricket a year prior to his death.