July 18, 2017 – it’s WG Grace’s 169th birth anniversary. Nothing special about that number in the game as far as I know. Not for Grace certainly. Nor for cricket either. Off-hand, I can only think of Mpumalanga Under-19s’ team total – with nine ducks – when Shania Lee-Swart scored 160 in 86 balls. And, of course, Sachin Tendulkar’s masterful innings in the Cape Town Test of January 1997.
However, in an insignificant coincidence, I have only just finished reading a most captivating biography of the man. Written by Richard Tomlinson, Amazing Grace: The Man Who Was W.G. is a rich read, a compellingly told tale. Followers of the game, enthusiasts with a regard for good history, or people just looking for a story as yet untold will all find something in it. The book is as much a biography of WG as it is an attempt at dispelling rumours and half-truths about a man Tomlinson rightly calls sport’s ‘first global superstar’, possibly the most famous Englishman in the late 1800s.
Most of us know at least this much about Grace without resorting to the internet: 1. His numbers with bat and ball are the stuff of dreams, 2. His seemingly unending sequence of big runs a puzzle given the substandard pitches of the day, 3. He was one of the first to be equally adept at playing off back and front foot, 4. He was very money-minded and wouldn’t dream of kitting up without being promised good money, 5. He was a doctor but barely so, 6. Many of his family members (male, it needn’t be said), including brothers Edward and Fred, were cricketers of varying degrees of repute, 7. The main gate at Lord’s is named after him and there’s a statue of him inside the premises, 8. He played first-class cricket till he was into his 60s, 9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and 10. “They came to see me bat, not you umpire”. Some of you might know a bit more. And not everything you know may be true.
Grace, as we discover in the book, had little interest in talking about himself even if he was very aware of his worth and popularity. There are books about Grace, some of them written during his lifetime, but they are strewn with errors simply because the man himself couldn’t be bothered to correct the record. When he wrote about cricket himself though, he was thorough. Cricket mattered to him, and he cared that his thoughts on the game should matter to others. What Amazing Grace does is provide a very close peek into the life and times of a batsman whose achievements are astounding even today.
But to get at those details, you need to find a copy and devour it (you really should). I mean to focus on a couple of things that find resonance in modern cricket – and in places his country ruled at the time but are now distant, politically, culturally, everythingally.
First, the cricketer as a mercenary. Grace played all his cricket as an amateur, manipulating circumstances to suit his status – easily, because he was so popular and people were willing to pay good money to watch him play at the time. Twice he travelled to Australia to play and on both occasions, he earned much, much more than everyone else on the England team. He demanded it, and got it too. Not without negotiation, of course. There was more than one testimonial organised for him, and he was quite clear, on each occasion, that he was in it for the money, and it had better be good. But there would be no tour without Grace at the forefront, gate receipts (and ticket prices too) went up when Grace was scheduled to play.
Not many cricketers of the time – and there were none like Grace then – understood this. Today, practically every cricketer does. What Chris Gayle said the other day, for example, was educative. “The Universe Boss doesn’t just come like that overnight,” he said with a laugh. He was talking about money, investments and life after cricket. Heaven knows how much he has earned from the game, as its biggest true-blue Twenty20 superstar. But he knows his worth, as he should. People want him because he translates to good business and why, really, should he do it for free?
Grace did it, at about a hundred notches below, in the 1880s and 1890s. A professional who played up his amateur status, and because he was so good, got away with it.
Then, that the whole thingamajig about ‘spirit of cricket’, Grace had it only in some degree. Bad-tempered rants, pushing the rules to the limit and, generally, being a bit of a spoilt old so-and-so. On August 29, 1882 at The Oval, for example, he did what the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack reported thus: “[Billy] Murdoch played a ball to leg, for which [Alfred] Lyttelton ran. The ball was returned, and [Sammy] Jones having completed the first run, and thinking wrongly, but very naturally, that the ball was dead, went out of his ground. Grace put his wicket down, and the umpire gave him out.”
Australia still won the Test, and the ‘Ashes’ were born, but that’s an aside in the Grace story. He was doing what India did to Ian Bell at Trent Bridge in July 2011. Spirit-wise, it was the same as Mankading. It was about learning the rules of the game as best as possible and using them to win games of cricket. Spirit be damned! In Victorian England of 1882, remember.
And that’s what set him apart: The way he approached the game. In the modern era, we talk about see-ball-hit-ball batsmanship. We talk about 360-degree cricket. We lament the good old days when everything was all orthodox and good and how so much is so off-centre and aberrant and even avant-garde these days.
Back in the 1880s, Grace was causing eyebrows to rise and upper lips to stiffen by taking guard outside leg stump and even playing balls to the leg side with a straight bat. And even – gasp! – swinging the little bat that looked like a matchstick in his massive arms to smite sixes. We now wonder at Virender Sehwag trying to hit a six to get to a century or a double-century, about AB de Villiers sweeping fast bowlers and such stuff. Alright, Grace might never have swept Fred ‘The Demon’ Spofforth but argue with this: Unprepared pitches, flimsy and even fragile protection v designer tracks for big runs and space-age gear – if Grace did what he did then, what wouldn’t he do today?
Before his time? Certainly.
Not just Grace actually – if you read some of the stories of the administrators of the time, you might well go, “Oh, that’s what Jagmohan Dalmiya did!”
When people say cricket wouldn’t have been the same without the good Dr Grace, they are probably right. His endorsement of Wills’s Cigarettes, F. Bryan’s Batting Gloves (rubber sewn on) and Colman’s Mustard, yes, but also the resonance his legacy finds in Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and all the modern men so easily judged. And the next time someone raises a churchy stink about ‘spirit of cricket’, tell them about the time, in 1882, when poor Sammy Jones was taught a lesson by ‘the man who was W.G.’.