The epithet of the greatest and most well-known sportsman of the Victorian Age most undoubtedly fall upon the broad shoulders of William Gilbert Grace. A figure who dominated cricket for decades. He was the first sporting superstar and the epitome of a craftsman. He was such a brilliant batsman and excellent bowler that suggestions were tabled at Lord’s about ways to curb his commanding influence upon matches by blindfolding him to redress the balance. Upon hearing this W.G. declared that he wanted to be a batsman not a bloody selector!
W.G. Grace was born in Downend, Bristol in 1848. It was the same year that Karl Marx released The Communist Manifesto, I don’t know what was on the ‘B’ side though. This coincidence seems to have influenced the young Grace for he fashioned both his politics and his appearance on the founder of communism, growing a long beard like Marx as well as securing a job at Avonmouth Docks, a hotbed for socialism at the time. There he helped develop several left-wing cricketers who became the bedrock of Gloucestershire’s championship winning sides of the period. He referred in a comradely fashion to these men as his ‘brothers’.
Grace exploited his talent and influence to endeavour to bring communism to the conservative sport of cricket that had hitherto been dominated by Old Etonians, Old Carthusians and Old Hartcliffians (the Old Etonians and Old Carthusians needed someone to carry their gear and take up dangerous fielding positions such as short-leg and silly-mid-on). Here are some of Docker W.G. Grace’s radical beliefs:
- He vehemently believed that EVERYONE should be given a chance to shine regardless of class….although several of his team-mates thought this was simply because he didn’t like getting red marks on his cricket whites.
- He was against the introduction of floodlit cricket because he didn’t want to encourage the spread of blacklegs.
- He was against Test Matches being played overseas. This was because he thought the wooden decks wouldn’t take spin and that the names of the grounds (ships) would be given silly names such as The Row val, Edge Bathton and the M. Sea. G.
- He was against hoardings around the boundary that advertised tobacco. This was because he was knackered after running to the boundary, while fielding, in a failed effort to catch up with a square-cut and if he didn’t go against the hoarding he would’ve collapsed.
- He believed that players should be picked for England irrespective of class. He never lived to see the fulfilment of this dream when England were regularly stuffed by Australia from 1989-2003.
- If he was at the bowler’s end and a single was there for the taking he organised a ballot first before going on strike.
Many of W.G.’s onfield antics have gone down in cricketing folklore. The most famous of which was when he refused to be given out LBW at The Oval in 1879 because he was in Cleethorpes at the time. Diagrams, meticulously produced by surveyor P.Y. ‘Hawkeye’ Malone clearly showed, using the ball’s trajectory, a horse and cart, the 2.15 Express to London, a hansom cab, Shanks’ Pony and a devil of a throw from the boundary, that the ball would’ve just clipped the off-stump at the Oval had it not struck Grace’s leg in Cleethorpes. Despite the weight of this evidence, Grace belligerently still refused to accept the decision and thus earned himself a reputation for obstinacy.
There was many a time also where there was a close shout against W.G. for a catch behind, or LBW where he refused to accept the umpire’s decision, if it was unfavourable, then glared at the official while pointing to the sky and saying ‘Ultimately the man upstairs knows.’ This was unfair because TV replays didn’t become available until the 1960s so ‘the man upstairs’ was as much in the dark as anyone else.
On another famous occasion a spinner bowled Grace very early in his innings. W.G. simply turned around replaced the bail that had come adrift and explained to the umpire that he had wind. The umpire accepted this and gave him Not Out because he’d heard rumours that on overseas tours the sailing ship always arrived a couple of days earlier than expected if Grace was onboard.
Grace was responsible for many cricketing firsts as well as extraordinary feats of batting and bowling. Once, when fielding for Gloucestershire against Lancashire at Durdham Down in 1871 he asked the Lancashire batsman, J.P. Trophy, while he was at the crease if he had a liking for dogs. Trophy replied that he did and was particularly fond of Huskies and had four at home in Bolton. This was music to Grace’s ears as a consignment of dog pulled transport bound for Norway had fallen off the back of a ship at Avonmouth. Trophy willingly bought one on the cheap and thus became the first batsman ever to be ‘sledged’ at the wicket.
It was said, in 1870, that W.G. Grace refused to wear a t-shirt at Gloucestershire’s matches emblazoned with the letters ‘W.G.’ because he was afraid his long beard would cover over the tail on the ‘G’ and inebriated spectators would urinate against him. Even the prospect of obtaining a penny each time refused to sway his opinion. It was also said, in 1872, that because of his prolific batting his England and Gloucestershire team-mates called him ‘The Door-to-Door Salesman’ because once he was in it was nigh on impossible to get him out again. However, when he became the first man to do ‘The Double’ in 1874 (later achieved by Preston North End) nobody said anything, This was because the person responsible for saying the previous two things had died in 1873.
In 1895 Grace, well into his 40s, hit a thousand runs before the end of May. Although what Peter May’s grandfather, George, was doing baring his rear all summer at cricket matches has never been adequately explained!
When Grace died in 1915 the cricket world lost its greatest son, although many didn’t believe it at the time as he’d also been given ‘Out’ in 1907, 1911 and 1912 but had refused to budge. Only when a third umpire was called in was W.G.’s death certificate given the doleful signature. W.G. Grace remains to this day, England’s greatest Victorian cricketer. Although with the relaxed views now taken on what constitutes being qualified to play for England there is always the possibility that another Victorian will represent England who eclipses Grace’s achievements. A Downender replaced by a Downunderer.