The Great Accumulator

John Sturrock

  • W.G. Grace: A Life by Simon Rae
    Faber, 548 pp, £20.00, July 1998, ISBN 0 571 17855 3
  • W.G.’s Birthday Party by David Kynaston
    Night Watchman, 154 pp, £13.00, May 1998, ISBN 0 9532360 0 5

As English cricket’s first, and permanent, icon, W.G. Grace was a pair of inseparable initials – two doors down from that other High Victorian celebrity, ‘W.E.’ – and a ruling presence on the field of play, the muscular and assertive embodiment of the game in the years of its benign colonisation of the nation’s summers. The physique that famously sustained him was in truth a luxury: Grace was stronger than there was any call for a cricketer to be, ready to go off when young to run hurdle races between innings, and still up to bowling 75 overs in the match at the age of 50 (he was captain, and didn’t think of taking himself off). To which enviable share of vitality he added a mastery of cricket’s as yet unfinished techniques such that he did the most of anyone to bring the English game out from obscurity in the Shires and into the profit and the coverage that follow from playing in the middle of town.

Cut W.G.’s cricketing life down to the spare requirements of a myth, and it can be said to have begun in what Neville Cardus, in best Cider with Rosie vein, once wrote of as the ‘plain, lusty humours of his first practices in a Gloucestershire orchard’, and ended in London NW8, in the memorial street-furniture of the Grace gates that open onto the élite end of the ground at Lord’s. There was a time in the middle of the last century when that same Lord’s was on its uppers, with little or no idea how to stage matches that people might pay to see; the MCC couldn’t any longer raise the rent. W.G. turned the game’s fortunes around, and not just in London: in a career that lasted 38 years, he did startlingly well both by and out of cricket, and a pair of gates was exactly the monument that this providential filler of seats had earned, even if the ones named for him are used only by people who don’t need to pay to get into Lord’s.

Money, and the demons of social class that money incubates, comes into Grace’s life-story at every turn, and Simon Rae’s new biography does well to start by recording that, where one of his grandfathers had been a butler, one of his sons became an admiral. This was a family promotion that turned on his own hugely newsworthy command of a game which, as it grew in scope and formality, was found peculiarly expressive of the virtues of the Imperial power that had thought it up. In between the butler and the admiral there came a family of doctors. The father was mad on cricket and worked as a GP in Bristol, the mother also was mad on cricket and has a non-playing entry in Wisden, for her success as genetrix and as W.G.’s personal trainer at the orchard stage (she is said to have despised lefthanders and anyone who threw in underarm). All four Grace sons qualified in medicine and three of them proved good enough all-rounders to bat and bowl for England.

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