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.
W.G., however, was already out-batting and out-bowling his brothers by the time he was 20 and was allowed to take more years over qualifying than other, less distracted medical students. Having finally got there, he practised in Bristol like his father – in the winter months at least. Come April, a locum had to be found. As a family, the Graces may well have been as loud and competitive in the house as they habitually were on the field, and some of their suburban neighbours found them coarse – ‘Mrs Grace does say such things,’ one wrote in her diary, without, though, telling us what they were. Later on, W.G. found that he mixed more comfortably with the working-class professionals than he did with the middle and upper-class amateurs, whose humours were not so plain and lusty as he might have liked. And in the same way, he preferred as a doctor treating poor patients who couldn’t always pay, to rich ones, which is something to set against his less than principled squeezing of fat fees and travelling expenses out of cricket’s often strapped impresarios.
Grace got away for years with practising medicine and cricket alternately, but so dominant and ubiquitous was he at the second, that it was assumed he must be no great shakes at the first. When, in 1895, a season mirabilis for the 47-year-old W.G., a National Testimonial Fund raised the equivalent of quarter of a million of our contemporary pounds, Max Beerbohm drew what was for him an unusually mordant cartoon, in which (I quote from Rae) a ‘huge Grace with bulging biceps stands in the foreground with a minuscule cricket bat in one hand and a large cheque in the other, while behind him the funeral cortège of one of his neglected patients sets off to the cemetery’. Unfair, because Rae suggests that he took more trouble than might have been expected over his patients, but Beerbohm had put his pencil on the interesting fact that Grace had done a great deal better in money terms as an ‘amateur’ cricketer than he could have hoped to do as a medical man, and a very great deal better than any of the professionals with whom he played. Grace knew almost from the start – he made his first first-class century, 224 not out, for an England XI at the age of 18 – that he was the cricketer whom people previously untouched by the game would now pay to come and watch, and he traded on the knowledge by pioneering what we know these days as ‘appearance money’.
Cricket was bound in the end to have become fully indentured to the market economy even had there been no W.G., but it would not have happened so quickly or to such wide effect. As the player whose youthful stardom so much accelerated that unholy process, he is entitled to his status as what the Far Left once referred to as a ‘historically significant individual’ – or someone whom historians could safely bring on to lend a name and a human face to the otherwise anonymous working-out of the dialectic. Grace had the name and he also had the face, not least as the grower of the 19th century’s most charismatic beard, which entered cricket history when an Australian fast bowler put a bumper through it (and then, this being 1896, apologised, ‘Sorry, Doctor, she slipped’). Did she really slip or was she aimed? Aimed, very likely, for, as the founding father of gamesmanship, and possessor of what a journalist of the day charitably referred to as an ‘unfortunate infirmity of temper’, Grace got up many a nose, most notoriously by his bullying of faint-hearted umpires, whose unfavourable decisions he found could soon be reversed by an incredulous shout of ‘What?’
We can see now that, by the measurable cultural and economic impact he had on the age he lived through, Grace belongs as much to social as he does to cricket history; but that hasn’t always been seen. C.L.R. James, the one marxisant historian of cricket there has been, was shocked to find no mention of him in G.M. Trevelyan’s then canonical English Social History, or in the work of such socialist historians as G.D.H. Cole and Raymond Postgate, even though they were writing ‘what they declared to be the history of the common people of England’. How could they leave out ‘the best known Englishman of his time’? They could leave him out because the place of sport in the ‘common people’s’ life went unnoticed by historians who had no doubt held games in contempt from the days when they had stood, cold, defiantly cerebral and inadequate, in the outfield at their public schools and watched the hearties monopolising the acclaim. What these historians might have recognised was the significance of the new possibilities that the second half of the 19th century gave to people, not necessarily to play games but to watch and understand them, and the possibilities, too, of working up forms of local allegiance, as in the Grace family’s cricketing fief of Gloucestershire, once such competitions as the County Championship got properly going and replaced quaint, rather desperate fixtures such as the traditional ones between Smokers and Non-Smokers or Marrieds and Singles.
In Beyond the Boundary, James makes a romantic case for W.G., as a ‘pre-Victorian’ figure who, bourgeois though he was, democratised a game that had earlier depended almost entirely for its subsistence on the landed interest. James’s Grace is a throwback, a yeoman out of the West Country who ‘brought and made a secure place for pre-industrial England in the iron and steel of the Victorian Age’. Which is all very fine, except that there is something decidedly iron-and-steel also about a cricketer who chose as Grace did to play day in, day out, for as many teams as he could, and who piled up runs by the thousand and wickets by the hundred, as if they had been money in the bank (which they were, since the better his form, the more easily he could justify his cricket income to those who thought it was unreasonably high).
The yeoman side of Grace was more evident off than on the field, in an incurable boisterousness that one wouldn’t want to have shared the pavilion with, and a contempt for anyone unboisterous enough to sit and read a book, for example, when W.G. was available. And, like all yeomen everywhere, he was infinitely better at playing the game than he was at thinking about it. ‘No one ever had a more unanalytical brain,’ remarked one fellow player, taken aback by his lack of acumen as a captain. He simply didn’t have the words to hand to go with his responsibilities, being a ‘singularly inarticulate’ man, according to one of the first ghost-writers who was signed up to help him prepare his bestselling cricket books.
By keeping a sensibly close watch on the business side of Grace’s life, however, Simon Rae shows how well he knew his way around when it came to cashing in on his national prominence. He intended to live from the game, even if, doctor’s son that he was, he had to play as an ‘amateur’. In an age when pros and amateurs didn’t even share a dressing-room, and came out onto the field through different gates, any public blurring of the distinction between them wasn’t to be tolerated. W.G. may often have behaved more like a Player, but he had come into the world a Gentleman, and as if to show there should be no confusing him with the Players, he made a point of doing especially well against them in the annual series of matches that were played between the two. When, in 1898, the year in which he turned 50, a jubilee match was arranged for him at Lord’s, Gents v. Players it had to be, in a drawn but exciting game a detailed account of which fills much of David Kynaston’s attractive small book (first published in 1990, and brought back in this centenary summer of the match in question).
The poor pros, however, spent disgruntled years asking themselves why a gentleman, however good he was, who didn’t really need the money, should do so handsomely out of a game now being played for the greater part by those who did need it. Grace’s pre-eminence had, it’s true, a trickle-down effect, bringing more cash and hence more professional players into the game, but resentment understandably remained at how little they got, compared with him and with other, lesser ‘shamateurs’. When, in the winter of 1873-4, Grace went on the first of his two tours of Australia, he wrung every penny he could out of the organisers in Melbourne: a fee of £1500, which was roughly half the total gate money taken at Lord’s in the whole of the previous summer, along with first-class travel expenses for himself and the wife he had just married, whose honeymoon the tour was to be. The professionals who went along got £150 each and travelled third on the ship, evidence of an inequality between the captain and his team that went down badly in Australia (where Grace’s subsequent highhanded ways with the colonials made him the visiting English cricketer of least fond memory until he was outdone by D.R. Jardine, the mastermind of the Bodyline tour sixty years later). It was quite soon to cause embarrassment even to the MCC, a body which, as we were reminded only the other day, doesn’t embarrass easily. In 1877, two years before he had even qualified as a doctor, the Club proposed holding a National Testimonial for Grace, the proceeds from which were to be used to buy him a medical practice, the hope being that this might stop him extracting so much for himself from the overall proceeds. It raised £1500 according to Kynaston, who as a historian of the City of London is admirably well up on the financial goings-on, and estimates that W.G. pocketed an average of £70,000 a year of our money throughout his long career.
We shouldn’t spend all our time in the counting-house, however, as if he were merely some raw specimen of homo economicus. There’s also the player, and the thing you always want to know about W.G. or any other early cricketer: how was he when he batted, the Great Accumulator, who, except when the wicket was against him, scored runs quickly, having perhaps learnt to place the ball when batting in his youth against the teams of 22 that were then commonplace. (Will somebody tell me: did they all field?) And for that matter, how was he when he bowled, briskly at first but then slower and slower as his weight went up, and seemingly succeeding more by attrition than anything like spin; or when he fielded, massively, in the now disused but potentially intimidating position of point that he made his own once he had passed into the ranks of what in my cricketing days were known as ‘non-benders’?
Although a small spool of moving film of W.G. exists, shot when he was batting in the nets in 1899, he has necessarily come down to us mainly in the form of some extraordinary statistics, and of still photographs, nearly all of them taken off, and not, alas, on the field (there are good ones in Rae’s book, some of them unfamiliar). The statistics are extraordinary above all for showing the extent to which, at least early on in his career, he outscored all other batsmen, on wickets that were seldom healthy to bat on. What was it about his technique that made him so superior? The most convincing answer was that given by another Late Victorian batsman who did have an analytical mind, Sussex’s wonderful Indian, Ranjitsinhji: ‘What W.G. did was to unite in his mighty self all the good points of all the good players, and to make utility the criterion of style. He founded the modern theory of batting by making forward and back play of equal importance, relying neither on one nor the other, but on both ... He turned the one-stringed instrument into a many-chorded lyre.’ The lyre seems too wimpish an instrument to have been wielded by so brawny a utilitarian, but the impression is surely right, of the first batsman who was ever able to do it all, to stand as a one-man compendium of his art.
Simon Rae’s long Life of W.G. follows him, as I suppose it had to, around the grounds, season by season and match by match. The tempo is that of an innings by Geoffrey Boycott, not Ian Botham. And informative though he is about the money, Rae is timid when it comes to history more generally, favouring counterpoint over conjecture, as when noting that on the same day in March 1895 as the Fifth and deciding Test Match was starting in Melbourne, Oscar Wilde ‘incautiously applied for a warrant against the Marquess of Queensberry on grounds of libel’, and a shade melodramatically, two months later, that ‘as Wilde was led away to be broken on the treadmill, Grace set himself to scale yet another cricketing peak: 1000 runs in May.’ Reader, he scaled it. One melancholy small fact which Rae gives is that the Gloucestershire orchard, the locus amoenus in which Martha Grace once coached her ‘Willy’ (W.G. stood for William Gilbert), is now the car-park of a Somerfield supermarket. Would that it had been a Tesco’s, whose boss, Lord MacLaurin, recently gave up minding the shops to nurse English cricket in its sickness; he could have ordered the tarmac to be returned to the grass and apple blossom it should always have remained.