Was It All Cricket?
Chapter 14 — W. G. Grace
W. G. Grace
I Cannot pass from London County cricket, which was one of the brightest parts of my cricketing career, without giving my impressions of the great and only “W.G.”
His name has been sung through the years since cricket first won pride of place in the games of England and spread to all parts of the Empire. It is not possible to measure the part that cricket has played, or the influences it has had, on inter-Imperial relations. The great Test Match contests and the friendships made have certainly brought closer the players and the peoples of all the cricketing countries.
One great player stands out above all others in the history of the game and ranks not only as the greatest player, but the greatest personality cricket has known. What was it that made cricketers of the different generations of his time become so attached and devoted to this famous man—Dr. W. G. Grace? His character, his charm of manner, and his ways, which were often as playful as a schoolboy's, won for him a unique position. He was generous in his praise of good play, but could also change in a flash to a harsh exclamation if a fieldsman fumbled when a run-out was possible, or when a catch was missed that meant much to his side.
In the Gloucestershire match I was to witness a humorous piece of side-play that will illustrate this trait of his character. T. H. Fowler and Wrathall, in their great first-wicket partnership, were giving us a pretty rough time. Presently, one of them spooned a ball to cover-point. Who should be there but Murdoch and, to the consternation of all, he “put it on the carpet.” What would the “Old Man” say? He could say with a look what other men would have to call out aloud. But old Billy knew what this silence meant, and he wasn't taking any frowning look from his captain. He threw the ball back to the bowler, but wouldn't look at “W.G.” Another ball was bowled and it was the end of the over. Murdoch, with a face as expressionless as a sphinx, walked across, and the field was set for the next bowler when the culprit looked page 188 in Grace's direction; their eyes met, and both roared with laughter! Who could not love such men as these? The “fun of the 'nineties” was carried over into the early years of this century, and the game was richer in consequence.
At one stage of his career, Grace was as well known to the people of England as was their Prime Minister—to many, even better. Men in the highest positions in the land valued his friendship because, added to his greatness as a cricketer, there was a fineness of character and a warmth of companionship that made him an outstanding personality and a very desirable friend.
Except for the definite breaks made by two world wars, there has been little variation in the general standard of play from one generation of cricketers to another; on this subject opinions often differ, for the present-day critic is not always in a position to judge past performances in the light of conditions prevailing at that time. When Grace began his cricket career, wickets varied according to the nature of the turf of each playing field, but before his retirement, Nottingham marl, and other binding soils, had become the special top-dressing used on all English wickets, and changed the fortunes of both the batsman and the bowler. In both these periods “W.G.” remained the outstanding figure in the game and raised the standard of play until, in the early 'eighties, the game had been lifted to a level that is still regarded as being comparable with the best periods of later years. About 1885 cricket actually fell away, at any rate so far as Australia was concerned, to come back again in the middle 'nineties, stronger than it had ever been. Yet in 1896 Grace was still great, and was still England's captain. Just as twenty years earlier he had played Spofforth's fastest deliveries, so he stood up to Jones's tremendous pace and, although approaching fifty, was able to demonstrate that as the standard-bearer of other times, he could hold his own in modern cricket.
The very great players will always be able to carry on into the cricket of the next generation. One can imagine that Bradman, ten years hence, will be able to walk to the wickets and trounce bowlers who are at primary school to-day. This only goes to show that Grace did carry over the standard of play of a period which the present-day cricketers do not always appreciate or know of, to a period in the 'nineties that even page 189 modern opinion admits was very high. Grace's wonderful innings against Gloucestershire that I witnessed and have already described, should in itself suffice. However, the story of one or two other innings is worth re-telling.
In 1906, when Grace was fifty-seven years of age, he captained the Gentlemen against the Players, scoring 74. When he was returning to the pavilion, everyone rose and cheered, for they marvelled at a performance so remarkable, considering he was facing some of the best professional bowling in England. He was naturally not active enough between wickets to notch the full value of the runs his batting entitled him to, or he would have probably reached his century.
Another great innings was by Murdoch. Called in as a substitute for Warner, who became ill on the first day of the Gentlemen-Players Match in 1905, he scored 140 against Albert Trott and J. T. Hearne, to name the Players' two best bowlers. Murdoch was then in his fiftieth year, and this is surely further proof that the play of the early 'eighties must have been as good as I have claimed it to be.
Nearly twenty years after I played with Grace and Murdoch, I saw MacLaren, when fifty years of age, play a magnificent innings of 200 against New Zealand, at Wellington.
The mammoth scores made by Bradman, to-day's greatest batsman, have been so marvellous, and have so overshadowed everything else in modern cricket, that the impression created has been that never before have such scores been made. But let us take a telescopic view of the past and examine some of the purple patches of many years ago, when Grace towered above all others, as Bradman does to-day. Conditions then were less favourable to the batsman than they are in these days of the doctored and covered wicket, yet, even in the totals made, many of Grace's scores stand out so boldly as to defy being overshadowed by any comparison. One sequence of scores will suffice: in 1876, when Grace was twenty-eight years of age, he played for M.C.C. against Kent, and scored 344. He left immediately for Bristol to play two home matches for Gloucestershire against Notts. and Yorkshire. As the men of Nottingham were leaving by train after their match, the Yorkshire team arrived at the station. Tom Emmett, the famous Yorkshire bowler, ran across the platform and called out, “How many did the ‘Old Man’ make?”page 190
“177,” came the quick reply.
“Hurrah!” called back Emmett. “He can't do it three times running.” He was reckoning without the Master who, on winning the toss, went in to repeat his performance against Kent, this time going right through the innings to finish with 318 not out. 839 runs in eight days. Is there need to say more?
It was at the end of the first day's play in this Yorkshire match that Tom Emmett, a great humorist, said, “Damn it all! It's Grace before meat, Grace after meat, and Grace all day. I suppose we'll have Grace again to-morrow!”
I cannot finish these comments without some reference to the delightful friendship that existed between this great Englishman and Murdoch, the former Australian captain. In his younger days Grace had the reputation of being a domineering man, but it must be remembered that Murdoch and other members of early Australian teams were equally unyielding when differences of opinion cropped up, as they did, in the first years of Test Matches. This makes the warm friendship of these two old captains and veterans of many battles on the cricket field all the more remarkable. When Grace won the toss for London County, Murdoch always put on the pads. The “Old Man” would say, “What have you got the pads on for?”
“I'm going in to bat,” would come the reply. It did not matter whether it was a county match or a club match—it was always the same.
In club matches, going in first meant more than in county games, as the following story will show. Hugh B. Lusk of New Zealand had married a niece of “W.G.'s,” and on a trip to England played for London County. In his first club match Grace, on winning the toss, said, “Put on the pads, Lusk, and go in first.” Murdoch already had his on!
Being a little nervous, Lusk replied, “If you don't mind, sir, I would rather not go in first.”
The “Old Man” just chuckled and said, “Oh, all right,” and put him in about sixth wicket.
When Grace walked away, old Billy Murdoch leaned over to Lusk and said, “I don't know who you are, young man, but you are a damn fool. You won't get a bat!” And sure enough, he didn't, for it was a one-day match and Grace declared with the score just over 300 for four wickets!page 191
Cricketers who afterwards took to golf will appreciate this story. Grace did not begin to play the ancient game until middle-aged and, like all golfers, was very keen in the early stages. In a cricket match at Crystal Palace, play was adjourned on account of a drizzling rain, so the “Old Man” put on an extra sweater and, taking a mashie-niblick and a dozen golf balls, went on to the field and from a distance of about sixty or seventy yards began to play mashie shots to the players grouped in front of the pavilion. The short game was the best part of Grace's golf, and he made a very good job of landing them on to the “middle of the green,” where many of them were caught and thrown back. Can anyone imagine a more ludicrous yet exhilarating exhibition of exuberance of spirit!
Someone said to Grace, “Don't you find golf interferes with your cricket?”—for the straight arm of golf and left elbow up of cricket are very different actions.
“W.G.” replied, “I find cricket interferes with my golf!”
Grace and Murdoch, at the end of their playing days, played golf in the same spirit as they played cricket. One day, when out on the links playing a four ball, all had played for the green, “W.G.” getting on and Murdoch landing into a deep bunker, made more difficult on account of a high mound on the edge—a customary hazard in those days. Getting down into the bunker and departing from all the rules of the game, Murdoch, picking up his ball with a handful of sand, threw it over the mound, the ball going close to the flag. The “Old Man” was caught napping, but discrediting Murdoch's ability to make such a shot, looked first at the other two players and then kept his eye on Murdoch as he trotted across the green with a delighted but innocent look. As at Crystal Palace, on the occasion of the dropped catch, their eyes met—more laughter.
Stories of Grace are legion and have been re-told many times, but I will risk one more that I think has never appeared in print. It wants Hugh Trumble to tell it. He said it was one of his funniest experiences. When the 1890 Australian team went to England, Grace was forty-two years of age, and this maturity of years adds humour to the incident. After dinner one evening, during their match at Bristol, old “W.G.” came round to the hotel and said to some of the Australians, “Would page 192 you like some shooting?” Of course they would! Grace had several shot guns, so off they went. It was a bright moonlight night, and expectantly they followed the “Old Man.” He was always called that, long before he became a veteran, for Grace had never shaved and always looked older than his years. He led them down the road, across another street, then round a corner, and presently up a narrow lane. By now there was a hushed silence, for “W.G.” had whispered they were nearly there. Cautiously creeping up a private right-of-way, there was a sudden Bang! Bang! and cats began to jump in all directions. Trumble could not remember why the cats were there, or how many were shot, but said the pent-up feelings of the party gave way to uproarious laughter, and they all trotted back to the hotel like a lot of kids returning from an escapade reminiscent of fruit-stealing at night in their boyhood days.
It may seem difficult to reconcile such playfulness with the character of one wielding such authority on the cricket field, but let no one doubt his seriousness and resolution when the occasion demanded! Even in his way of calling the ground professional at Crystal Palace there was a note of command; he would come out of his office on to the balcony, loudly blow a whistle and soon Murch would come hurrying towards the pavilion.
And so I leave this great man. My last impression of him as a first-class cricketer was of his retiring to the pavilion after scoring a century and a half against Gloucestershire. Perhaps a better picture of his final exit from the game is to be found in the photo of him, taken ten years later, when he is seen striding to the wickets in a village cricket match. No other picture that I know of shows up better than this, his magnificent physique and commanding presence.
Truly I can end with an oft-repeated phrase—“The Immortal Grace!”page break