Authors: John Miller
Tags: #Sports & Recreation/Cricket
Although Dr William Gilbert Grace did not play in the earliest Tests in Australia he was the star of cricket in the 1800s and his impact has only been matched by Don Bradman. He played 878 first-class matches over 43 years, scoring 54,896 at an average of 39.55, with 126 centuries and 254 fifties. He took 2876 wickets at 17.92 with 246 five-wicket hauls and 126 match figures of 10 wickets or more. WG, as he was known, played in 22 Tests, scoring 1098 runs at 32.39.
By 1873 the 25-year-old had come out of the family orchard in England to dominate cricket. His batting and round-arm bowling were impressive but it was the style of the tall, athletic, broad-shouldered man with black beard and imperious nature that set him apart. His success was based on a wonderful eye, copybook technique and brilliant athleticism but depended as much on his lusty and assertive approach. The nine Grace children learned their cricket in family games. Their father, Dr Henry Mills Grace, was coach and made a quality pitch in an orchard. WG’s mother also took part and is said to have been able to throw a cricket ball 65 metres. WG practised his batting with a broom handle in front of stumps chalked on a wall.
At nine WG first played for West Gloucester, a club partly created by his father. His uncle was his early coach and instilled in him sound batting principles—left elbow up, left shoulder well forward, body over the ball. WG’s achievements denied his brothers due recognition. Between them, WG, Edward, George, Henry and Alfred Grace lifted Gloucestershire to a level where it could take on the best professional teams.
At fifteen WG scored his initial first-class century for South Wales. He played forward or back depending on the ball received, which meant bowlers were confronted with a player to whom they could not bowl a particular line for long. In 1873 a syndicate of Melbourne cricket clubs invited him to choose a team to visit Australia. Grace accepted for a fee of £1500, plus all expenses for his wife and himself. Professionals in the team received £170 each. This discrepancy caused friction but the syndicate soon found that they had snared one of cricket’s greatest players. WG’s bowling looked commonplace until batsmen tried to hit it. He got batsmen out by directing their attention to the sun or a flock of birds with what one of his contemporaries called ‘a curious rotary action before delivery from a large hand in which the ball was well concealed and seemed to leave by the back door’. On tour WG had mixed success in front of large crowds but enjoyed regular shooting expeditions more than the cricket. The trip revitalised WG and in 1876 he scored two first-class triple centuries. In a minor game for United South he was 399 not out but visited the scorers afterwards and suggested they make it 400.
In 1878, at 30 years old, there seemed little left to keep him in cricket but the tour of a powerful Australian team galvanised him into an extended cricket life as it was realised that the ‘Colonials’ could play. In the first game the MCC made 33 and 19 to be resoundingly beaten by an Australian team inspired by bowler Fred Spofforth. Many historians traced the beginning of Britain’s decline as the most dominant nation on Earth, at least in symbolic terms, to that day at Lord’s. It was a wake-up call for English cricket and from then on WG took Australia seriously.
WG became a doctor, which led to more time in his Bristol practice and less at games. He still topped the batting averages in 1880, a position held in all but three years between 1866 and 1879. The first Test on English soil was in 1880 at the Oval and featured WG, who made 152 in England’s 420. His score was surpassed by Australia’s Billy Murdoch, who made 153 not out. Apart from the absence of the injured Spofforth, both sides were at near-full strength. England was 8–410 at the close of day one with Grace putting on 91 for the first wicket with brother Edward and 120 for the second with Alfred Lucas. By lunch on the second day Australia was 9–126 after light rain the previous evening changed the pitch. All seemed lost in the follow-on when the visitors lost 3–14, but Murdoch gained valuable support from Percy McDonnell and England were set 57 to win. They did so but lost five wickets, including GF (Fred) Grace, who went for his second duck of his only Test. He had, however, made a famous catch off a hit by George Bonnor. The batsmen were on their third run as the ball was safely caught. GF, 29, died a fortnight later from lung congestion.
The years 1881 and 1882 were lean for WG, with his only appearance against Australia in the Oval Test in August 1882, which gave birth to the Ashes. His medical practice prevented him from touring Australia in 1881–82 when four Tests were played, with the home side winning two and the others drawn. In Melbourne England made 294 and 308 while Australia replied with 320 and 3–127. George Ulyett with 87 was England’s best while Tom Horan’s 124 was invaluable for Australia. In Sydney England batted first and made 133 with Joey Palmer taking 7–68. Australia followed with 197 but England did better second time to score 232. Murdoch steered Australia to a five-wicket win. Sydney proved a happy hunting ground, with Australia winning by six wickets in the third Test. The drawn fourth Test in Melbourne was one for the batsmen. Ulyett scored 149 in England’s 309 and 64 in the second innings of 2–234. Murdoch scored 85 in Australia’s 300. England seemed to be heading for a morale-boosting victory but the weather broke.
In the 1884 series in England the hosts won one with two drawn. WG scored a century in lead-up games but struggled in Tests. The first in Manchester was affected by rain, the second at Lord’s won by England, with Ted Peate taking 6–85 in Australia’s first innings, Ulyett taking 7–36 in their second and AG Steel scoring 148. Batsmen dominated at the Oval with Murdoch scoring 211, Henry ‘Tup’ Scott 102 and McDonnell 103 in Australia’s first innings of 551. In reply England made 346 and 2–85 as time ran out.
England headed ‘down under’ in 1884–85 without WG and won the first two Tests with the home side successful in the next two and England in the fifth. Adelaide hosted its first Test with McDonnell scoring 124 out of 243 and 83 out of 191 for Australia, who were mesmerised by Billy Bates (5–31) in the first innings and Bobby Peel (5–51) in the second. Billy Barnes took five hours to score 134 in England’s first effort of 369 and William Scotton 45 minutes longer for 82. England repeated the dose in Melbourne with Johnny Briggs contributing 121. Barnes and Peel did the damage to Australia with the ball. The return of Spofforth was crucial in a thrilling Sydney Test. Australia made 181 and 165, England 133 and 207, as Australia won by six. Horan snared six wickets for Australia in the first innings and Spofforth four in the first and six in the second. Bonnor was the star for Australia in the fourth Test in Sydney. England scored 269 and Australia was 6–119 when Bonnor strode to the crease. Starting uncertainly, he then began to use his power, and in under two hours made 128 out of 169. In conditions that favoured bowlers, his was an extraordinary innings as Australia won by eight wickets. The visitors retained the Ashes with a decisive win in Melbourne spurred on by a century to captain Arthur Shrewsbury.
Between 1886 and 1890 England dominated, winning ten out of eleven Tests with WG a colossus. In the third Test at the Oval in 1886 he scored 170 in 270 minutes, including 22 boundaries. He was rarely thrown the ball by his skipper in 1886 against the Australians, and in 1888 didn’t deliver one over. During this tour he was made captain and led the team to two wins with the second at Manchester on a sticky wicket in which his batting skills were brilliant, with a match-high 38 in the shortest Test match ever, finishing just before lunch on the second day.
There we re other standout performances such as Shrewsbury’s 164 in England’s second Test victory at Lord’s in 1886. Bowlers Charlie ‘Terror’ Turner and Jack Ferris starred for Australia. In the first Test in Sydney in 1886–87 England was dismissed for 45—its lowest in Tests, with Turner taking 6–15 and Ferris 4–27—but still won thanks to a second innings of 184 in which Ferris took another five. The Australians continued to rattle English batsmen in subsequent Tests, both taking nine wickets in the second Test in Sydney, Turner twelve in the only Test of 1887–88, Turner two five-wicket hauls and Ferris one in the first Test at Lord’s in 1888. Turner took six wickets in the next Test and another five in the third, and Ferris nine in the second Test at the Oval in 1890. Australia’s batsmen struggled against George Lohmann, who took 77 wickets in fifteen Tests.
Australia regained the Ashes in 1891–92, winning the Melbourne and Sydney Tests but losing in Adelaide. The English side was sponsored by Lord Sheffield and led by WG, whose only other tour of Australia had been 18 years earlier. His fee was £3000 with all expenses paid which again caused friction, while his insistence on confrontation, insults, abuse of umpires, arrogance and gamesmanship meant that by the end of the tour he was bid good riddance. The 43-year-old made 50 in the first Test and 58 in the third. Many flocked to see him and he became the first of many Test visitors to Australia whom the locals loved to hate. Alec Bannerman was Australia’s best batsman but it was Australia’s varied bowling attack that shone, with Bob McLeod taking 5–55 and Turner 5–51 in the first, and Turner 4–46 combining with George Giffen 4–88 and 6–72 in the second. Andrew Stoddart’s 134 and a twelve-wicket haul by Johnny Briggs set up England’s Adelaide win.
A win in the second Test at the Oval in 1893 was enough to see England claim the next series with the other two drawn. Shrews bury scored 106 in the first Test but it was all-rounder Bill Lockwood’s fast bowling efforts that proved decisive, taking six at Lord’s and two four-wicket hauls at the Oval.
WG declined to tour in 1894 when England won an enthralling series 3–2. The scene was set by an amazing turnaround in the first Test in Sydney. Australia started badly, losing 3–21 before recovering to register 586 with Giffen scoring 161 and Syd Gregory hitting a double century. England scored 325 and in the follow-on 437 with Albert Ward’s 117 best. Australia began the chase well and were 2–113 at the end of the penultimate day. Heavy overnight rain saturated the pitch, turning it into a bowling paradise. Peel ran through Australia, capturing 6–67 as it lost by ten. The pitch in Melbourne proved troublesome with England dismissed for 75 and Australia 123. It settled and England made 475 in its second innings, featuring 173 from captain Stoddart. The chase, however, was too much, with Australia dismissed 94 runs short.
Australia had convincing wins in the next two Tests to level the series. The intense heat and a superb debut by Albert Trott proved England’s undoing in Adelaide. Trott scored 48 not out in Australia’s 238, 72 not out in the second innings of 411 and took 8–43 in England’s second innings. His 85 not out and Harry Graham’s 105 in Sydney set up Australia’s first innings fifth Test score of 284, which proved too much for England (65 and 72) as rain left the pitch in a dreadful state.
There was unprecedented interest in the decider in Melbourne, with the ground packed; even Queen Victoria sought details. Australia’s 414 after winning the toss seemed an insurance against defeat. England came up 29 short, aided greatly by Archie MacLaren’s 120. Tom Richardson’s 6–104 restricted Australia to 267 in its second innings and England needed 296 to take the series. The fifth day began with England one down and hopeful. Stoddart was out early and, under an overcast sky, Jack Brown came in. He squared rove his first ball to the boundary, hooked the next for four and in less than half an hour had 50. With rain threatening he raced to his century in 95 minutes. The stand with Ward reached 210 before Brown was caught at slip for 140. Ward missed his century but the pair had taken England to a winning position.
Just when it appeared WG may retire he turned the spotlight back onto himself after the touring side returned. At 47, he contrived the most unlikely season he called ‘the crowning point’ of his career. He plundered 1000 runs in May 1895, scored his 100th first-class century, reached 2346 runs for the season and experienced the satisfaction from several testimonial matches that generated more than £9000. WG maintained his rejuvenation in 1896, perhaps owing to the visit of the Australians. Speed bowler Richardson set the scene for England to retain the Ashes in the first session of the first Test, bowling six Australians as the visitors succumbed for 53 in front of 30,000 at Lord’s. England scored 292 in reply, with WG making 66. After being 3–62 Australia fought back, thanks to Trott’s 143 and Gregory’s 103, to register 347 with England then wrapping up the result. Despite the best efforts of Richardson (thirteen wickets) and KS Ranjitsinhji (Ranji) in his Test debut with 154 not out, Australia won the second Test at Old Trafford by three wickets. In a low-scoring third Test at the Oval England scored 145 and 84 and Australia replied with 119 and 44.
Ranji made his first tour of Australia in 1897–98 and almost attained ‘pop idol’ status. He hit 175 out of England’s 551 in the team’s nine-wicket first Test win in Sydney but despite 71, 77 and 55, was unable to save England from a 4–1 loss. Australia won the second Test in Melbourne by an innings with Charlie McLeod scoring 112. It was a similar margin in Adelaide with Joe Darling contributing 178 to Australia’s 573, and Monty Noble and McLeod getting five-wicket hauls. Clem Hill’s 188 was the standout for Australia in the eight-wicket fourth Test win in Melbourne, while Darling’s 160 in Sydney proved the difference for Australia in a six-wicket win.
WG rumbled on and in 1898 turned 50. The following year he was unable to resist the challenge of the touring Australians led by Darling. There was little between the sides, with four Tests drawn and one to Australia. This was a series in which dashing Australian batsman Victor Trumper made his debut, as did England’s Wilfred Rhodes, while WG played his last Test. He was selected for the first Test after scoring 175 for London County against Worcestershire but failed.
Although his experience and spirit made him good enough to make the England side, he decided enough was enough and retired from Tests. He continued at first-class level and despite his age and troublesome knee, was forever a drawcard. He faced the Australians again in 1902 when he took 5–29 for London County. In 1906 there was a 74 against the Players but he was now down to a trickle of games. His last big game was in 1908, a few months short of his 60th birthday, but he was not done yet and fronted for the odd minor match until 1914. On 25 July, a week after he turned 66, he played for Eltham against Grove Park in London for his last innings. He carried his bat for 69 and took 4–48. A year later he had a stroke which forced him to bed and soon after he died.