A cricketer beyond compare

W. G. Grace (1848-1915) was quite a character (with his trademark beard) on whom one could write at length and interestingly. There are so many anecdotes tagged on to his life that have given meat to a sizeable number of biographies. Tomlinson’s is a welcome addition. A Book Review by R. K. Raghavan.

Amazing Grace: The Man who was W.G.

By Richard Tomlinson Published (2015) by Little, Brown, London Pp. 415

Price GBP 17

Great scores at cricket, like great work of any kind,

are, as a rule, the result of years of careful and judicious

training and not accidental occurrences. W. G. Grace, ‘How to Score’ (1888)

We are fortunate that the romance of cricket has been so brilliantly captured and preserved by some of the most exquisite literature ever produced in the English language. The names that flip through our mind include Neville Cardus, Jack Fingleton, C. L. R. James (whose Beyond a Boundary is hailed as the greatest book ever written on the game) our very own S. K. Gurunathan (who covered cricket for The Hindu and Sport and Pastime in the 1950s) and former British Prime Minister John Major ( More than a game: The Story of cricket’s early years), who all wrote with a felicity, passion, and knowledge that persuades all cricket aficionados to revere them to this day. It was not for nothing that the great Don once said that “… reading poetry and watching cricket were the sum of my world”, probably pre-empting the MCC Anthology of Cricket Verse (2004). Richard Tomlinson — once a playing member of the MCC and a reputed international journalist — is all set to join the above pantheon of writers, who described the nuances of the game in bewitching language and drew vivid pictures of the landscape against which the game was played in different parts of the world.

Tomlinson has been quite shrewd to pick for his subject a figure — often referred to as the ‘Father of Cricket’ — who carved a niche for himself, not only through his uncanny ability with the willow, but with his humanity and compassion off the field, which comforted even the most distressed soul.

W. G. Grace (1848-1915) was quite a character (with his trademark beard) on whom one could write at length and interestingly. There are so many anecdotes tagged on to his life that have given meat to a sizeable number of biographies. Tomlinson’s is a welcome addition. Its chief merit is the serious research around which it is built. It rightly spurns spurious accounts of a life that was so well led, climbing cliffs and hills with an assurance that bewilders us a century after Grace passed away.

If you ignore exaggerations — both positive and negative to this hardboiled native of Gloucestershire — you will be looking at a genuine human being, to whom playing cricket with vim and zest — whatever be your age and the frailties that accompany it — alone mattered. It was some dogged determination that enabled him to combine with it a tenderness and selfless care towards the poor patients who thronged his surgery in Bristol. Tomlinson recalls, how, in August 1885, WG sat all night attending on a difficult maternity case, and then went on to carry his bat through an innings of 348! He once treated a would-be burglar — who injured himself during the attempted break-in at WG’s house — free of charge. More than this, he refused to hand over the criminal to the police, saying that it was a breach of ‘medical etiquette’, if he did anything otherwise. How can you not like such a man, on whom, unfortunately, a few false allegations of avarice and unsportsman-like conduct had been fastened by some thoughtless storytellers with minimum regard for truth?

W. G. was a self-made cricketer, although his father — again a physician — and an older brother played the game at a decent level, and inspired him to take to the game. He played his first big game when he was just 15, scoring 170 for the Players against Gentlemen at Hove. Coming from a working class background, he retained his professional status for a long time, and this partly accounted for the MCC’s delay in electing him to be a Member. He didn’t look back thereafter, and went on to play for England — 22 Tests and 1098 runs — scoring the first ever Test century for England. He toured Australia twice where he attracted huge crowds. His final Test was at Trent Bridge in 1899, when K. S. Ranjitsinhji was another distinguished member of the team.

Mind you, he played on atrocious wickets, uncomplainingly and with amazing flair and comfort. An irreverent quip talks of Bradman playing on more predictable turf! The comparison is a little jarring. Nevertheless, it can’t be dismissed as frivolous. Grace could handle the most vicious of wickets with an aplomb that dazzled onlookers. At one game in Lord’s, he scored a hundred alongside another batsman who got killed by a ball that hit his head. He played the game hard, as when he ran out an Australian batsman Sam Jones, who “wandered absentmindedly out of his ground, thinking the ball was dead.” WG was accused of ignoring the etiquette of first warning the offending batsman. But he couldn’t care less, as he was intent on winning and not surrendering meekly to the adversary. He was both positive and aggressive, and Tomlinson believes, W. G. would have fitted in admirably well into modern instant cricket.

His love for the game was so intense that he never wanted to call it a day, although his enormous girth — acquired over the years through sheer gluttony — demanded an exit earlier than his 51st year, when he played his last Test at Nottingham before a jeering crowd, which thought he was too fat to be playing the game at the highest level. Grace could be forgiven for this insensitivity, because he had had far too many tragedies in his life and sought to derive solace from an activity which gave him so much fun, fame and money.

I cannot end without quoting Tomlinson:

“ Grace was not merely original….was consciously subversive, ignoring the coaching manual when he could find a better and quicker way to score runs, take wickets, and win.” This was the hallmark of a genius, a man who will be remembered as long as the game is played, and remembered with fondness.