Dr William Gilbert Grace (1848-1915)
"to play under him was to worship him . . . To know him was to love him"
W. G. Grace was the most famous and popular sportsman of his time. In England, he guided cricket from an uncompetitive pastime to a friendly but serious sport; internationally, he was there for the creation of The Ashes. His batting averages and other statistics are still impressive today. He created an enduring image which is still instantly recognisable- a rotund white-clad figure, with a broad bushy beard and a stripy cap.
He played cricket from 1865 to 1908, and qualified as a doctor by studying during the winters. He qualified in 1879, and opened a practice in Bristol.
He played for Gloucestershire, Kent, Sussex and Worcestershire; and several now defunct teams like the Gentlemen of the South and the Gentlemen of England. While captain of Gloucestershire, he developed an unorthodox approach to batting order- whoever turned up late would go in at number 11. This was typical of his no-nonsense attitude to the game, which contrasted to the haphazard approach taken by his predecessors.
He was known to be very fond of food and drink, and eventually became somewhat overweight. His batting remained excellent, but his performance in the field waned. He enjoyed a large lunch during matches, often with a whisky. This could sometimes adversely affect his postprandial performances. But whisky was also used to sooth his notorious temper when an umpire's decision went against him.
In 1889 he assisted in the design of the County Ground in Bristol, and the pavilion is still in use today.
Grace was associated closely with the start of The Ashes competition. He was on the first English team to be beaten on home soil; the Australians winning by a narrow margin in 1882. In a typical piece of sporting "humour", the Australian team turned up with an urn of ashes, representing the Death of English Cricket- these became the trophy for matches between the two sides. England went on to win the next eight test matches, and Grace was captain when they eventually lost again in the 1891/92. His international career was limited by financial concerns. Cricket was an amateur sport, and he simply couldn't afford the time involved in travel to Australasia for every test. He managed to play just 22 test matches, and captained England in five of them.
He was hugely popular with the public, and his iconic figure appeared on posters, commemorative China, pub signs and advertisements for Coleman's Mustard. He was able to command large appearance fees, a very controversial practice at the time. So you can see him as a sort of cross between David Beckham and William Shatner, in PR terms at least.
In his first class cricket career, Grace scored 54,896 runs (including 126 centuries), took 2,876 wickets and made 887 catches. His batting average was 39.55, wicket-taking average was 17.92. His two highest-scoring years were in 1873 and 1876 when he made 2000 runs and took 100 wickets per season. This makes him the 5th highest scoring player of all time, and the 6th highest wicket-taker of all time.
Grace died of a heart attack in 1915, prompting A.G. Gardiner to write that he-
'forgot the war and was back in that cheerful world where we used to be happy, where we greeted the rising sun with light hearts and saw its setting without fear. In that cheerful world I can hardly recall a time when a big man with a black beard was not my King'.