Unlike so many cricketers since, W G Grace deserves his legend

Two new books reveal how the multifaceted man behind the 19th century's most famous sporting icon.

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W G Grace was one of the most famous men of the 19th century. He was certainly the century’s best-known sportsman. In the world of cricket, probably only Don Bradman has such a legend. Grace died 100 years ago on 23 October, hence this “centenary” biography by Richard Tomlinson, and Charlie Connelly’s novel, which although heavily fact-based creates a touching picture of the last 17 years of “The Champion’s” life. Many cricket books are cliché-riddled, self-serving drivel. These two are not.

In truth, Tomlinson adds little to what we know already. His main research tool, and a valuable one, has been the British Library’s digitised newspaper library. He has looked far and wide in it, as the local press detailed every movement of the great man when he turned up in provincial towns to take on county sides. If you have read Robert Low’s excellent biography, reissued in 2010, you probably won’t need to read this. If you haven’t, then Amazing Grace is scrupulously researched and well written.

Grace was born in Gloucestershire in 1848, the son of a doctor. Like his brothers E M and Fred, W G was obsessed with cricket from an early age. Huge in physical stature by the age of 16 – though not yet the grossly overweight and lumbering figure he would become by early middle age – he was soon playing for Gloucestershire and any other side that would have him. In many ways an alarmingly modern figure, Grace had a second obsession in addition to cricket: money. Cricket at that point was a class-ridden game, and he was determined to play as an amateur – a “gentleman” – rather than a professional, or “player”. However, he needed money to live because, unlike many of the amateurs, he had no private income. As his fame as a batsman increased (by the late 1860s he was unquestionably the finest in England), impresarios offered him large sums of money to play for their sides in matches all over the country. When he could get away with it, he took it: and the more popular he became, the more he got away with it, making a mockery of the social divisions within the game.

Tomlinson stresses that Grace did not play the game to make money; he played it because he loved it almost to the point of addiction. Rather like Mr Jorrocks, the fictional huntsman of mid-Victorian England who felt any time was wasted that was not spent hunting, Grace felt life was pointless if he was not playing cricket. Partly for that reason, he did not play his last first-class match until 1908, when he was nearly 60; and still he carried on turning out for his local club, Eltham, in south London, until a year before his death, his playing days terminated not by age (though he was hardly able to move by then, and needed a runner) but by the outbreak of the First World War. Connelly deals sensitively with this finale in his novel, and it is an episode reflective entirely of the book’s charm.

Connelly takes few liberties with his subject. Most of what occurs in the novel is based closely on fact. The Victorians were not the type to wallow in their emotions, and for Grace any attempt to dwell on such matters in his writings, or interviews, would have been anathema – as his ghostwriter, in an amusing episode in the novel, finds when trying to milk him of memories of his 100th century. Connelly fills in the missing emotions (or the missing man) in an unsensational fashion that keeps us believing in his subject.

Grace’s greatness lay in the fact that, in the era when he was most active – roughly from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s – the wickets on which matches were played were generally abominable. Batsmen, who had primitive padding and protection by today’s standards, were often injured, sometimes killed. Grace made batting on these wickets look easy. He was the first player in the history of the game to make 100 first-class centuries. He had many failures and lean spells: but in 1895, in what is known as the Golden Age of cricket, and just as people were writing him off at the age of 46, he had a miraculous season in which he scored 2,346 runs, including nine centuries (one of which was his 100th), at an average of 51, and became the first man to make 1,000 runs in May. The Daily Telegraph, supported by the MCC and Gloucestershire, raised the awesome total of £9,703 for him that year as a “testimonial”, another fact that stood
at odds with his amateur status.

MCC (as Tomlinson points out at length) took a long time to elect him to membership in the 1860s partly because, as the son of a provincial doctor, he lacked the social clout to join, but also because of the reports of his taking money. Yet it had long accepted the double standard. More than any other man alive, Grace had popularised cricket as a spectator sport. MCC, then as now, was a business first and a club second, and he had been brilliant for turnover. He played for expenses that were usually in excess of what any professional was paid. Occasionally the press had the bad manners to point this out: MCC turned a blind eye, anxious to maintain the game’s popularity and its snobberies at the same time.

Grace is depicted in both books, fact and fiction, as a multidimensional man. A cheat – he would claim catches that had hit the ground and refuse to walk when all knew he had hit the ball – he intimidated umpires. He was intensely competitive and a bad loser. Connelly illustrates this well in an episode where a teenage girl bowls him out. Taking a team of professionals to Australia in the early 1870s, he travels first class while they go steerage, and he is, of course, paid far more than them. He eventually qualifies as a doctor but his salaried post for a Poor Law union in Bristol is one from which he is largely absent. Yet he is kind to children, tipping them half-crowns and ruffling their hair; he is devoted to his wife and children, and devastated when his adored daughter dies of typhoid and then his son, who struggles to emulate him but has infinitely more talent in other ways, dies a few years later.

Both books, in different ways, describe a man who would have been great in any age and whose fundamental decency outweighed his failings. Unlike so many cricketers since, he deserves his legend.

Amazing Grace: the Man Who Was W G by Richard Tomlinson is published by Little, Brown (413pp, £25)

Gilbert: the Last Years of W G Graceby Charlie Connelly is published by Bloomsbury (190pp, £10.99)

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister