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Who is the greatest cricketer that ever lived? It’s not Sachin or Sobers or even the Don.
It is not Kallis or Imran or Warnie either.
The greatest ever cricketer died 100 years ago this month. He dominated the game to an extent which, Bradman aside, has never again been approached. His huge frame shepherded the elevation of cricket from the uncertain, early days of the overarm bowling revolution, into Test cricket, all the way into Golden Age before the First World War.
William Gilbert Grace’s extraordinary first class career spanned from 1865 until 1908, a scarcely believable 44 years. Tall at 1.88m, immensely strong and far from the large bellied, grey bearded old man photographed in later years, WG was a superb athlete. Following an innings of 224 not out for England against Surrey as an eighteen year old, he was allowed a brief leave from fielding duties so he could win the nearby hurdles championship at Crystal Palace.
Adept off both front and back foot to strokes all around the wicket, Grace was a pioneer in having mastery over such a range of batting options. His quickly became the template for others to follow. The tiny amount of film footage available shows him quirkily raising his left toe into the air as he waits for the bowler to deliver.
Starting as a round-arm medium pacer, by the mid-1870s he favoured bowling leg breaks, usually from around the wicket. In his prime, he was a genuine all-rounder, one of the finest bowlers in addition to being the greatest batsman.
At The Oval in 1882, he hit 32 of the 85 required for English victory but the rest had no answer to Fred Spofforth as Australia famously won by seven runs, English cricket was declared dead and the Ashes have been played for ever since.
Grace’s Test match batting average of 32, less than that of Marcus North and a third of Bradman’s, has to be taken in context. Scores were generally much lower in the early days of Test cricket. As at the end of the 19th Century, Grace’s figures stack up respectably against his contemporaries however they would undoubtedly be improved had Test cricket existed earlier in his career. Thirteen of his 22 Test matches were played after he had turned forty.
W.G.’s first-class statistics give a truer indication of his standing, and are as startling as any record accumulated by any cricketer before or since. His overall batting average of a tick under 40 was twice as high as his bowling average of just 18. Now bear in mind that Grace played first-class cricket until just before his 60th birthday and that most of the pitches on which he prospered would be considered unplayable today.
Statistics show a gradual decline in his dominance – to the age of 30 for instance, he averaged over 50 with the bat and 14 with the ball. Nevertheless he remained a giant of the game and one of the leading players right to the turn of the 20th century.
Even in his mid-fifties, having finally retired from Test cricket, he brought himself on to bowl in a first class match against the touring 1902 Australians and took 5-29.
First Class / WG Grace/Cum. runs/Cum. Bat Av/Cum. Wkts/Cum. Bwl Av
To end of 1868 Aged 20 1512 47.25 134 12.56
To end of 1878 Aged 30 19078 51.42 1259 14.27
To end of 1888 Aged 40 32871 44.18 2199 16.25
To end of 1898 Aged 50 48445 40.99 2609 17.45
To end of 1908 Aged 60 54211 39.45 2809 18.15
His contribution to the game is extraordinary. Said C.L.R. James in Beyond a Boundary.
Bradman piled up centuries. W.G. built a social organisation. Despite the impression of continuity and expansion which the histories of cricket give, there is little evidence to show that it was widely played or that it was a common public entertainment before the decade in which W.G. first appeared.
Grace’s gamesmanship was legendary and often controversial. When he famously replaced the bails after being clean bowled (albeit in an exhibition match) stating ‘They’ve come to watch me bat, not you bowl,’ few could argue. People flocked in unprecedented numbers to see the champion in action. There was no suggestion of malice but he would never hesitate in taking any advantage he thought he could get away with.
Off the field he became an adept and compassionate medical doctor around Bristol. When it was thought he might devote more time to his practice in his early fifties, he instead gave it away, moved to London and continued for years as captain of the new ‘London County’ club. There can be no doubt of his love for the game. Aged 66, he scored 69 not out in his last ever match, for Eltham Cricket Club.
Today’s players are fitter and better prepared however that does not mean they are necessarily more skilful than those before them. How can you compare another player against a man who did much to establish modern batting technique and whose record breaking scores popularised the sport?
Is WG the greatest cricketer of all time? I like to think so.