1. Grace's early life
William Gilbert Grace was born in July 1848 in Downend, Gloucestershire. One of nine children to Henry and Martha Grace, the young William would have been immersed in cricket from an early age.
His father was a local GP who founded Mangotsfield cricket club in 1845, which was to soon merge with West Gloucestershire cricket club. All the Grace children were encouraged to play cricket, and W.G. Grace benefited from a young age from the coaching of his uncle, Alfred Pocock.
Downend in the middle of the nineteenth century was a village outside Bristol and Grace had a typical village upbringing, wondering the rural fields with his friends. He was not particularly scholarly and did not attend university, with his father having designs on William following in his footsteps as a medical practitioner, for which he qualified in 1879.
However cricket was always the main focus for W.G. Grace from the start. He played for West Gloucestershire from the age of 9, before also playing for Lansdown cricket club who were the primary club in the county at the time. He first played for Lansdown just shy of his 13th birthday. In 1863 Grace suffered a debilitating bout of pneumonia which saw him confined to his bed for several weeks. The following year he was invited to play for the South Wales cricket club in matches around London, including Lords and The Oval.
2. Early career
The cricketing career of W.G. Grace is extraordinary for its longevity and impact to this day.
His talent came to the attention of the wider public in 1866, when at the age of 18 he not only notched his maiden first-class century but went on to score 224 not out while playing for an All-England side against Surrey. The year 1868 saw him enrol at Bristol Medical School while also cementing his reputation as the finest cricketer of his day by becoming only the second man to score two centuries in one match.
In 1869 Grace was made a member of the prestigious MCC who he would represent in matches right up to 1904. He adopted their red and yellow hooped cap which became as much a part of his trade mark look as his impressive beard. The same year saw him hit four centuries, which included one innings of 180 as part of an opening wicket partnership of 283 with Bransby Cooper and was Grace’s highest partnership total of his career.
W.G. Grace was to score over 1000 runs in 28 of the seasons he played and over 2000 runs in 5 of them. The first of the seasons he tallied over 2000 runs was in 1871, the first time anyone had achieved this milestone in first-class cricket.
Indeed 1871 starkly illustrated Grace’s superiority at that time compared to the rest. Of the 17 centuries struck that season Grace accounted for 10. His average of 78.25 was almost double that of his closest rivals.
3. A Record-Breaking Career
W.G. Grace was to continue to accumulate records to his name. In 1873 he was the first player to hit a century before lunch and also the first to score over 1,000 runs and take over 100 wickets in the same season.
Three years later, while playing for the MCC he not only broke the highest ever previous individual score of 278 set in 1820 by William Ward, he went on to become the first player to score over 300 runs in an innings, finishing with 344 runs to his name.
Just for good measure he scored 177 for Gloucestershire two days later and incredibly a further 318 not out just two days on from that. In just one week he had twice beaten a record which William Ward had held for 56 years.
W.G. Grace played for England on 22 occasions in test cricket between 1880 and 1899. He played in what is recognised as the first test match in England in 1880 against Australia, scoring 152 in a match which also featured his two brothers. Grace led the England team on a tour of Australia in 1891-92 even though injury had seen him have his worse first class season with the bat.
The Australians won the series 2-1, but Grace found his form again, with the following three seasons seeing him score over 1000 runs in each of them. In terms of international cricket Grace played all of his 22 test matches against the Australians and all in England with the exception of the 1891-92 tour, although he did tour the same country in 1873-74 as part of an England cricket side.
If anyone thought W.G. Grace’s best days were behind him then 1895 was to prove them wrong. He scored over 2000 runs for the year, including a remarkable 1000 runs just in the month of May. 1895 also saw him reach the milestone of 100 centuries. The following year Wisden awarded him sole recipient of their cricketer of the year award rather than the traditional five players it is given to. Now heading towards the end of his career Grace remained a formidable batsman though his ability in the field had declined. In 1899 at the age of 51 he played his final test match for England and also ended his time at Gloucestershire.
4. End of Career and Legacy
After finishing at Gloucestershire W.G Grace re-located to the capital and joined the new London County cricket club, though the club stopped playing first-class matches in 1904.
He continued to play occasional minor cricket thereafter, with his last batting performance seeing him score 69 not out for Eltham at the age of 66. A year later in October 1915 W.G. Grace died following a heart attack and the nation mourned a cricketing colossus.
Grace married his wife Agnes in October 1873 and they had three children. Although his cricket commitments saw Grace qualify from his medical studies at the quite late age of 31, he was to practice his profession throughout his life. Indeed priority was given to his new practice for the next 5 years following his qualification, a period in which he did not top the first-class batting averages, Family was also exceptionally important to Grace and after losing his father in 1871 he was very hard hit by the death of his younger brother Fred in 1880, just weeks after playing together for England in a Test match against Australia.
Grace was recognised for his contribution to the game by the MCC with a memorial biography published in 1919. This was followed four years later by the installation of the W.G. Grace memorial gates at the St. Johns Wood road entrance at Lords. Further recognition has come over the years which saw Grace picked by Wisden in 1963 as one of their 6 giants of the Wisden century and his induction in to the ICC cricket Hall of Fame in 2009.
One of W.G. Grace’s nicknames was “The Champion” which strikes as highly appropriate when you consider his career achievements and the period at which he played. Uneven pitch conditions and lack of suitable protective clothing back then would be completely unacceptable in the modern game, making batting conditions unpredictable at best, out and out dangerous at worse.
Grace introduced batting techniques to help him master these conditions far better than his contemporaries at the time. The fact that his name and his image are instantly recognisable today by so many over a century after his death speaks volumes for his importance to the sport for which he is often referred to as the father of modern cricket.