Back stroke

W. G. Grace

William Gilbert Grace (18 July 184823 October 1915) was an English cricketer who, by his extraordinary skills, made cricket a popular spectator sport, and who developed most of the techniques of modern batting.

He was often referred to in print by his initials, and "W.G." became something of a sobriquet for him. To his family, he was generally known as Gilly – but Gilby, Willy and William are also said to have been used. (His mother is described as admonishing him, after he had been dismissed playing a poor shot: "How many times, Gilbert, have I told you how to play that ball?") He was also known in his later career as "The Doctor", "The Old Man" (although this came about when he was still in his early thirties) and, most auspiciously, "The Champion".

In many of the tributes paid to him, he was referred to as "The Great Cricketer". The anti-establishment writer C. L. R. James, in his classic work Beyond a Boundary, included a section "WG: Pre-Eminent Victorian", containing four chapters and covering some sixty pages. He declared Grace "the best-known Englishman of his time", and writes of cricket as "the game he [Grace] transformed into a national institution".

In a career spanning 44 years, Grace's batting average was 39.45 at first class level, an average undoubtedly dragged down by playing into his late fifties. At his peak in the 1870s his first-class season batting averages were regularly between 60 and 70, at a time where uncovered, poorly-prepared pitches meant that scores were far lower than the modern game. His career bowling record of 2809 wickets at the outstanding average of 18.14 speaks for itself. Grace played Test cricket against Australia from 1880 onwards, when he was past his peak.

He was a doctor by profession and played cricket as a (nominal) amateur throughout his career.


In 1848, Grace was born in Downend, Bristol. He found himself in an atmosphere charged with cricket, his father (Henry Mills Grace), his mother (Martha) and his uncle (Alfred Pocock) being as enthusiastic about the game as his elder brothers, Henry, Alfred and Edward Mills; indeed, with Edward Mills Grace, always known as "EM", the family name first became famous. A younger brother, George Frederick (i.e., Fred), also added to the cricketing reputation of the family. WG witnessed his first great match when he was barely six years old, the occasion being a game between William Clarke's All-England Eleven and twenty-two of West Gloucestershire.

His mother, Martha, wrote the following in a letter to George Parr in 1859: "I am writing to ask you to consider the inclusion of my son, E. M. Grace—a splendid hitter and most excellent catch—in your England XI. I am sure he would play very well and do the team much credit. It may interest you to learn that I have a younger son, now twelve years of age, who will in time be a much better player than his brother because his back stroke is sounder, and he always plays with a straight bat. His name is W. G. Grace."

Grace was married in 1873 to Miss Agnes Day. One of his sons (WG junior) played for two years in the University of Cambridge XI (and also for Gloucestershire, London County, and the MCC). He did not live up to his illustrious namesake, averaging 15 with the bat and nearly 40 with the ball. Another son, CB Grace, played a few matches for London County.

His great-great-great-grandsons Rupert and George are both budding cricketers themselves and are in the squad of the England U14 and U16 respectively.

Athletic abilities

As a young man, Grace was very different from the rather corpulent figure of his later days. He was muscular, powerful and was 6ft 2in (1.88m).

He was a non-smoker, and kept himself in condition all year round by shooting, hunting, or running with the beagles as soon as the cricket season was over.

He was also a fine runner, 440yds (400m) over 20 hurdles being his best distance. It has been quoted as an indication of his fitness that on 30 July 1866 he scored 224 not out for England v Surrey, and two days later had sufficiently recovered to win a race in the National and Olympian Association meeting at the Crystal Palace.

Grace became an enthusiast of lawn bowls when he moved to London as manager of the London County Club in 1900. He was a prime mover in the founding of the English Bowling Association in 1903 and was elected their first president. He also helped found an international competition with Scotland, Ireland and Wales, captaining England from their inaugural international, at Crystal Palace in 1903, until 1908.

First-class career

The title of champion was well earned by one who for forty-four years (1865–1908 inclusive) was actively engaged in first-class cricket. He represented the Gentlemen in their matches against the Players from 1865 to 1906, though his final appearance in those matches played at Lord's was in 1899. When an Australian eleven visited England, he was an automatic selection to play for the mother country up to and including the first of the five contests in 1899. When he was finally omitted, it was primarily because his age and bulk had made him a liability in the field.

1899 could be said to mark the beginning of the end of his career, although he would continue in first-class cricket for another nine years. Not only did he play his last Test, and for the last time in a Lord's Gentleman v Players match, but he also played his last County Championship match for Gloucestershire. This was the result of his falling out with the Gloucestershire committee over his involvement with London County.

As late as 1902, though aged fifty-four by the end of the seaon, he scored nearly 1,200 runs in first-class cricket, made 100 or more runs on two different occasions, and had an average of 37 runs. Moreover, his greatest triumphs were achieved when only the very best cricket grounds received serious attention — when, as some consider, bowling was maintained at a higher standard, and when all hits had to be run out. He, with his two brothers, EM and Fred, assisted by some fine amateurs, in one season turned Gloucestershire into a first-class county. Gloucestershire was "Champion County" in 1874, 1876 and 1877; they also shared the title in 1873.

It was Grace who enabled the amateurs of England to meet the paid players on equal terms in the Gentlemen v Players fixture and to beat them more often than not. The list of Gentlemen v Players matches makes for revealing reading. In the 24 matches played between 1850 and 1864 inclusive, the Players won 22, the Gentlemen just one, with one being drawn. In the 36 matches played after Grace began playing for the Gentlemen, between 1865 and 1879, the Players won just four, with eight matches being drawn and the Gentlemen winning the remaining 24.

Fielding and bowling

There was hardly a record connected with the game which did not stand to Grace's credit. He was one of the finest fieldsmen in England, in his earlier days generally taking long-leg and cover-point, later generally standing point (see Fielding positions in cricket). He was, at his best, a fine thrower, fast runner, and safe catcher. As a bowler he was long in the first flight, originally bowling fast, but in later times adopting a slower and more tricky style, frequently very effective. He was unusual in persisting with a round-arm action throughout his career, when almost all other bowlers had long since switched to overarm.

In 1884, Grace unusually took up position as wicket-keeper in a Test against Australia, so that the usual wicket-keeper, Alfred Lyttelton could bowl. Billy Midwinter was immediately caught behind, down the legside. Grace remains the only Test wicket-keeper to have taken a catch off the first ball bowled with him behind the stumps.


By profession, W.G. Grace was a medical man, although he did not finish qualifying as a doctor until he was thirty-one. He was finally awarded his L.R.C.P. by the University of Edinburgh in 1879, having been admitted to the Bristol Medical School on 27 October 1867 (thus following in the footsteps of his father and three older brothers). The apparently eternal nature of his studies was a cause for a fair amount of friendly abuse from his cricketing friends.

After his time at Bristol Medical School, Grace trained first at St Bartholomew's Hospital and then at Westminster Hospital Medical School, both in London. After qualifying he worked both in his own practice at 51 Stapleton Road in Easton, Bristol. which was a largely poor district of Bristol, employing two locums during the cricket season, and for the Bristol Poor Law Union. (There is now a leisure centre on the site.) There are many testimonies from his patients that he was a good doctor. Poor families knew that they did not need to worry about calling him in, as the bills would never arrive.

It seems that, despite his amateur status, the greater part of his income came from cricketing activities. He was the recipient of two national testimonials: the first, amounting to £1,500, was presented to him in the form of a clock and a cheque at the Lord's ground by Lord Charles Russell on 22 July 1879; the second, collected by the MCC, the county of Gloucestershire, the Daily Telegraph, and the Sportsman, amounted to about £10,000 and was presented to him in 1896.

In later years, Grace became the (paid) secretary and manager of the London County Cricket Club, based at Crystal Palace in Penge, London, which played first-class cricket from 1900 to 1904.

He lived for some years in Mottingham, a south-east London suburb (a blue plaque marks his residence, 'Fairmont' in Mottingham Lane, where he died on 23 October 1915). He is buried in Beckenham Crematorium.

Early career

Grace played his first "great" match in 1863 when, being only fifteen years of age, he scored 32 against the All-England Eleven against the bowling of Jackson, Tarrant, and Tinley. The scores that first brought him to prominence, however, were made in 1864: 170 and 56 not out for the South Wales Club against the Gentlemen of Sussex. It was in 1865 that he first took an active part in first-class cricket, being then 6ft (1.83 m) high, and 11 stone (70 kg) in weight, and playing twice for the Gentlemen v the Players, but his selection was mainly due to his bowling powers, the best exposition of which was his aggregate of 13 wickets for 84 runs for the Gentlemen of the South v the Players of the South. His highest score was 400 not out, made in July 1876 in a non-first-class match against twenty-two of Grimsby. On three occasions he was twice dismissed without scoring in matches against odds, a fate that never befell him in important cricket matches.


Grace visited Australia in 1873–1874 (captain), and in 1891–1892 with Lord Sheffield's Eleven (captain). He visited the United States and Canada in 1872, with R A Fitzgerald's team.

Records and statistics

NOTE. This article uses the career figures for Grace that have been accepted since the 1916 Wisden. Since 1961, the first-class status of a few matches included in these statistics has been disputed, with the result that alternative career totals for runs, centuries, catches and wickets may appear in some sources. For a fuller explanation of this, please see Variations in First-Class Cricket Statistics.

Highest score

In first-class matches Grace's highest score was 344, made for the MCC v Kent at Canterbury in August 1876; two days later he made 177 for Gloucestershire v Notts, and two days after that 318 not out for Gloucestershire v Yorkshire, the latter two innings against counties with exceptionally strong bowling attacks. Thus in three consecutive innings Grace scored 839 runs, and was only out twice. The 344 was the first triple century scored in first class cricket. William Ward's 278 scored in 1820 had stood as a record for 56 years, within a week Grace bettered it twice.

His 344 was the third highest individual score made in a big match in England up to the end of 1901. He also scored 301 for Gloucestershire v Sussex at Bristol in August 1896. His 318 against Yorkshire stood as a Gloucestershire record for 128 years until it was broken by Craig Spearman's 341 against Middlesex in June 2004.

Double centuries

Grace made over 200 runs on ten occasions, the most notable perhaps being in 1871, when he performed the feat twice, each time in benefit matches, and each time in the second innings, having been each time got out in the first over of the first innings. Against Middlesex, he carried his bat for 221, and sat up the whole night in between beside the bed of a patient.


Grace scored over 100 runs on 126 occasions, the hundredth score being 288, made at Bristol for Gloucestershire v Somerset in 1895.

He made every figure from 0 to 100, on one occasion closing the innings when he had made 93, the only total he had never made between these limits.

In 1871 he made ten centuries, ranging from 268 to 116.

In the matches between the Gentlemen and Players he scored three figures fifteen times, and at every place where these matches have been played.

He made over 100 in each of his first appearances at Oxford and Cambridge.

Three times he made over 100 in both innings of the same match:

  • at Canterbury, in 1868, for South v North of the Thames, 130 and 102 not out;
  • at Clifton, in 1887, for Gloucestershire v Kent, 101 and 103 not out;
  • at Clifton, in 1888, for Gloucestershire v Yorkshire, 148 and 153.

Partnerships and other miscellaneous statistics

In 1869, playing at the Oval for the Gentlemen of the South v the Players of the South, Grace and B B Cooper put on 283 runs for the first wicket, Grace scoring 180 and Cooper 101. In 1886 Grace and Scotton put on 170 runs for the first wicket of England v Australia; this occurred at the Oval in August, and Grace's total score was 170.

In consecutive innings against the Players from 1871 to 1873 he scored 217, 77, and 112, 117, 163, 158, and 70.

He only twice scored over 100 in a big match in Australia, nor did he ever make 200 at Lord's, his highest being 196 for the MCC v Cambridge University in 1894.

Season totals

Grace's highest aggregates were 2,739 (1871), 2,622 (1876), 2,346 (1895), 2,139 (1873), 2,135 (1896), and 2,062 (1887). 1871 was arguably his greatest season. A total of 17 centuries were scored in first-class matches, and Grace accounted for 10 of them. He averaged 78.25; the next best average by a batsman playing more than a single innings was 39.57, barely more than half his figure. Only two other batsmen exceeded 1,000 runs (though Grace did play in considerably more matches than most players).

Other feats

Grace scored three successive centuries in first-class cricket in 1871, 1872, 1873, 1874, and 1876.

Playing against Kent at Gravesend in 1895, he was batting, bowling, or fielding during the whole time the game was in progress, his scores being 257 and 73 not out.

It is said that he once hit a ball 36 miles after a shot landed on a passing steam train.

While playing against F Townsend's XI at Cheltenham in 1874, Grace agreed to bat with a broomstick while everyone else was to use a normal bat. In spite of this, he made 35 runs, the second highest score.

The Double

Grace scored over 1,000 runs and took over 100 wickets in seven different seasons:

  • in 1874, 1,664 runs and 139 wickets;
  • in 1875, 1,498 runs and 191 wickets;
  • in 1876, 2,622 runs and 130 wickets;
  • in 1877, 1,474 runs and 179 wickets;
  • in 1878, 1,151 runs and 153 wickets;
  • in 1885, 1,688 runs and 117 wickets;
  • in 1886, 1,846 runs and 122 wickets.

(statistics taken from CricketArchive and).

Bowling records

Grace never captured 200 wickets in a season, his best being 191 in 1875. Playing against Oxford University in 1886, he took all the wickets in the first innings, at a cost of 49 runs, having scored 104 in his only innings of the match.


In 1895 Grace not only made his hundredth century, but actually scored 1,000 runs in the month of May alone, his chief scores in that month being 103, 288, 256, 73, and 169, he being then forty-six years old. He also made during that year scores of 125, 119, 118, 104, and 103 not out, his aggregate for the year being 2,346, and his average 51; his innings of 118 was made against the Players (at Lord's), the chief bowlers being Richardson, Mold, Peel, and Attewell; he scored level with his partner, Andrew Stoddart (his junior by fifteen years), the pair making 151 before a wicket fell, Grace making in all 118 out of 241. This may fairly be considered one of his most wonderful years.

Gentlemen v Players, 1898

In 1898 the match between Gentlemen v Players was, as a special compliment, arranged by the MCC committee to take place on Grace's birthday, and he celebrated the event by scoring 43 and 31 not out, though handicapped by lameness and an injured hand.

Unconfirmed stories

There are several unconfirmed stories regarding Grace. The most popular holds that Grace was bowled out on the first ball of a charity match, but continued to play, exclaiming "They came to see me bat, not to see you umpire". Essentially the same story is told of Harry Jupp (although it is more easily verifiable with him, as eye-witness Lord Harris relates the story in his autobiography).

The above may be a version of the true story that Grace, playing for a London County XI against an Irish side in Dublin, was caught and bowled for a duck by Arnold Harvey, later to become a Bishop. Another future Irish Bishop, Jack Crozier, did a cartwheel as Grace walked reluctantly to the pavilion. Grace allegedly complained to the umpire that the crowd had come to see him bat and not to watch Harvey bowl! This is a common myth - it was the umpire who said "No, lad these people have come to see the Doctor bat, not to see you bowl." See W. G. Grace:A life by Simon Rae. Similar incidents reputedly occurred on two other occasions, at the grounds of football clubs Glossop and Loughborough.

Another, is that the Australian pace bowler Ernie Jones bowled a short-pitched delivery so close to Grace's face that it appeared to go through the great and famous beard which made him so instantly recognisable, and raced away to the boundary for four byes. Jim Swanton wrote thus of an incident whose authenticity has been so frequently called into question: "This 1896 Test was probably the scene of the most famous ball ever bowled, the one by Ernest Jones that went through his beard. I raise the doubt because there is conflicting evidence. P F, who became Sir Pelham Warner, in his history Lord's 1787-1945, says that the first ball of England's first innings was very short and very fast. J J Kelly, the wicketkeeper, 'lost sight of it in Grace's beard and it went to the sight screen'. Lord Harris, in his reminiscences, confirms the ball, the place and the occasion and adds that it also touched the top of the bat handle - which, of course, probably made it a chance to the keeper.

"The great Harris's word was law. Yet C. B. Fry, in his autobiography Life Worth Living, declared that the encounter had taken place previously at Sheffield Park. He was playing for Lord Sheffield's XI there, as was Jackson, who went in first with W G and, according to Fry, said likewise. 'What the hell are you at, Jonah?' or alternatively 'What, what, what?' cried W G. Both versions agree on the immortal reply, 'Sorry, doctor, she slipped'. The question never to be answered is whether she slipped twice.

F.S. Jackson, however, recalled in the 1944 edition of Wisden that the event had occurred in the Sheffield match: "I went in first with W. G. Grace and we had to dance about a bit. One ball from Jones hit W. G. under the arm, and later in the innings another one went head-high past him and over Kelly's head to the boundary. This was the ball about which the Beard Story originated. I can see W. G. now. He threw his head back, which caused his beard to stick out. Down the pitch went W. G., stroking his beard, to Harry Trott and said: 'Here, what is all this?' And Trott said: 'Steady, Jonah.' To which Jones made that famous remark: 'Sorry, Doctor, she slipped.' I do not think the ball actually touched W. G.'s beard. That story was told after-wards, and I believe I was responsible. When I was out and returned to the Pavilion, I said: 'Did you see that one go through W. G.'s beard?'" That, then, would seem to go some way towards clearing up this long-debated issue. Forever thereafter, Grace referred to Jones as "the fellow who bowled through my beard".

It is also widely rumoured that W.G. Grace refereed the first ever match for Gloucester City A.F.C. against Bristol Rovers in 1883.

Career overview

During his first-class career from 1865 to 1908, Grace scored over 54,000 runs, with an average of 39, and in bowling he took more than 2,800 wickets, at an average cost of about 18 runs per wicket. He made his highest aggregate (2,739 runs) and had his highest average (78) in 1871; his average for the decade 1868–1877 was 57 runs. In twenty-six different seasons he scored over 1,000 runs, in three of these years being the only man to do so, and five times being one of only two.

His style as a batsman was more commanding than graceful, but as to its soundness and efficacy there were never two opinions; the severest criticism ever passed upon his powers was to the effect that he did not play slow bowling quite as well as fast.

He played Test cricket against Australia in the 1880s, but he was already past his peak at that stage. He played his last Test at the age of 51.

His final match

The last game of cricket in which W.G. Grace batted was for Eltham at Grove Park on 25 July 1914, a week after his 66th birthday. He contributed an undefeated 69 to a total of 155-6 declared, having begun his innings when they were 31-4. Grove Park made 99-8 in reply.

The Doctor had made his final first-class appearance on 20-22 April 1908 for the Gentlemen of England v Surrey at The Oval, where, opening the innings, he scored 15 and 25. That year, on 26 June, he scored his final century (111 not out for London County v Whitgift Wanderers, a match in which he also took seven wickets, including a hat-trick).

During the Great War he was known to shake his fist and shout in his famously shrill voice at the German Zeppelins floating over his home in South London. When a friend remonstrated that he had not allowed Ernie Jones' thunderbolt deliveries to unsettle him, Grace retorted "But I could see them!" It was also at about this time, at Grace's Eltham home, that HDG Leveson-Gower famously asked him to name the greatest batsman whom he had known in all his fifty years' cricketing experience. Grace stroked his silvery beard, and there was certainly a twinkle in the eyes behind those bushy brows as he announced with complete certainty that he himself ought to be regarded as the finest ever. Regarding second place, however, Grace's answer was quick and decided, and has been quoted innumerable times since then: "Give me Arthur."

WG Grace died on October 23, 1915, aged 67 after suffering a stroke.

Grace in the popular culture

Grace's portrait was used as the face of God in the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, voiced by Graham Chapman.


Grace supposedly wrote four separate autobiographies, but he was no writer and these were all "ghost written" for him according to Alan Gibson (see The Cricket Captains of England, 1989, p51). These are:

  • Cricket. Ghost-written for him by W. Methven Brownlee. Published by J.W. Arrowsmith, Bristol, 1891.
  • The History of a Hundred Centuries, 1895. Ghost-written by William Yardley.
  • Cricketing Reminiscences and Personal Recollections. Ghost-written for him by Arthur Porritt. Published by James Bowden, 1899. A facsimile edition was published by Hambledon Press, 1980, ISBN 0950688207.
  • W.G.'s Little Book, Newnes, 1909. Ghost-written by EHD Sewell.

Biographies of Grace and works containing profiles of him include (not an exhaustive list):

See also


External links

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