Considered the greatest cricketer of all time, Grace spent the majority of his career in his home city of Bristol playing an influential role alongside his father in establishing Gloucestershire County Cricket Club and captaining his country throughout the late nineteenth century.
A series of events to mark the anniversary of his death will be held at Downend Cricket Club today, with a special broadcast from BBC Radio Bristol at 9am and 6pm.
Read our definitive guide to the man they called the ‘father of the game’, probably the greatest sportsman to ever come out of Bristol.
Universally known as “W. G.”, William Gerbert Grace played first-class cricket for a record-equalling 44 seasons, from 1865 to 1908, during which he captained England, Gloucestershire, the Gentlemen, Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), the United South of England Eleven (USEE) and several other teams.
Right-handed as both batsman and bowler, Grace dominated the sport during his career. His technical innovations and enormous influence left a lasting legacy. An outstanding all-rounder, he excelled at all the essential skills of batting, bowling and fielding, but it is for his batting that he is most renowned. Held to have invented modern batsmanship, Grace was particularly admired for his mastery of all strokes, and his level of expertise was said by contemporary reviewers to be unique.
|The Good Doctor|
Grace qualified as a medical practitioner in 1879 meaning he was nominally an amateur cricketer but is said to have made more money from his cricketing activities than any professional cricketer.
Formative Years In Bristol
W. G. Grace was born in Downend, near Bristol, on 18 July 1848 at his parents’ home, Downend House, and was baptised at the local church on 8 August. It was in the grounds of this Downend home and as members of his local cricket clubs that he and his brothers developed their skills, mainly under the tutelage of his uncle, Alfred Pocock, an exceptional coach.
W.G.’s father Henry Grace founded Mangotsfield Cricket Club in 1845 to represent several neighbouring villages including Downend before the club merged with the West Gloucestershire Cricket Club in 1846.
As a young man Grace was an exceptional athlete and won the 440 yards hurdling title at the National Olympian Games at Crystal Palace in August 1866.
An Early Start
W.G. played for the West Gloucestershire club as early as 1857, when he was nine years old, and had 11 innings in 1859. The earliest official match to involve Grace was in 1859, only a few days after his eleventh birthday, when he played for Clifton Cricket Club against the South Wales Cricket Club at Durdham Down, his team winning by 114 runs.
The club became Gloucestershire County Cricket Club in 1870, and acquired first-class status when its team played against Surrey at Durdham Down near Bristol on 2, 3 & 4 June 1870. With Grace and his brothers E.M. and Fred playing, Gloucestershire won by 51 runs and quickly became one of the best teams in England.
Becoming the first ever captain of Gloucestershire County Cricket Club at the age of 21, Grace would go on to play for the club until the age of 51 when he left Bristol to help form the London County Cricket Club in 1899.
Grace set and broke numerous records during his career, helping establish his legacy as the ‘greatest cricketer of all-time’.
The details of Grace’s statistical first-class career are controversial but CricketArchive recognises 1865 to 1908 as its span and lists 29 teams, the England national team and 28 domestic teams, represented by Grace in first-class matches. In all, Grace made 126 first-class centuries, a record for 17 years until beaten by Jack Hobbs in 1925.
In 1868, Grace scored two centuries in a match, only the second time in cricket history that this is known to have been done, following William Lambert in 1817. Following his Father’s footsteps into medicine, Grace enrolled at Bristol Medical School in October 1868, eventually qualifying as a medical practitioner in 1879.
His aggregate for the 1871 season was 2,739 runs and this was the first time that anyone had scored 2,000 first-class runs in a season.
Grace became the first batsman to score a century before lunch in a first-class match when he made 134 for Gentlemen of the South versus Players of the South at The Oval in 1873. In the same season, he became the first player ever to complete the “double” of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in a season. He went on to do the double eight times in all.
His innings of 344 in 1876 for Marylebone Cricket Club was the first triple century scored in first-class cricket and broke the record for the highest individual score in all classes of cricket, previously held by William Ward who had scored 278 in 1820.
England’s First Cricketing Superstar
Although the early matches were recognised retrospectively, Test cricket began in 1877 when Grace was already 28 and he made his debut in 1880, scoring England’s first-ever Test century against Australia.
It was a proud moment for the Grace family in 1880 when all three brothers lined up for England against Australia in what is retrospectively recognised as the inaugural Test match in England. This remains the only time three brothers have represented England in the same Test.
He played for England in 22 Tests through the 1880s and 1890s, all of them against Australia, and was an automatic selection for England at home, but his only Test-playing tour of Australia was that of 1891–92.
Grace’s most significant Test was England v Australia in 1882 at The Oval. Thanks to Spofforth who took 14 wickets in the match, Australia won by 7 runs and the legend of The Ashes was born immediately afterwards. Grace scored only 4 and 32 but he has been held responsible for “firing up” Spofforth. This came about through a typical piece of gamesmanship by Grace when he effected an unsporting, albeit legal, run out of Sammy Jones.
Against all expectation, Grace produced in 1895 a season that has been called his “Indian Summer”. He completed his hundredth century playing for Gloucestershire against Somerset in May. He then went on to score 1,000 runs in the month, the first time this had ever been done, with scores of 13, 103, 18, 25, 288, 52, 257, 73 not out, 18 and 169 totalling 1,016 runs between 9 and 30 May. Following his “Indian Summer”, Grace was the sole recipient of the Wisden Cricketers of the Year award for 1896, the first of only three times that Wisden has restricted the award to a single player, with the award usually gifted to five recipients.
In his later years, Grace developed a fondness for Bowls and founded the English Bowling Association in 1903, becoming its first president. He helped found an international competition with Scotland, Ireland and Wales, captaining England from the inaugural international at Crystal Palace in 1903 until 1908.
W. G. Grace died at Mottingham on 23 October 1915, aged 67, after suffering a heart attack. His death was said to have “shook the nation almost as much as Winston Churchill’s fifty years later”. He is buried in the family grave at Beckenham Crematorium and Cemetery, Kent.
Truly a Bristol sporting icon.