WG Grace, born July 18, 1848, was the father of cricket, and has more anecdotes concocted around him than perhaps any other personality in the game. Many are apocryphal; some still have pretensions of truth. Arunabha Sengupta lists 30 of the most colourful.
WG Grace, with his flowing beard and cricketing stature as huge as his enormous frame, stands like a giant mythical figure in the landscape of the game. When delving through the many, many delightful — and often murky — anecdotes about this greatest of cricketers, it is well-nigh impossible to strip away apocrypha and dwell on the absolute truth. With each retelling, the legend has grown, perhaps beyond recognition from the occasion that sparked it off.
Did Grace really tell the umpire that the people had not turned up to see his decisions but had come in hordes to see him batting?
Did he really replace the bails and carry on batting as if the ball had never been close to the stumps?
Did he really try to wiggle out of dislodged bails by saying, “there’s a strong westerly?”Did the umpire really respond, “O really Doctor, I hope it helps you on your way to the pavilion?”
Did he shout ‘The Lady’ when the opposition skipper spun the coin and chose to bat with a grunt regardless of whether it was Queen Victoria or Britannia that landed face up with the fair mantle of femininity?
We can never be sure. Too many years have passed and the factual fragments are inseparably clustered with the imaginary immensity of romanticising and poetic fabrication surrounding the legend. Many of the stories are told and believed with the disclaimer, “Just the sort of thing the Old Man would have said.”
Here is a selection of some of the most colourful among them which give a glimpse of the man behind the cricketer.
1. “Is Dr Grace in?” asked a nervous patient at the surgery door. The answer floated back, “Of course he’s in. He’s been batting ever since lunch-time on Tuesday.”
2. CB Fry once remarked that WG was the only man to receive a medical degree for his operations on the cricket field. (The moment we talk of WG and his medical pursuits, we are faced with a veritable storehouse of such quips. Very few of these are really true. He did not race to his medical diploma as eagerly as he was known to approach a century. But, he did do justice to his profession in many ways).
3. In Bristol, as a parish doctor and general practitioner to the large working-class, WG performed the role of a physician with responsibility and a great heart. He did not really neglect the patient for his cricket, as widely believed. Often he would be seen walking briskly along the streets of his parish, dressed in a roughish tweed suit, sometimes pausing to talk to stray children and dogs.
4. Often a family short of fuel or food would find the doctor producing a bag of coal or a basin of soup.
5. WG would also bully and browbeat some friends into giving the unemployed men of the locality some sort of jobs.
6. If the smell of brewing soup enticed him, WG often stayed back in the patient’s house, joining the family for dinner.
7. In winter, as he did his rounds, WG’s top hat was an excellent target for snowballs, but the kids knew that retribution would follow them in its icy way. WG’s pickup was smooth, the throw accurate and the assailant was usually paid back in kind.
8. Sometimes WG’s medical methods were rather unusual. When a drunken sweep stinking of beer demanded a tonic, WG responded, “What you need lad is exercise and not medicine.” Following this, he called out to his maid, “Mary, fetch my boxing gloves.” The patient rushed out, completely cured, screaming, “The great big b***** wants to fight me!”
9. WG’s treatment was often carried out on the cricket field. Joe Hadow made a running catch at deep square leg to dismiss WG and stumbled forward to hit his head against the projecting metal edge of a stand. WG, on his way back to the pavilion, administered first aid with more gentle firmness than expected for someone who had made a catch of a genuine six hit.
10. In 1887 WG saved the life of old Gloucestershire cricketer and cricket writer ACM Croome. Croome gashed his throat against one of the spiked railings in front of the pavilion of Old Trafford and the cut was deep and potentially fatal. WG held the jagged edges of the wound together for nearly half an hour as messengers scurried to find surgical needles. WG had been bowling all day and but for his stamina and nerve it would have been near impossible to keep holding the position without twitching finger or thumb.
11. There were occasions when WG remained up all night with a difficult case and returned to the ground the next morning to hit a hundred or pick up a bushel of wickets.
12. Kent amateur CJM Fox stooped sharply to field a hard hit, overbalanced, and put his shoulder out in the fall. EM ran to him, signalling to the pavilion. WG bustled out and for the next few minutes the crowd were treated to a peculiar scene. EM sat on the unfortunate lad’s head as WG grabbed his arm and began to pull, with his foot as fulcrum. After a terrible and painful pause, a loud crack was heard and the shoulder went back into place. “You’re a very lucky young man,” WG exclaimed while leaving the field.
13. At Chestnuts, WG was awakened in the middle of the night by a loud thud and a yell of agony. A tramp had sought to raid the larder and had met with the misfortune of being trapped with the heavy window sash falling on his hands. When EM got back and demanded of WG what he had done with the intruder and whether he had handed him over to the police, WG responded. “Medical etiquette. I dressed his wounds. First-class job too. But hand him over? Oh no, not my patient. I just went round and gave him a running kick and let him go.”
14. Passing on his rounds along the Ropewalk of Bristol, WG heard a man cursing his donkey. The beast of burden had surrendered beneath a load of coke and sunk to his knees. WG uttered a few words of advice when the man turned from the donkey to the doctor and sprayed him with a volley of profanities. This included, “You’re the big lout that plays kids’ games, but what else can you do?” WG replied, “Not much.” And taking off his hat, he gripped the ends of the cart shafts and lifted the donkey on to its reluctant feet.
15. Tom Emmett is supposed to have said, “He ought to have a littler bat.” And later, subjected to relentless run-making, he had added, “It’s Grace before meat, Grace after meat, Grace all day, and I reckon it’ll be Grace tomorrow.” And further down the line, “The better I places ’em, the better he pastes ’em.”
16. James Shaw of Nottinghamshire voiced, “I puts them where I likes, but that beggar, he puts them where he likes.”
17. Yet, WG himself was quite forthcoming about his own failures. At a West Country game, an unknown fast bowler bowled him. The batsman who followed him was also bowled and complained about the light. “I could have played it if I could have seen it.” WG responded, “I could see it all right, but I couldn’t play it.”
18. A young batsman told him he did not mind at which position he batted: “I never made a duck in my life.” The doctor snapped back. “No blob, eh? Then No. 11 for you. Not enough experience.”
19. Once asked how to play a difficult ball, WG answered profoundly, “I should lay the bat against the ball.”
20. He was artful on the field. He educated umpires, as he put it— sometimes seriously and often with a wink. Some county umpires did need education. “How often have I told you that if he catches me after the ball has gone out of the ground, it’s six to me?” However, WG ensured often enough that the lessons imparted were one dimensional.
21. Francis Thomson said of WG, “The long-whiskered Doctor that laugheth the rules to scorn.” But, it was more of playing within the rules and stretching them to the limits. It was EM who was more prone to confuse the umpire. Once he went too close to the batsman and appealed for obstruction when the bat hit him during the stroke. WG generally did not entertain these methods. “Obstruction be blowed. Catch the ball and never mind bamboozling the umpire.”
22. After a series of appeals turned down, mostly due to powerful stares of WG over his domineering beard, fast bowler Charles Kortright knocked the middle and off stumps down with a vicious yorker. As the great man turned to leave, the bowler said: “Surely you’re not going Doctor, there’s one stump still standing.”
23. There was the young street cricketer who had been trapped leg before by his opponents and had protested. When WG, the only adult in sight, was approached to make a decision, he had said, “You were out, old man. Better go like a sportsman.” The lad had retorted, “Garn. What’s an old buffer like you know about cricket?”
24. And then there was the servant girl who went to London to visit Madame Tussaud’s. When Grace asked her, “Mary, did you see me there?” the reply was, “Oh no sir, we’d have to pay sixpence extra to go into the Chamber of Horrors.”
25. A country wicketkeeper made a loud appeal for a catch at the wicket. The umpire affably turned to WG and said, “Don’t you mind him Doctor. We, none of us, think much of him.”
26. Another one while we are on the topic of wicketkeepers. WG was leading England during the Manchester Test of 1896. He put wicketkeeper Dick Lilley on to bowl. The stumper bowled 4 overs for 14 runs and a wide. In the fifth over, he got the Australian captain Harry Trott caught by JT Brown, the man who was keeping in his place. He was probably fantasising about a new avenue as a Test bowler opening up when WG dashed his dreams with the words, “Put those gloves on again, Dick, you must have been bowling with your wrong arm.”
27. To shorten the probable marathon innings, the opponents had decided to lubricate WG with champagne. There are two versions of the story. In the first, WG said blandly, “Thankee. Keep it cool, I’ll drink when I’m out.” In the second, and more colourful, WG accepted and drank a bottle and half of happy vintage. He was still batting after tea, and as a four whizzed past the conspiring captain standing at square leg, WG wickedly said, “Ho. I’ll champagne yer.”
28. WG was very fond of children. One often spitted him on Sundays, galumphing around The Chestnuts lawn, on all fours, a giant imitating a bear, while the children were both delighted and somewhat terrified.
29. A boot-boy once stood transfixed while handling WG’s giant footwear. He could place his fingers in the toe space and elbow at the heel.
30. WG ran with his beagles during the off-season and once brushed through a light hedge and hurtled into an unseen pond with a glorious splash. The farmer owning that hedge guffawed. “Serves you right for bashing my hedge about.” WG, drenched to his skin, was not amused. Gripping the farmer’s collar he lifted him, deposited him in the pond and walked away squelching prodigiously.