WG Grace - The misdemeanours of the Father of Cricket

Arunabha Sengupta looks at some of the most famous feuds of cricket. In this episode he revisits some of the ugly confrontations during the not so innocent days of WG Grace.

In the pristine childhood of international cricket, there prevailed exemplary cricketers who played with straightest of bats and in the lofty spirit of the game. From the dusty pages of those distant days emerges the famous figure of a giant with a flowing beard who strode the grounds of the Old Country like a Colossus. As Father Time rotated on his vane at Lord’s, the black and white pictures of the first superstar of the game expanded in girth and the years sponged the beard of its blackness – till befittingly he resembled the essence of the times, a Zeus in his wisdom and pomp, the Almighty of the Old Testament.

All that is true, except for the claptrap about purity of spirit. Gamesmanship is as old as the game, and so is professionalism. While WG Grace was an ancient amateur cricketer, supposedly earning his bread and whiskey as a country doctor, he is said to have made more money than any other cricketer of his times as well as for many, many years to come. Moreover, the father of cricket was the staunchest believer in the philosophy of victory at any cost. While anecdotes about his bullying umpires are aplenty, there are numerous occasions when his antics rubbed many of his opponents the wrong way.

The Midwinter incident

Before the birth of Test cricket, Grace took a team to Australia in1873-74. It is further testimony to the commercial side of the good doctor, that even before formalised international showdowns, the tour suffered from financial bickering. Towards the end, the Englishmen had grown extremely unpopular with the locals, most of who felt they were being fleeced – particularly in payment to Grace.

Two other things of note took place during the trip. Grace developed serious bad blood with John Conway, then a professional cricketer for Victoria and Australia. And Billy Midwinter played against the Englishmen twice, clean bowling both WG and GF (Fred) Grace in the second match.

Midwinter sound batsman as well as a good medium pacer, ended up playing 8 Tests for Australia and 4 for England, changing allegiance twice in between. In 1877, majorly due to his earlier exploits against the brothers, he was contracted to play a season for Gloucestershire, the home county of the Graces, as their first full time professional.

The next season, the three Grace brothers, WG, EM (Edward) and GF, along with a cousin Walter Gilbert Grace, turned up at London to take on Surrey at The Oval. Apart from the Grace family, the Gloucestershire side was loaded with newcomers and were additionally a man short.

At Lord’s on the same day, Midwinter was training with the Australians, scheduled to play Middlesex in a few hours. WG and EM landed at the ground and approached him, claiming that he was under contractual obligations to play for Gloucestershire.

Whether this assertion was legally valid or not is lost in the pages of history – the fate of hundreds of such Grace anecdotes – but WG insisted that the Australian cricketer accompany them to The Oval at once. Victorian batsman and teammate Tom Horan later recalled that “(Midwinter) did not seem to know his own mind for two minutes together”.

Midwinter did finally accompany the brothers to The Oval, while Australian captain Dave Gregory, medium-pacer Harry Boyle and WG’s old rival Conway, now acting as manager, followed in hot pursuit. The Aussies finally caught up with the ‘kidnappers’ in front of the gates of The Oval, and a furious altercation ensued in front of stunned Londoners. All the animosity between Conway and Grace splashed out in voluble and colourful vocabulary. At one point WG called the Australians “a damned lot of sneaks” although he apologised for that in a letter to Gregory after the incident.

In the end, the Graces won through and Midwinter remained with Gloucestershire. However, he did not play against the visiting Australians because of an injury. WG won the battle, but had to deal with a couple of problems that arose in the aftermath. Surrey refused to pay the expenses for Midwinter. And in the following season, WG and EM had to appear before the Gloucestershire membership committee when a special enquiry was ordered into the incident.

Sparking the fire that resulted in Ashes

With the advent of Test cricket, the Doctor engineered the first bizarre run out in the history of the game, a pioneering act of gamesmanship that remains debatable even when repeated 130 years down the line.

Again the stage was The Oval where England played Australia in 1882 in one of the most documented Test matches ever.

The Australians, bowled out for 63 in the first innings, had restricted the Englishmen to 101. In the second innings, the tourists found themselves struggling at 99 for six when young Sammy Jones joined captain Billy Murdoch. With the score on 114, Murdoch played a ball to the leg side, and wicketkeeper Alfred Lyttleton ran across to field. The ball was returned to Grace, standing near the stumps at a shortish point. Thinking that the business of that particular delivery was over, Jones walked out to do a bit of gardening with his bat. Grace seized the opportunity and threw the stumps down, much to the bafflement of the inexperienced batsman and the chagrin of the entire Aussie side.

A letter written by the son of one of the Australian players, Hugh Massie, indicates Grace indeed bordered on sharp practice. It seems Jones had nodded to Grace to indicate that he was venturing out, but had failed to detect the decoy.

The most incensed was perhaps Fred ‘The Demon’ Spofforth, who stormed into the English changing room and called Grace “a bloody cheat”, proceeding to abuse him vigorously in the best Australian vernacular for a full five minutes. His parting shot was, “This will lose you the match.” And it did. Even as Grace padded up to get the 85 required runs, and top scored with 32, Spofforth, fired up with a venomous passion, produced one of the greatest bowling feats of Test match history, taking seven for 44 and blowing England away for 77. According to Simon Rae, the greatest trophy in cricket thus came into being as a result of an action which was clearly ‘not cricket’, performed by the greatest cricketer of them all.

The long whiskered Doctor that laugheth the rules to scorn maintained that he had “just taught the young lad a valuable lesson”, yet there was no denying that his questionable action gave birth to the greatest of cricketing rivalries.

Birth of the switch-hit

                The Gloucestershire side of 1877. WG and EM are seated at the extreme right of the front row   

                The Gloucestershire side of 1877. WG and EM are seated at the extreme right of the front row

 

The torchbearer of the old days was no stranger either to that particular activity that John Eddowes dismisses in The Language of Cricket as “oaf’s parlette: the verbal harassment and insult of a batsman by the bowler, wicket-keeper or fieldsman” – something Sir Frank Worrell calledbarracking and we currently despise as sledging.

The verbal barrage entered the vocabulary of the Victorian days whenever any of the Grace brothers took field. The worst offenders were WG and EM, who took up positions close on the off side, and chattered relentlessly to cause many a batsman’s attention to falter.

In one match against Middlesex at Clifton, they provoked visiting captain Tim O’Brien, a fiery Irishman, into direct action. Those were the days of ‘off theory’, with packed off side fields and balls wide outside the off stump. Slow left arm bowler WA Woof was operating in this monotonous manner to O’Brien and the Graces were full of their mutterings. Gilbert Jessop recounted, he (O’Brien  must have thought that the circumstances prevailing called for drastic action no matter how unorthodox, and it was pretty unorthodox when eventually it did come; for upon the arrival of the next wide ball, Tim turned and hit it left-handed past the heads of the waiting fieldsmen. The switch hit seems to have predated Kevin Pietersen by more than hundred years.

According to CD Foley, playing his first season for Middlesex, the man most endangered was EM, and WG, in a fit of fraternal concern, cried out, “You mustn’t do that, Tim, you’ll kill my brother.” O’Brien, who carried no soft spot for EM, replied, “And a good thing too,” and immediately did it again.

WG marched off the field with his colleagues, and at the end of Foley’s account, O’Brien was waving a bat threateningly in the Gloucestershire changing room and EM had taken refuge behind the massive bulk of his brother.

This story may be – like many about the Doctor– a morsel of the Grace Apocrypha, but it does seem to ring with a fair tenor of truth. Few cricketers ever got as much under the skin of the opposition as the Graces, and O’Brien did not quite end up as a friend of the great cricketing family.