The colossus of runs

W. G. Grace
July 31, 1998

That no player is bigger than the game is one of the truisms of conventional sporting wisdom, but some practitioners, in reputation at least, come close to subverting the theory.

People who would not recognise a baseball game if they saw it have still heard of Babe Ruth (not to mention Joe Di Maggio, although his fame was conferred more by Marilyn Monroe and Paul Simon than on-field feats). The same goes for Muhammad Ali in boxing, Pele in football and Michael Jordan in basketball.

The same, more than 80 years after his death, can be said of the cricketer W. G. Grace. The odds are that, in any face recognition test, he would poll comfortably ahead of half the current cabinet. The giant figure with the Old Testament beard is part of the universal iconography of the Victorian age.

Contemporaries rated him second only to Gladstone as the most recognisable commoner of his times - the comparison is an appropriate one. Ronald Knox, in a moment of whimsy, propounded the theory that W. G. and the Grand Old Man were one and the same person. Looking at the extent of their achievements it might have been more plausible to suggest that each was in fact a set of identical triplets, capable unobtrusively of replacing their sibling at a moment's notice. Asked to point to Gladstone's single most remarkable characteristic, his biographer Roy Jenkins nominated his volcanic energy. Simon Rae, if he has any energy of his own left after living Grace's life vicariously, might reasonably say the same of his subject.

He is, as Rae emphasises, the great bridging figure between cricket's pre-modern and modern eras - entering a game with few landmarks recognisable to the modern watcher and leaving it with a county championship and regular test matches.

But he is a problematic subject for any biographer. There have been numerous previous biographies - Robert Low's W.G., short-listed for the William Hill sports book prize, as recently as last year. And where Gladstone and his activities left a vast pile of written records, Grace, a famously inarticulate and unanalytical man, left little of the letters, diaries and other documents on which biographers prey.

The problem is to find something worthwhile with which to supplement the avalanche of scores and cricketing achievements, and something new to say. Rae has tried hard. The early chapters on Grace's family background are particularly interesting and he homes in on the equivocal class position and consequent social insecurities which, as David Foot's study of Wally Hammond has shown, have often dogged prominent practitioners of a strongly class-conscious game.

Rae has rightly avoided writing a hagiography. Grace, Rae shows, could be cantankerous, capricious and belligerent - particularly on two trips to Australia which provide Rae with some of his most vivid passages.

Rae cannot be faulted for want of detail - rather the opposite. Grace played 1,493 first-class innings and an awful lot of them receive a specific mention in a chronological structure. Biographers are also by definition compelled to structure a world with their subject at the centre. When that subject is, in any case, an authentic colossus, the danger is that other characters disappear. Rae overstates Grace's historical significance. That he threw in his weight with the MCC in the 1870s was certainly very important in ensuring that it, and the amateur-dominated counties, ran the game. To state that he single-handedly determined an outcome reflecting a far wider range of forces is overplaying a strongish hand.

This is a worthwhile, workmanlike addition to cricket literature. But the definitive W. G. awaits an author who can bring to this giant subject the historical understanding which underpinned David Kynaston's study of late 19th-century Surrey batsman Bobby Abel and the psychological insight shown by David Foot - whose west country roots would qualify him well as a W. G. biographer - in his biographies of Hammond and Harold Gimblett.

Huw Richards is a reporter, The Thes.

W. G. Grace: A Life

Author - Simon Rae
ISBN - 0 571 17855 3
Publisher - Faber
Price - £20.00
Pages - 548

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