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W.G. Grace, the Wisden Almanack’s one and only Cricketer of the Year in 1896

by A.G. Steel 10 minute read

W.G. Grace was the sole recipient of a Cricketer of the Year award in the 1896 Wisden Almanack. In that year’s edition, A.G. Steel paid him tribute.

Yielding to none in admiration of the “hero” of a hundred centuries, and to none in love for the game in which he is so proficient, I am bound to say I was not altogether pleased with the Daily Telegraph testimonial. A national testimonial in honour of the greatest cricketer the world has ever seen, on his completion of a performance which may be a record for all time, was indeed fitting. Surely the greatest cricket club in the world – the M.C.C. – was the proper initiator of the testimonial to the greatest cricketer. Day after day, as one read of the flood of shillings pouring in, accompanied by such varied correspondence, one could not but feel a little alarm for the dignity of our great game. But whether the means adopted for raising the testimonial were the right ones or not, the fact remains that it was an enormous success, and showed that the personality of W. G. Grace had taken a deep hold upon all classes of the English people. The enthusiasm was such as has probably never before been kindled concerning the exponent of any modern form of athletics.

The first occasion I ever played against W. G. was at Cambridge in the summer of 1878, and this was also the first time I ever saw him play. I remember being desperately anxious to get him out, but I was disappointed, and on my telling him what pleasure it would give me to get him out, he laughingly replied, “It’s only a question of time; if you go on long enough you are bound to get me out.” I was not, however, successful on that occasion, but I shall never forget the kindly encouragement I, a young cricketer, received from W. G. the first time I met him. It was not, however, his batting, oddly enough, which struck me as so wonderful, it was his bowling. Never, as far as I know, did any bowler give the same peculiar flight to the ball as W. G. does, and well justified is the remark I have often heard him make of a newly-arrived batsman, “Oh, he’s a young one, is he? I think I ought to do for him,” and he generally does.


W. G. has, so it goes without saying, a thorough knowledge of the game, and I recollect well in the summer of 1878 an incident which well illustrates the fact. North v. South was being played at Lord’s. Barlow, the Lancashire professional, was batting, and W. G. was fielding point. Now Barlow had a trick of tapping the ball away after he had played it, and occasionally, in order to excite a laugh from the onlookers, would scamper down the pitch for a yard or two and then back again. On this occasion he just stopped the ball and it lay by his crease; he then tapped it towards point, and perhaps thinking he would hustle that fielder, he went through his performance of dashing down the pitch and back again. He must have been thoroughly upset by the action of point, who, ignoring the ball, quietly asked the umpire, ‘How’s that for hitting the ball twice?’ and out Barlow had to go – a lesson which he never forgot. It was, I think, in that very match that W. G. hit two consecutive balls from Alfred shaw clean out of Lord’s Cricket Ground. It is true the wickets were pitched slightly on the south side of the ground, but they were both glorious knocks; one went clean over the tavern and the other pitched right on the top of it.

One of the finest innings I ever saw W. G. play was his 152 against the Australians in the match England v. Australia at the Oval in 1880. Certainly he was batting on a good wicket, but his timing of the ball on this occasion was absolutely perfect, and the crispness of his strokes perfection. W. L. Murdoch made 153 in the second innings of this match; a very fine performance it was, too. I afterwards heard a discussion between some of the Australian team as to whether Murdoch was a finer batsman than Grace. A. Bannerman, the little Stonewaller of his side, clinched it by saying, in his brusque way, “W. G. has forgotten more about batting that Billy ( Murdoch) ever knew.” And A. Bannerman was a very fine judge of the game.

It is during the annual week at Scarborough that W. G. is, perhaps, seen at his best. The cricket, of course, is good, but there is a sort of holiday aspect about it which is absent from the more serious county and Gentlemen v. Players matches that take place earlier in the season. I always used to think that W. G. hit harder and oftener at Scarborough than elsewhere. I recollect one occasion when he was playing for a team called, I think, the Gentlemen of England against the Zingari. The latter had a good batting side, but were very weak in bowling. The wicket was good and the Gentlemen won the toss. As the Zingari went into the field we all thought we were in for a long day’s fielding. W. G. and C. I. Thornton came in first; H. W. Forster and I began the bowling. I thought it possible that Thornton’s hitting might have an effect on Grace, and it did. In the first over Thornton hit me out of the ground, and not to be denied, W. G. did the same, the very first ball I sent down, but it was too merry to last, and they were both caught in the long field before 30 was up on the telegraph board.

Why has the name of W. G. Grace sunk so deeply into the hearts of all branches of the community? Firstly, because of the national love for the glorious game, and secondly, because of his wonderful skill and the unusual number of years he has maintained the position and name of ‘champion’. It is as a batsman that he has earned this proud title, and it may be of interest to linger for a few moments on the characteristics of his style and play which in their combination have met with such phenomenal success. First of all, W. G. Grace obeys the fundamental rule of batting that is always instilled into young players as the first element of good batting; he keeps his right foot rigid and firm as a rock, and never does he move it during the actual stroke. (Alas! I never could grasp this rule myself or act up to it!) It is an exception, even to slow bowling, for W. G. to move his right foot. Once I remember (I wonder whether he does) him breaking this rule. During the compilation of one of his hundred centuries, in a match against the Australians at Lord’s, he rushed out to hit the slow leg break bowler (Cooper), missed, and after a somewhat undignified skurry back, just got the benefit from the umpire, a man subsequently not loved by the Australians.

The position W. G. takes up at the wicket is one eminently calculated to assist him in the marvellous accuracy of his placing on the leg side. The right foot points slightly in front of the crease, thus enabling him to face the leg and body balls and have the greater command over them. If it had been Grace’s practice to stand with his right foot pointing backwards or in the direction of his own wicket (as many good batsmen have done and do) we would never have seen the accurate placing on the leg side which, in my opinion, has done more than any other of his great batting qualities to place him in the position he has so long held. Let anyone try for himself, and he will at once see the commanding power that Grace’s position on the left side gives, and how cramped and “hunched” up he feels in the other. Grace’s defence, of course, is excellent, and his position at the wickets in this relation is worthy of note. He stands with the right leg as near as possible on the line to the leg stump, without, of course, being in front. And every time he plays forward, the left leg and the bat go together so that should the ball not meet the bat there will be no space between the bat and the leg for it to pass through. How often, whilst enjoying that great cricketing luxury of seeing W. G. in his happiest batting vein, one has occasionally shuddered at the sight of that massive leg coming out straight in front to an off-stump ball.

This art of playing with the left leg close to the bat is one that must be thoroughly mastered before any man can become a really first-class batsman, and W. G. Grace is a master of it. Though using his left leg in this way when playing forward, he is not one of those products of modern days, viz., a batsman who uses his leg on the off-side instead of his bat. We should be sorry to think of our great batsman as one of these feeble, faint-hearted players, who, frightened of losing their wickets, dare not use their bats, and who, too timid to try to score, have done so much in many districts to disgust spectators, not with cricket, but with their own wearisome antics. What sort of bowling is W. G. Grace best at? I do not think that any cricketer of experience would hesitate in answering the question. Great, of course, to all styles when at his best, his power of playing fast bowling was the greatest feature of his game. The leg strokes already mentioned, his great height, the quickness of his hand and eye, all combined, gave him at times complete mastery over fast bowling. Bumping balls on the off stump, to a batsman of ordinary height perhaps the most difficult to dispose of, he punishes by hard cuts to the boundary.

What sort of bowling does W. G. Grace like least? I have never asked him this somewhat searching question, nor if I did is it likely that the champion would care to give himself away. His answer, probably, accompanied by a hearty laugh, would be somewhat in this fashion: Like least, indeed? Why, I love them all. Of course he does; but I have an opinion that on a hard, fast, and true wicket, the slower the bowling the less it is to his liking. His great size prevents him getting quickly to the pitch, and a very slow bowler always has terrors to a fast-footed player that do not present themselves to a quick-footed and active batsman. Whilst discussing W. G. as a batsman, we must not lose sight of another of his great qualities, viz., patience. Never flurried because runs are not coming quite quick enough, never excited because they are coming quicker than usual, he keeps on simply playing the correct game, and even after the hundred goes on the same as before, with his mind fixed upon the two hundred.

It would be impossible, in a short article such as this is, for me to do anything like adequate justice to the merits of the great William Gilbert Grace. There have been some who for a short period have given reason for the belief that his position as champion batsman was being dangerously assailed. I allude to such names as W. L. Murdoch, A. Shrewsbury, and A. E. Stoddart. That belief was, however, but fleeting. W. G. Grace has proved his batting powers to be immensely superior to every other cricketer. He is, though nigh on fifty, still the best, and I sincerely hope he will continue for many years to give us all the pleasure of enjoying his magnificent play.

Originally published in the 1896 Wisden Almanack


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