Books: Absolutely bats

WG by Robert Low, Richard Cohen Books pounds 18.99

Photographs of W G Grace suggest an ancient, faintly comic figure, standing with his bat held awkwardly away from his body as it he were taking guard. The toes of his left foot, raised slightly, are pointing at the bowler. He looks like a figure out of cricket's pre-history, and the great virtue of Robert Low's biography is that he explains why the Grand Old Man was such a splendid cricketer - the first name in John Woodcock's list of the 100 greatest cricketers of all time.

Those famous pictures are misleading because they were taken at the close of WG's career, in his late forties when he weighed 20 stone (though still "as lively as a kitten in the field"). In his mid-twenties Grace was an athlete - slim, strong, 6' 2", and not at all ungraceful. Speculating about his batting style, Robert Low thinks that WG's closest modern equivalent might be Graham Gooch, with his exaggerated backlift and his upright stance. He had that naive quality that overtakes great performers of all kinds when they try to discuss their technique. Asked how to play a particularly difficult delivery, Grace replied: "I should say you ought to put the bat against the ball."

Grace was the most popular sportsman in Britain at a time when an urban working class began to clamour for public entertainment. That made him, along with W E Gladstone, the best-known Englishman of late-Victorian times, when things were rarely quite as they seemed. Grace had the attributes of an amateur; a qualified doctor, he once announced, on arriving in the dressing room after a night's work: "Lost the child, lost the mother, saved the father." But he had a professional's keen sense of his own worth; his fee for touring Australia in 1891-2 was pounds 3,000, or about pounds 185,000 in today's money.

He was a fine sportsman, but he was most reluctant to surrender his wicket and quite capable of intimidating umpires ("The crowd have come to see me bat, not you umpire," is his most famous quote). He did meet his match late in his career, however, when Essex's C J Kortright was sure he had had Grace lbw, and caught behind the wicket, off successive balls. Both were given not out. Kortright's next ball tore two stumps out of the ground, and as Grace passed him, Kortright said: "Surely you're not going, Doctor? There's one stump standing."

Grace had Victorian appetites. Although he regarded temperance as an essential virtue in a successful sportsman, he could down a pint of champagne in mid-morning when he wasn't bowling too well. He was a fine round-arm bowler, who liked to keep wicket, too, when he could: "That fellow would like to keep wicket to his own bowling," remarked one spectator. His first-class career began in 1865 and ended in 1908, by which time he had scored 50,982 runs.

But Low convinces me that WG's greatest achievement was nothing less than the invention of modern batting. Before him, batsmen were timid figures who always played straight bowling defensively. Grace used his strength and height to hit the straight ball back over the bowler's head. In technical terms, the significance of this was best described by the great Indian batsman Ranjitsinhji. "He founded the modern theory of batting by making forward and back play of equal importance, relying on neither one nor the other, but on both ... He turned an old one-stringed instrument into a many -chorded lyre."

Grace became England captain in his late thirties, having taken part in the defeat at the Oval after which the bails were burned and their ashes placed in an urn. He won those ashes three times in four series against Australia. Those were the days.

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