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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world