Robin Scott-Elliot: King Eric and WG Grace united in genius... and beards

View From The Sofa: Empire of Cricket/Friday Night with Jonathan Ross BBC2/BBC1

Eric Cantona and WG Grace are not natural bedfellows, after all that sort of behaviour was distinctly frowned upon in the doctor's day. In fact sex did not exist in Grace's era, which was why so many people went to watch cricket. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and the decline in domestic cricket audiences is perhaps no coincidence, but maybe that's something for the historians who chatted happily on Empire of Cricket to explore next.

They are both bearded of course, Eric and WG, which must mean something. If WG had been around today – think Pietersen and Flintoff rolled into one, with the heavy roller – he would no doubt have been found sharing the sofa with Dustin Hoffman and Hugh Laurie, another splendid beardie, on Jonathan Ross, as Eric was on Friday. WG was a superstar, a man who transcended his sport. He was, as a contemporary put it, "part of the national baggage", although today that would have meant spending most of his time rumbling around Terminal Five.

Cricket in Grace's day was all about class, empire, gentlemen and players. If you were a Gentleman you played through the off-side as those shots had "greater moral value". Which made captaincy pretty straightforward and gave birth to that famous cricketing saying "if it's a toff pack the off".

Grace may have been a Gentleman, but he was not averse to bending the rules. In 1882 at the Oval it was his gruesome sportsmanship in running out an Australian player who was simply patting down the pitch that propelled a furious Spofforth, the Demon (none of your Spofforthy nicknames in those days), to skittle England for 77. A day later the obituary of English cricket appeared in the Sporting Times (presumably because The Independent wasn't around) and the Ashes were born.

Cricket was the game of empire. It was "preparation for life beyond the boundary", time to play up, play up and play the game, or as we say today pay up, pay up and I'll play in the IPL. Grace would probably have preferred to be an MP today as he was most definitely a player when it came to his expenses. He was an amateur but made enough through cricket to buy a lifetime's supply of trouser presses, or a very large moat. On his first tour of Australia part of the deal he struck with the authorities was for "all he could drink", and Grace was not a man who did things by halves, drinks especially.

From one "maverick genius", as one of the historians branded Grace, to another. Le Roi. Cantona is as French as Grace ever was English et puis quelques (if internet translators are to be relied upon). In fact Cantona is more French than Joan of Arc, Napoleon, De Gaulle, Gérard Depardieu, a string of onions, a haughty shrug and saucisson sec packed into a blender and served raw. In a beret. By a waiter with attitude. In a beret.

And he was in character. "I'm sure about one thing," he told Ross, the master of the fawning interview. "My doubts." Although he might have said "my dogs" as his accent remains gloriously impenetrable, which just adds to his air of, how do you say, je ne sais crois.

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