The man behind the bushy beard

BOOK OF THE WEEK: "WG" - A Life of W G Grace By Robert Low (Richard Cohen, pounds 18.99)
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The Independent Online
Anyone who knows the smallest thing about cricket has heard of WG Grace and yet many who profess to know much about the game know little of the man whose influence upon it probably transcends that of all others.

They can tell you he was a large man, in girth as well as height, wore a long, bushy beard and tended to sport a hooped cap that looked several sizes too small; and that he rewrote the records of the game, such as they were, in a career of 2,876 first-class wickets and 54,896 first-class runs spanning 43 years. Beyond that, however, despite the publication of at least a half-dozen accounts of his life, little else of substance.

It was on this premise that journalist Robert Low, a former sports editor of The Observer, decided his interest in the cricketing doctor from Bristol was worth adding some more words to the thousands already written. His "definitive" biography, as the publishers describe it, is timed almost to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Grace's birth, in 1848.

The "WG" pictured on the dust jacket is that of the caricature, complete with the aforementioned cap, yet the promise of "the fullest account yet of Grace's life outside cricket" is probably justified.

Low has unearthed detail that not only broadens the picture of the man but also creates a portrait of Victorian England, of habits and attitudes and the structure of life. The photographs also fascinate, particularly those of the subject as a younger man, when he was much more an athlete than is popularly supposed.

Much of this material leads one to wonder what would have been made of "WG" had he been a player of the modern age. A short-tempered man, he was, it seems, forever in arguments with umpires.

Once, Low says, he held up play in a Gloucestershire match for fully 30 minutes because he believed Gilbert Jessop had been unfairly given out; on another occasion, he forced an umpire to change his mind by refusing to walk for a "catch" he insisted had been off a bump-ball.

Off the field, he often behaved as a schoolboy who never grew up. Staying once at Bournemouth's Grand Hotel, he had his players race to the top of the main staircase and back - the last to stand drinks for the whole team - at one o'clock in the morning. Yet the authorities were not in the habit of imposing upon him fines nor charges of bringing the game into disrepute.

Indeed, they recognised the benefits for cricket in his talent and personality, accepting his sometimes outrageous financial demands (the equivalent, in 1873, of pounds 100,000, for instance, to lead a tour of Australia).

The newspapers of today, having first made him a millionaire and a national hero, would have shot at him from every angle.

Jon Culley