It seems that some cricket lovers don’t realise that there was cricket before they were alive, let alone a long time before then. They may believe that whatever happened way back then doesn’t really matter, but one scant look at the legendary W G Grace should dispel any of these ideas.
W G Grace wasn’t the first cricketer, but he was the first to be truly famous. He doubled as the greatest batsman and the greatest bowler in all of England, and was touted as the greatest all-rounder the world would ever see. People paid big money to see him play, such was his legend, and the ticket price for games increased dramatically if he was playing. He alone, it was said, took cricket from a casual game to one that had true passion. Grace was to England what Bradman was to Australia or Tendulkar was to India. He was a once in a lifetime player.
Some of Grace’s achievements had to be seen to be believed. In eight separate seasons, he took more than 100 first class wickets and scored more than 1,000 first class runs, and in several of those occasions he was the leading run-scorer in the whole of England. He had matches where he took all 10 wickets to fall and scored a century. He took hat-tricks, five wicket innings, ten wicket matches, while being a top-order batsman. He could simply do everything. And he played first-class cricket from 1864 to 1908, a total of 44 years, from the age of 16 right through to his 60th birthday. Indeed, he only lived for seven more years after his last first class match.
Yet he barely played Test cricket. His first match wasn’t until 1880, when he was already 32 years old and well past his prime. His last match, in 1899, was when he was 51 years old. It is little wonder that he only played 22 matches, and his Test record isn’t quite as good as his First Class record. At Test level he only scored 1,098 runs at an average of 32.29, and took just 9 wickets at an average of 26.22. Hardly enough to warrant acclaim, let alone consideration for the best player of all-time.
And yet he was that good. He really was.
In cricket history, only two players come close to Grace in terms of adulation: Sir Donald Bradman and Sachin Tendulkar. But neither of them attracted quite the level of attention that Grace got.
As many people know, Grace was once accused of being clean-bowled and simply restoring the bails and accusing the wind of removing the bails. What people don’t know is that this came in the midst of a pay dispute between professional cricketers and amateurs, in which they all wanted to be paid as much as Grace was. In order to make Grace’s achievements seem less than they were, the amateurs invented this story to criticise him. It wasn’t the only false story that they created, but it was the one that stuck, and still exists in some form today.
While we can’t go into a time machine and find out whether or not Grace ever did cheat in a first class fixture, logic suggests that his statistics are legitimate, and that, yes, he really was that good. Too much has been written about him and he had too much fanfare for all of it to be fake. The story was, as we might say now, “fake news”.
W G Grace decided that he wanted cricket to exist outside of England (so much for being so selfish as to falsify his own records), and so he made two international trips to try to bring cricket outside of England. On the second of these, to Australia in 1873-1874, it worked.
The first trip, to USA and Canada in 1872, was an abysmal failure. While USA and Canada famously played the first ever international match in 1844, and the “Auty Cup” was born that has so far had 33 editions since then, Grace found their standard to be so far below first class level in England that it wasn’t worth persisting with.
Grace had had high hopes that USA and Canada, at least one, if not both, would be good enough to become first class level, but he left feeling disappointed. Then he learned that an Australian Aboriginal team had gone to England already, in 1868, with some level of success.
This led Grace to believe that perhaps Australia could be good enough to compete, and perhaps to push towards first class status.
The tour was arranged to depart England in 1873 and Grace scheduled 11 matches, mostly around Victoria and New South Wales, which were Australia’s two most populous states.
The team was not said to be “England”. Rather, it was “W G Grace’s XI”. Just like the team that came to Australia from England in 1863-64, this one was named after its captain. In 1863, George Parr was captain; in 1873 it was W G Grace. A later team, in 1877, would host what would later be described as the first Test Match.
The Australian population were excited about cricket. Many knew about the Australian Aboriginal team that were sent to England in 1868 and also about George Parr’s English team that came in 1863-64, which included one E.M. Grace, W.G. Grace’s older brother. W.G was 15 when they toured, but E.M was 23 already. On the 1873-74 tour, a third Grace brother, Fred Grace, would tour, but not E.M.
The first matches were one-sided. W.G. even allowed the opposition teams to field 22 players, a combination of two sides to play against his 11, yet still W.G. Grace’s side won. Club sides were no match for Grace’s side.
But Grace didn’t want easy one-sided matches, so he encouraged greater competition. He played against 33 players all at once, and did things like having one innings versus two, and various other handicaps. Far from cheating to try to win, Grace was trying to help to make it closer.
But then the matches started to get closer. In one 22 vs 11 match, Grace’s side nearly lost. So in the next one, he suggested 15 vs 11, and, eventually, 11 vs 11.
The press were following Australia’s “fight” and it was suggested that an all-Victoria side could defeat W G Grace’s side. New South Wales, in turn, suggested that an all-New South Wales side could also win.
Excited by the media attention, W G Grace scheduled a 12th and 13th match, against all-Victoria and all-New South Wales, 11 players per side. The Australian players were quickly assembled and two competitive matches were played. Grace’s side won both, but they were close.
Then a 15th match was scheduled, between all of New South Wales and Victoria combined and W G Grace’s side.
The Australians still lost, but it was close.
They wanted another match, that would have all of Australia involved, but Grace’s side had a boat to catch and needed to get home.
Finally, reluctantly, they agreed, and the best players from all around Australia came to play against W G Grace’s side, playing what Grace would later say was a test match.
It was a close-fought match, but, eventually, Australia won, to widespread cheering right around the country. Australia had defeated England!
W G Grace went back to England and declared that they should send another all-England side to Australia, which they did, but they refused to make Grace captain, so he stayed behind.
That side, in 1877, would play what would be later regarded as the first ever Test Match.
Sadly for Grace, the matches that his side played in Australia were not given test status, and, because they were often 15 vs 11 and even 22 vs 11 (and once even 33 vs 11), they weren’t even given first class status.
Grace always insisted that he had helped to create Test cricket, but he was never given the praise he deserved. As a result, he refused to play in Tests in Australia until his match got the reward it deserved.
It never did, and as a result Grace only played in England, with the exception of the 1891 tour when he went to Australia as a 43 year old captain.
Without Grace’s tour there is little doubt that Test cricket would never have come, not then at least. Such was his stature and his presence that he made crowds come and when Australia were able to defeat them, Australia became truly excited about cricket for the first time and international cricket as we know it was born.