W. G. Grace: A Memory

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
The Strand Magazine (july 1927, p. 87)
The Strand Magazine (july 1927, p. 88)
The Strand Magazine (july 1927, p. 89)

The teams in the London County v. M.C.C. Match. The illustration shows Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and W. G. Grace in the same picture.
The Strand Magazine (july 1927, p. 90)

"He would lumber up to the wicket and toss up the ball in a take-it-or-leave-it style."

W. G. Grace: A Memory is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Strand Magazine in july 1927.

Arthur Conan Doyle played a first class cricket match versus W. G. Grace on 23-25 august 1900 where he scored 4 and zero an took the wicket of W. G. Grace who had scored 110. Conan Doyle wrote a poem about that match : A Reminiscence of Cricket (1922).

W. G. Grace: A Memory

To those who knew W. G. Grace he was more than a great cricketer. He had many of the characteristics of a great man. There was a masterful generosity and a large direct simplicity and frankness which, combine with his huge frame, swarthy features, bushy beard, and a somewhat lumbering carriage, made an impression which could never be forgotten. In spite of his giant West-of-England build, there was, as it seemed to me, something of the gipsy in his colouring, his vitality, and his quick dark eyes with their wary expression. The bright yellow and red cap which he loved to wear added to this Zingari effect. His elder brother, the Coroner, small, wizened, dark, and wiry, had even more of this gipsy appearance. I speak, of course, only of the effect produced, for I have no reason to think that such blood was in his veins, though, following Borrow, I am ready to believe that there is no better in Europe.

There was a fine open-air breeziness of manner about the man which made his company a delight and added a zest to the game. He was, of course, a highly educated surgeon, but he had rather the fashion of talk which one would associate with a jovial farmer. His voice was high-pitched, considering the huge chest from which it came, and it preserved something of the Western burr. "Hullo, young 'un, a bit too good for you, that one!" "Never mind, my lad, you're not the first good man that has dropped an easy catch." "Shut your legs to it before you try to pick it up." These were the scraps of advice or consolation which he would shout — the voice was loud though high — to the youngster who needed admonition or sympathy.

His style and methods were peculiar to himself. In his youth, when he was tall, slim, and agile, he must have been as ideal in his form as in his results. But as this generation knew him he had run to great size and a certain awkwardness of build. It was amazing that a man who was capable of such exertions should carry such weight. As he came towards the wicket, walking heavily, with shoulders rounded, his great girth outlined by his coloured sash, one would have imagined that his day was passed. "He may make his twenty or thirty," one thought, "and then Nature will dismiss him if the bowler fails." Never was there a greater fallacy. He seemed slow, stiff, and heavy at first. When he had made fifty in his quiet, methodical fashion, he was somewhat younger and fresher. At the end of a century he had not turned a hair, and was watching the ball with as clear an eye as in the first over. Younger batsmen might tire and grow ragged in their strokes, but never the old man. It was his advice to play every ball as if it were the first — and he lived up to it. There was no feeling for the ball, no half hits or wild slogs. Everything that he did was firm, definite, and well within his strength.

I have had the privilege of fielding at point more than once while he made his hundred, and have in my mind a clear impression of his methods. I do not know if he took the centre or the leg guard, or the point between them, but he actually stood very clear of his wicket, bending his huge shoulders and presenting a very broad face of the bat towards the bowler. Than as he saw the latter advance he would slowly raise himself to his height and draw back the blade of his bat, while his left toe would go upwards until only the heel of that foot remained upon the ground. He gauged the pitch of the ball in an instant, and if it were doubtful played back rather than forward. Often he smothered a really dangerous length ball by a curious half-cock stroke to which he was partial. He took no risks, and in playing forward trailed the bottom of his bat along the grass as it advanced so as to guard against the shooter — a relic no doubt of his early days in the 'sixties, when shooters were seen more often than on modern grounds.

The great strength of his batting was upon the offside. I should not suppose that there was ever a batsman who was so good at controlling that most uncontrollable of all balls, the good-length ball outside the off stump. He would not disregard it, as is the modern habit. It was, indeed, seldom that he let a ball pass without offering at it. He did not flinch from it as a foe, but rather welcomed it as a friend, and stepping across the wicket while bending his great shoulders he watched it closely as it rose, and patted it with an easy tap through the slips. In vain with a fast bumpy bowler pounding them down did three quivering fieldsmen crouch in the slips, their hands outstretched and eager for the coming catch. Never with the edge of the bat, but always with the true centre, would he turn the ball groundwards, so that it flashed down and then fizzed off between the grasping hands, flying with its own momentum to the boundary. With incredible accuracy he would place it according to the fields, curving it off squarely if third man were not in his place or tapping it almost straight down upon the ground if short-slip were standing wide of the wicket. In no shot was he so supremely excellent, and, like all great things, it seemed simplicity itself as he did it. Only when one saw other great batsmen fail did one realize how accurate was the timing and the wrist-work of the old man. When he was well on towards his sixtieth year I have seen him standing up to Lockwood when man after man was helpless at the other wicket, tapping those terrific expresses away through the slips with the easy sureness with which one would bounce a tennis ball with a racket. Nor was he ever to be frightened by the most dangerous bowler. Poised and firm, he never flinched, but turned the rising ball to leg or patted it to the off. The fastest bowler in England sent one like a cannon-shot through his beard, with only a comic shake of the head and a good-humoured growl in reply.

It was in this command of the off ball and in his perfect defence that his great merit lay, but there was no stroke at which he was not adept. With his true eye he hit a larger proportion of leg balls than any other man. He stepped back and struck them off his legs not with a whole-hearted swing, but with a sharp, decisive turn of the wrists, watching the ball to the last instant. The only shot which he produced less frequently than his contemporaries was the big sixer, beloved of the crowd. He seldom ventured that great effort, which has an equal chance of ending on the pavilion or in the hands of cover-point. His batting was always well within his strength, and though an analysis of his scores will show that he found the boundary as often as anyone, he never gave the impression that he was hitting hard.

I think that when he was well set the best chance of getting rid of him may have been to serve him up with something so delectable that he might be tempted into a liberty. This theory occurred to me after watching him play seven professional bowlers of all paces and types until he had topped the hundred. Since the best had failed, I thought I would try the other variety — I was captaining an M.C.C. [1] team upon that day — so I ventured upon an experimental over. It succeeded to a marvel. A half volley upon the off with all the fielders upon the off side tempted him to sweep it round to the on. For once he got it on the edge and it went an amazing height perpendicularly into the air, and then down into the hands of Storer, the Derbyshire wicket-keeper. The old man laughed and shook his head at me. He was thinking probably that it was the worst ball that ever got his wicket, but he was too polite to say so. He was not always polite, however. I can remember that in the second innings of the same match he was given out leg-before to Cranfield, a left-handed bowler, bowling round the wicket. I forget who the umpire was, but the old man was very angry. I can see him now with his thick, padded, and somewhat bandy legs, marching to-wards the pavilion, but his face and beard turned over his right shoulder while he glared back and rumbled all sorts of combinations. His temper grew somewhat shorter, I fancy, during his latter days. It is not surprising when one considers the strain of a succession of three-day matches upon a man of his age. At his normal he was a cheery, boyish-hearted, and boisterous man, the jolliest of playmates.

Of his bowling I have very clear recollections. He was an innovator among bowlers, for he really invented the leg theory a generation before it was rediscovered and practised by Vine, Armstrong, and others. Grace's traps at leg were proverbial in the 'seventies. His manner was peculiar. He would lumber up to the wicket and toss up the ball in a take-it-or-leave-it style, as if he cared little whether it pitched between the wickets or in the next parish. As a matter of fact this careless attitude covered a very remarkable accuracy. His command of length was absolute, and had just enough leg spin to beat the bat if you played forward to the pitch of the ball. He was full of guile, and the bad ball which was worth four to you was sent, as likely as not, to unsettle you and lead you on. Never shall I forget three successive balls which I received from him, the graduated stages of a trap which was my undoing and my ruin. The first was a dropping half-volley which no one could help hitting for four. The next looked exactly the same, and I had pranced out to it before I realized that it was really somewhat shorter. I hit at it none the less, and with some luck and a sidelong that scored another four. The third seemed far the most tempting of the three. No child could have lobbed up anything more seductive. Only when I was ten feet down the pitch did I realize the effect was produced by a higher trajectory, and that the ball was really so that that I could not get at the pitch of it. It shot past me with a little top spin to put devil into it, and I had the squawk of "How, that?" as Lilley put down my wicket. There was the old man rubbing bis great brown hands and wagging his beard in laughter as I marched sadly home to the dressing-room.

Those who knew him will never look at the classic sward of Lord's without an occasional vision of the great cricketer. One can see him in many typical attitudes. Most clearly perhaps he appears coming down the pavilion steps, with ten thousand people clapping as the red and yellow cap, the huge stooping shoulders, and the famous black beard emerge from the open door. Very clearly also can one recall him when he was dissatisfied with the wicket and had detected some danger spot which the roller had missed. He would squat out on the pitch, sitting on his heels, and slapping away with his bat to flatten out the trouble. Most clearly of all, however, one sees his big figure in the centre of an after-luncheon group approaches one hears again that jolly voice and roar of infectious laughter. He was and will remain the very impersonation of cricket, redolent of fresh air, of good humour, of conflict without malice, of chivalrous strife, of keenness for victory by fair means and utter detestation of all that were foul. Few men have done more for the generation in which he lived, and his influence was none the less because it was a spontaneous and utterly unconscious one.

  1. M.C.C. = Marylebone Cricket Club.