’Course it’s a good idea! (“Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” 1975)
If an American has any impression of WG Grace at all, it is as the face of God in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” In our insular sporting culture, however, a cricketer from Victorian England, no matter how prodigious his talent, no matter how magnificent his beard, was never likely to enter the public consciousness.
I am less sure of his status among cricket enthusiasts. Is he still a mark of greatness, or has his glory been eclipsed by the likes of Don Bradman, Viv Richards and Sachin Tendulkar?
So I think it would be seen as odd, by cricket fans and non-cricket fans alike, that this portly figure from a bygone age sits atop my overall sports rankings, just ahead of the unquestionably great Pelé.
This is as good a place as any to reiterate what the Apples & Oranges system is measuring. I don’t think Grace was a better athlete than Pelé, or that he was a better cricketer than Bradman. In fact, I’m fairly sure that if you used a time machine to drop Grace into a modern cricket game, with its higher levels of technique and fitness, he would have a difficult time even coping, never mind excelling.
What Apples & Oranges does show, is that Grace was superior to his contemporaries by a greater margin than anyone else. His first-class average, 32.29, was no great shakes by modern standards. But on 19th Century pitches, in the conditions under which he played, he topped the lists 10 times between 1868 and 1880. He was 32 when as Test cricket began in England, past his best but still opening for England … as he was 19 years later in his last Test. At 50.
This older Grace is the one who dominates modern memory, mostly because photography, like cricket, was still a developing phenomenon, and there are many more pictures of Grace as an older man, long beard graying, waistline expanding …
The player who revolutionized cricket in the 1870s, who took it from a pastoral leisure activity to national obsession, is harder to pin down. Trimmer, broad-shouldered and black-bearded, he is much easier to see as an athletic hero than the paunchy graybeard whose picture Terry Gilliam used to lampoon the Almighty.
This is one of the many parallels with Babe Ruth, who came along some 40 years later on another continent to revolutionize a different sport. Most newsreel footage of Ruth is late in his career, when, like Grace, he had put on weight and no longer had the athleticism of his younger days.
Like Ruth, Grace was an all-rounder, but as a cricketer he was able to keep being an all-rounder, where Ruth had to choose between pitching and hitting. Like Ruth, Grace’s explosive offensive capabilities completely changed the sport, and forced others to change and catch up. Both men were inveterate cheaters who happily and guilelessly tried all manner of on-field tricks and dodges, relying on their popularity to avoid any consequences. Both were also famously dismissive and even rude to teammates, opponents and officials, having ascended to a level fame that put them above their peers.
Hero of the establishment
One area where they differed was the relationship they had with the established authorities in their respective sports.
Ruth, raised in an orphanage and barely educated, was kept at arm’s length by the Yankees and Major League Baseball. They were happy to exploit his popularity, but regularly suspended and publicly humiliated him when he stepped out of line. Expecting to be made manager of the Yanks as his career wound down, Colonel Rupert, the owner, supposedly told him, “You can’t even manage yourself.”
Grace, on the other hand, was embraced by the establishment. Coming from a solid middle-class family of doctors, he arrived on the scene at a time when control of the game was being contested by the amateur gentlemen who ran the cricket clubs and professional players who were moving into promoting the game. Grace, who didn’t really fit in with the aristocrats, was nevertheless co-opted to the Gentlemen’s side, famously giving them the advantage in their annual on-field contests with the Players, and giving them also the moral ascendancy with the English public.
Not only did he make amateurism glamorous, his offensive greatness came allied with impeccable classical technique. The straight bat, orthodox in form as well as spirit, was the basis for his eye-popping numbers. This is in contrast to Ruth, who brought his offensive explosion with a thoroughly unorthodox swing.
Nominally an amateur, Grace made more money in the game than anyone else and (like Ruth) supplemented his income with unprecedented endorsement deals. In the end, they were alike once again, as Grace was denied a position at Gloucestershire in the twilight of his career; instead, he joined an ill-fated attempt to create a new team, London County. The establishment didn’t care for him after all.
So, what to make of him? I think it’s fair to say that he cannot, subjectively, be placed alongside modern athletes. His sport, and every sport, has changed so much from those days, that it’s tough to argue that a Victorian Age athlete is in the same category as his successors. But I think he is unquestionably the greatest sportsman of the 19th Century. It’s not a deep field, but no one else comes close to measuring up, in terms of popularity, impact or achievements. Not the face of God, perhaps, but definitely a bright beacon in the firmament.