Fat, Lame and Sulky - Howzat for a True Sporting Legend? BIOGRAPHY

Daily Mail (London), April 16, 2010 | Go to article overview

Fat, Lame and Sulky - Howzat for a True Sporting Legend? BIOGRAPHY


Byline: BY ROGER LEWIS

W. G.'S BIRTHDAY PARTY By DAVID KYNASTON (Bloomsbury [pounds sterling]9.99)

WHEN Gyles Brandreth announced on Radio 4 last week that he found cricket a big bore, he was shouted down as a bigger traitor than if he'd supported Al Qaeda. For as David Kynaston writes in this perfect monograph, cricket isn't cricket -- it is poetry: 'a summation of artistry, colour and individuality... the epitome of English life in all locations and latitudes'.

As 'the most innocent of all out-ofdoor amusements', cricket began capturing the popular imagination in the Victorian era, just as encroaching industrialisation was laying waste to coal or iron ore-rich valleys and turning cities into slums.

Cricket appealed to a fantasy image of Merry England, as 'it was a game that offered continuity with the village greens and spacious countryside'.

Its 'one giant, indestructible force' was Somerset-born William Gilbert Grace.

The statistics remain eye-boggling: 50,000 runs, 2,500 wickets, 800 catches; more than 100 centuries; two centuries in a match three times. It goes on and on. 'The double of a thousand runs and a hundred wickets in a season eight times.'

Weighing in at 18st, with a limp and bad knees, the paragon was no oil painting. Furthermore, Grace's idea of a healthy lunch was a large Irish whiskey with Angostura bitters. One of his admirers was Arthur Conan Doyle, who described Grace's 'huge frame, swarthy features, bushy beard, and somewhat lumbering carriage'. This is to make the cricketer sound like Sherlock Holmes's adversary in The Speckled Band who could bend pokers into knots.

GRACE always wore a tiny MCC cap perched on his enormous head. When he was bowling, batsmen couldn't see past Grace's shoulders, elbows and beard to judge the angle of the ball. It was felt that when he took up position at the crease, the only way the ball would be prevented from being hit over the pavilion and into neighbouring gardens was to give Grace a smaller bat.

Like many sportsmen, Grace was not a thinker or a talker. (His diametrical opposite in the 1890s would have been Oscar Wilde -- Brandreth's hero.) He didn't know what being reflective meant. Asked what it felt like to succeed as he did, Grace admitted: 'I did not feel anything.

I had too much to do to watch the bowling and see how the fieldsmen were moved about to think of anything.' His concentration was absolute -- and this made him oddly vacant and numb. Yet he was paradoxically prickly, too.

You couldn't joke with Grace or be a pal. Grace was 'not to be adventured on by any ill-timed familiarities'. If his judgment was questioned by umpires or when declared out, Grace 'had an attack of the sulks, making him an unbearable presence for foe and friend alike'.

Exactly the same trait may be found in sports personalities today, of course.

In July 1898, a three-day match between Gentlemen and Players was held at Lord's to celebrate Grace's 50th birthday. Kynaston is interesting on the general disdo approbation shown towards the Players -- the salaried cricketers who were looked down upon, their status a contradiction in terms, for it was generally held in the Victorian and Edwardian eras that 'no gentleman ought to make a profit by his services in the cricket field'. …

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