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W.G. and a life of grace

30 October 2015

On the 100th anniversary of the celebrated cricketer’s death, Michael Turnbull considers his legacy

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At the crease: W. G. Grace, c.1903

At the crease: W. G. Grace, c.1903

HERE is a quiz. What have these five cricketers got in common: Bob Appleyard, Brian Close, John Dewes, Ted Lester, and Ken Smales? It is a pity that Dewes is there, because all the rest played for Yorkshire, as you will instantly have recognised. They are not all batsmen, or bowlers, or all-rounders. What they do have in common is that they all died this year.

It is strange that we cricket-followers feel that our heroes are our friends; so much so that when they die, we go into mourning. An era has passed, memories are rekindled, and we have to come to terms with the fact that we shall never see their like again.

As it happens, I did once play against Brian Close in the Airedale and Wharfedale League, and recently my brother, a priest at Bolton Abbey, laid Bob Appleyard to rest, ironically within a few yards of Fred Trueman. So I have special memories of these five.

Yet even I had to check that they died in 2015. It is doubtful whether any of us in, say, five years’ time will be able to be accurate about the year in which those stalwarts — or indeed any of our other cricketing heroes — died.

Yet here we are, 100 years on, remembering, to the very day (25 October), when a cricketer died. None of us ever saw him play. We have a very sparse photographic record of his playing days. Richard Tomlinson’s comprehensive and scholarly biography Amazing Grace (Little, Brown, 2015) contains only one action photo of Grace with bat in hand. And that was at Gravesend, only two years before he died.

So why is it that cricket-lovers the world over are remembering him? Too often, we turn to statistics to honour greatness, but even these become meaningless when comparing cricketers at the turn of one century with those at the beginning of the next. Perhaps Grace’s 54,000 runs is outstanding, especially considering the nature of the pitches of his day. But his averages in Test matches and overall are both below 40 — a figure which today might match a run-of-the-mill, middle-order batsman.


SO WHAT is it that is amazing about Grace? I suspect that it is something to do with the celebrity status that he enjoyed in his lifetime. An unmistakable appearance, combined with the rapid rise of cricket’s popularity, made him into a cult figure with few rivals in Victorian England.

The excellent anthology drawn up by Canon Derek Carpenter, William Gilbert Grace — “W. G.” (2015), has many quotations which signal Grace as the forerunner of the modern game. The establishment of first-class counties, the improvement of pitches, the start of international cricket, and the introduction of overarm bowling all happened during the era of Grace.

There is no doubt that Grace’s own dashing run-making attracted the crowds — so much so, we are told, that the admission charges were doubled if he played. That last fact is, of course, testimony to the folklore that attaches to colourful figures.

The reference to money serves to remind us, lest we get carried away in blind admiration, that Grace was not a perfect character. He and his brother E. M. Grace certainly looked to cricket as a source of income, although he retained amateur status. He played to win at all costs: a fine attribute of an earnest sportsman, but taken to extremes, as Grace sometimes did, it undermined the nature of the sport that enriched so many lives.

In the second half of his life, he was not a temperate man. Tomlinson makes the point that this may have been because of the stresses of competing as he got older. But his weight increased until it became the object of jesting crowds, and a whisky in the lunch break was necessary to set him up for the afternoon.

For a doctor — or perhaps because he was a doctor — he was not a good patient, unwisely getting out of his sick bed to play at the height of an attack of mumps. He could lose his temper to the point of almost coming to blows, even with Australian tourists.


ALL these are understandable human frailties, with which each of us can identify. And Grace did have many attractive qualities as well. He was clearly a doting father, and a lover of the company of small children. As a GP in Bristol, he sought locums over many months of the cricket season, but there are many stories of his compassion and sensitivity towards his poorer patients.

As a cricketer, he never took his undoubted talents for granted, but worked hard at his game, and expected others to do so.

We begin to build a picture of a warm-hearted human being, all the more attractive because he was not perfect, nor pretended to be so. We can be drawn into his extreme devotion to the game we love, and we can be thankful that he was instrumental in bringing a new era of serious cricket into being. That as an enthusiast, he sometimes overstepped reality, we can forgive him. We can admire him as a hero of the game without worshipping him as an idol.


GRACE’s name is as random and as appropriate as Colin Cowdrey’s initials, but it gives many clergy the excuse to idle away their time dreaming of cricket, and pretending that they are considering the finer points of theology. Perhaps one of the reasons why so many clergy are keen on cricket is this double entendre around the word “grace”. Some of us believe that the grace of God is conveyed through the best of cricket.

The game’s traditions and rituals; its great cathedral stadiums and small village pavilions; its perpetual discussions; and, perhaps above all, its continued dependence on natural resources of the meteorological kind make it an ideal repository of grace. When you think of Grace’s playing at Lords in the holy spirit of cricket, it is not difficult to fit in an evensong, in precisely 20 minutes, during the tea interval.

One theological definition of grace is “the favourable disposition on the part of God without any reference to the merit or desert on the part of the object”. In that context, Grace, as the midwife of the game of cricket as we have come to appreciate it, has brought to us signs of the favourable disposition of God. Although we have done nothing to deserve it, we have lived better and happier lives because we have known the joys of cricket. So Grace has become a means of grace.

The French author Marcel Proust wrote about an artist who put a little of himself into his work: “It is perhaps in the same way that a sort of cutting taken from one person and grafted on to the heart of another continues to carry on its existence, even when the person from whom it is grafted has perished.”

I like to think that our thanksgiving for Grace is more than a sentimental memory, more than a look back at cricket history. It is recognising that a cutting of Grace is grafted into the spirit of cricket today, and we can recognise that as we enjoy the game, even in its modern forms.


I WAS here 25 years ago, when our beloved Christopher Martin-Jenkins gave this address, and there will be those who celebrate again in 2040. No doubt by then, cricket will have gone through further changes which we cannot now imagine. There will have been more records broken, new technology introduced, and more controversies resolved.

There will have been new grafting on to young hearts, and new innings begun. But the name of William Gilbert Grace will still be honoured for what he did to mould the game in the golden age.

In his latter years, Grace played and encouraged cricket on many cricket grounds in this part of Kent. He never became someone who sat in the pavilion and waited for people to come and praise him, or perhaps condescend to him.

The story is told that Grace, after a dinner at Lords, and long after he had retired from first-class cricket, said that he was going to go home rather than stay to watch the cricket the next day. The reason he gave was that he was going to play in a jolly game himself.

The writer A. A. Thomson reminds us of Grace’s sitting for his famous portrait which now hangs at Lord’s. The painting depicts Grace with an easy balanced stance. Archibald Stuart Worsley, the portrait-painter, asks him if he would adopt the same stance if the game was in a tight place. “Certainly,” Grace replied, “because, after all, I should only be facing the next ball.”

Thomson comments: “All his life, he was facing the next ball.” What a brilliant epitaph: no fantasy nostalgia, no paralysing regret, no distracting analysis.

Simply ready for the next ball: as it was true for Grace, so be it for us — in life and in death.


The Rt Revd Michael Turnbull is a former Bishop of Rochester and of Durham.

This is taken from a sermon at St George’s, Beckenham, Kent, last Friday, on the 100th anniversary of the death of W. G. Grace.



Stephen Gray recalls a cricketing and ecumenical role-model


AS I set off on our cricket tour to Rome to take on a Vatican XI, I could not help reflecting on one of my childhood heroes: David Sheppard, the former Sussex and England captain, and Bishop of Liverpool. As a boy, I desperately wanted to emulate his example — not to become a priest, but a cricketer.

One evening at home, I was allowed to stay up late in my dressing gown to meet this giant of a man, earnestly desiring his blessing on my early attempts to emulate his prowess, having just made it into the Sussex under-11 cricket team.

My mother was chief bridesmaid at his wedding, having been at school with his wife, Grace, but, beyond this connection, my path seemed eerily to follow the great Sheppard — first at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, the theological college he attended.

It was during my time there that I played hockey, not cricket, for the university, and I wrote to the Principal, Graham Cray, requesting a college grant to assist with the sporting paraphernalia. It came through, and he excitedly informed me, in the lunch queue, that in the file of similar sports requests, the last one was from a certain D. S. Sheppard, for Ashes funding to venture down under. It had been enough to drain any theological college’s reserves, but not the standard grant request.

When I began as a chaplain at Sheppard’s former school, Sherborne, he showed warm pastoral care for me. He was concerned not so much that it was a ministry favouring the privileged, but that the place would be kind to me.

In his day, it had been a hardened establishment, where cricket gave him respect only late on in the sixth form. His housemaster, Alec Trelawney-Ross, would invite him each lunchtime for a port to “bulk him out”, unlike today’s recommended recipes of powders, supplements, and shakes.

It is a privilege to lead an ambassadorial team of the Church of England in the hallowed memory of a spiritual and ecumenical colossus, who would surely be charmed and encouraged by such a venture, and by the way that ecumenism is proceeding through the narrative of cricket, and not of a committee.

A walk down Hope Street, the famous road between the two cathedrals in Liverpool, will be symbolically repeated in the heart of Rome, for many to witness, with willow and leather. Sheppard did much for relations with Rome in a difficult period, when many doubted the virtues of ecumenism.

As the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, wrote to Sheppard in 1954, in response to being informed by the Principal of Ridley Hall that Sheppard’s ordination would be postponed, because of his call to captain England against Australia: “The Kingdom of God has many different aspects. Here [his cricket] is a piece of what I should regard as direct service to the wider interests of the Kingdom of God which you can render.”


The Revd Stephen Gray is the captain of the Archbishop’s XI cricket team, which took on a Vatican side in Rome last Saturday.

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