THERE are great cricketers and there are great cricketers.
And then there are all time legends.
At the top of this short list is Australia’s own immortal Sir Don Bradman and also Britain’s ‘Amazing Grace’, Dr William Gilbert (or W.G.) Grace.
For what true cricket tragic hasn’t heard of England’s great batsman W.G. Grace (1848-1915)? Crowds from Toronto, Canada, to Sydney, Australia, found him compulsively watchable.
In his prime, Grace was, in the words of his latest biographer Richard Tomlinson, “arguably the first truly modern international sports star”. He was, in short, the man who pioneered cricket techniques as played worldwide today.
Like Bradman, Grace was a self-made genius with the willow. As author Tomlinson reports, the basis for W.G.’s fame was the astounding statistic that by the time he was 27, Grace had scored 50 first class centuries. His feat was performed at a time when cricket pitches were very poor and protective cricket gear so flimsy that batsmen risked their lives whenever they took to the pitch.
Tomlinson reports that in one match at Lord’s in England, W.G. scored 100 runs then saw another batsman killed when a ball smashed into his head. In his day, Grace was more famous than any other celebrity in the British Empire, including explorers.
He is also the man we hold responsible for inadvertently creating ‘The Ashes’ tradition of cricket Tests between Australia and England. But, as he grew older, this big man with a trademark black beard and widely proclaimed ‘champion batsman of the world’ became the ‘Old Man’, a kind of latter-day cricketing Falstaff.
He drank deeply and ate to the point of gluttony to cope with the competitive pressure. But, even in old age, this ‘genial tyrant’ only had one goal: W.G. loved cricket and wanted to play forever.
For years there’s been a story that Grace once played in Newcastle. True or false? Well, very true actually. The match was played in Cooks Hill 125 years ago. On Sunday, in fact, on February 5, 1892. But it wasn’t at No.1 Sportsground but on a pitch that has long disappeared. Sort of.
On that summer’s day on February 5, 1892, W.G. Grace took to the pitch to open batting at St John’s Green, Cooks Hill, before a crowd of 3000 people eager to see the all-rounder perform. The giant bearded batsman was captain of Lord Sheffield’s Invitational 12 playing against a combined Newcastle District team.
Almost 44 years old, 1.88 metres (6ft 2inches) tall and weighing 95 kilograms (15 stone), W.G. cut an imposing figure as he strode out and looked at the fieldsmen around him – all 20 of them. By mutual agreement, the opposing team had 20 players to counter the legendary batsman and his team mates. Despite the packed field, Dr Grace made 54 runs out of a total of 269 by the English touring side.
W.G. Grace may have been in the twilight of his career, but he never disappointed on the sporting field. The next day at midday, rain forced play to be abandoned with Newcastle six wickets down for 42 runs in reply.
The visiting English team was the one brought to Australia by Lord Sheffield in the 1891-92 cricket season. Of the 29 matches played, W.G. Grace’s team won 12, drew 15 and lost two. Three Tests were played in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide and Australia won the series.
Then during the tour, in August 1892, an incident occurred which forever changed the trajectory of cricket. Grace, who was fielding, ran out Australian batsman Sam Jones in a match, but many Aussies thought normal cricket etiquette should apply and Jones should continue batting. Later, in revenge for Dr Grace’s ‘cheating’, some Melbourne ladies burned a cricket bail, put it in an urn and presented it to the visiting English captain. Thus, the international Ashes cricket series was created.
But back to Cooks Hill and the ‘mystery’ cricket field now long gone. Where was it? Today it’s swallowed by suburbia, but surprisingly a remnant remains. It’s a small, strange, elliptical-shaped park now studded by trees and surrounded by a tiny chain fence at the southern end of Corlette Street.
There’s no plaque, but this is what’s left of the hallowed ground of St John’s Green where W.G. Grace once opened batting for England only a block east from today’s Union Street. About a century ago, Corlette Street was extended south, but it’s said that this small, odd park was actually the historic cricket pitch itself, saved by having the road encircle it instead. A map from 1875 confirms the location of this now lost cricket ground where major matches, and even rugby union, were played between 1867 and 1912.
Professional running matches and night cycling were also staged here until finally, in 1912, the ground’s owner, the A.A.company, ended the lease of the field.
St John’s Green was probably early Newcastle’s third sporting arena. The first was the A.A.Company paddock near Newcastle harbour, probably around Argyle Street. Earlier, games were probably held in Barrack’s Square (James Fletcher Hospital) off Watt Street. Further details of these can be found in Peter Murray’s now sadly out-of-print book, Cooks Hill: Early years.
But back to author Richard Tomlinson and his centenary biography (in 2015) of W.G, entitled Amazing Grace. The writer tells us Grace is remembered today for his supercharged batting, but it was a hard slog. He was a true cricket pioneer, a controversial amateur cricketer with a deeply analytical, creative mind.
And yet the snobbish cricketing establishment disparaged him as a simpleton, despite him recasting his sport, pushing the rules so much that adoring fans flocked to watch him play. His first-class career lasted 43 years and he is credited with scoring more than 54,000 runs on terrible pitches, including 124 hundreds and for taking 2809 wickets.
The best-known anecdote concerns W.G. Grace refusing to walk after being given out at a match for one run. It may not be true, but still probably best sums up the legend.
After refusing to go, W.G. turned to the umpire. “Sir. It is a hot day and we have a huge crowd watching. Do you want a riot?” he asked. “These people have come here to see me bat, NOT to see you umpire!”
The pair glared daggers at each other, before the umpire yelled: “Not out.”