WG Grace, who died a century ago today, lived through extraordinary times. He was born in 1848 as revolutions and a wave of hope swept across Europe and the world and died in 1915 just as it became clear that the war in Europe was destined to be the most devastating in history.
He arrived in the age of Chopin and departed in the age of Jelly Roll Morton.
Yet not only did he live through extraordinary times he forged his own. It’s hard to perceive the scale of the effect he had on the game of cricket – and indeed wider society – from a century’s distance as we have next to no common points of reference.
Yet Grace was arguably the first superstar, the first celebrity, described by Neville Cardus as ‘the most spectacular man ever to play cricket’.
He was instantly recognisable and remains so even today: the privet hedge of a beard that was the envy of Russian novelists, the waistline that expanded through his career to the point where it could feasibly have qualified for its own postcode. He played like no other and he looked like no other.
Perhaps inevitably WG has largely disappeared behind his own myth and become practically a caricature of himself yet, for me, as someone who twice a day en route to and from school walked past the house in Mottingham, south-east London, in which WG spent the final years of his life, he is still a very human figure.
It’s possible that Grace might have disputed his genius – he once said “cricketers are made by coaching and practice” – but a genius he undoubtedly was: nobody has ever dominated, revolutionised and epitomised a sport in the same way Grace did, and continues to do.
For me, however, the key to understanding genius lies not in the exploits and triumphs played out in the public eye but in the spaces in between, the private times, the human times.
There were more of those as the years advanced. He played his final first-class match at a freezing, snow-sugared Oval in April 1908 three months shy of his 60th birthday, and still played for his local side Eltham until he was 66, making 69 not out in his last ever innings against Grove Park a few days before the start of the First World War and less than a year before his death
His later years were speckled with tragedy: the loss of his beloved daughter Bessie aged twenty from typhoid in 1898 was a blow from which he never recovered, and his eldest son WG Junior, known as Bertie, also pre-deceased him. Old friends and colleagues died off throughout the early years of the twentieth century and, with the loss of siblings and other family members his twilight years were marked by more funerals than centuries.
He remained active and gregarious however – he was the first captain of the England bowls team and enjoyed a round of golf as well as running (and later walking) out with the hounds well into his dotage – but the genius, the superhuman, gradually joined the mortals as an aging man with all the frailties, worries, fallibilities, joys and heartbreaks that go with that.
Today, exactly one hundred years after his death, I’m choosing to remember not the irascible rule-bender of popular mythology, not the bearded colossus of the famous Colman’s Mustard advertisement, but the old man whose keen eye and sharp mind remained – cruelly, in some ways – long after his body began to decline.
I’m remembering the man blessed with a rare sporting genius yet who knew the key to that genius lay in its innate simplicity, and above all I’m remembering the vulnerable, aching old man tending his asparagus in a suburban garden while across the land thousands still spoke of his immortal exploits with a misty-eyed nostalgia for a golden age in a world that was changed forever.
Find out more about my new book ‘Gilbert: The Last Years Of WG Grace’ (and, y’know, buy it and stuff) here.
My documentary ‘The Last Days Of WG’ goes out on Radio 4 on Saturday 24th October.