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Book Review
W.G. Grace: A Life
Published: 1998
Pages: 548
Author: Simon Rae
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Rating: 4.5 stars
By Rodney Ulyate
05 Nov 2007


It is with no small degree of reluctance (not to say embarrassment) that I admit that it took me all of three months to finish this book. Sure, it's a whopper -- and I got a number of bicep-building reps out of it --, but even the most palsied reader would have to confess that a quarter is pushing it somewhat.

The blame lies not with the book itself, however, but rather its hopelessly inept reviewer, who, in his inestimable capacity for muddled priorities, decided to put the small matter of his Matric year first.

I was stunned, when at last I restarted it, to discover the full extent of what I had been missing. The introduction (or, at least, the part of it immediately preceding the merge with the acknowledgements) makes for some of the most inspiring cricket literature that I have ever come across. Despite a jillion stentorian protests from my quivering biceps, I scarcely put it down thereafter.

Biographers of W.G. Grace are legion, and each, in his own right, has brought something unique to the story, but Simon Rae stands head, shoulders and maybe even waist above them all.

For a start, he abstains from the nauseating flattery which characterised so many of the early offerings on this far-from-angelic genius, making a concerted effort never to gloss over the negative light-casters. No W.G. book is more replete with scandal, and, as a result, it makes for far better reading than the likes of W. Methven Brownlee's droning eulogy.

That is not to say, however, that Rae is lacking in sympathy or sensitivity. He is aware throughout of W.G.'s undeniable goodness and humanity, and partly accounts for the less palatable events by pointing to the innate child-like enthusiasm which, throughout his life, distinguished Grace from his bland Victorian myrmidons.

The closet is opened forcibly, and the skeletons come tumbling out. The most striking of the lot, perhaps, is the truth behind W.G.'s villainous run-out of Sammy Jones during the celebrated Ashes Test of 1882. Drawing on the content of two forgotten letters by the son of Hugh Massie, Rae tells us that, just prior to W.G.'s Jardinesque piece of gamesmanship, Jones nodded at him, "establishing, as he thought, a tacit understanding that he was now safe to leave the crease." Grace's subsequent removal of the bails, however, proved such naive confidence in his grasp of courtesy and etiquette to be grossly misplaced.

Massie's letter also brings to our attention, for the first time, Fred "The Demon" Spofforth's ireful reaction: "[...] when the Australians were out and the English team left the field, he went into the Englishmen's dressing-room and told Grace he was a bloody cheat and abused him in the best Australian vernacular for a full five minutes. As he flung out of the door his parting shot was, 'This will lose you the match.'" And it did.

Rae's typically clinical summing-up of that shameful episode is absolutely tantalising: "[...] by running him [Jones] out in what the Australians thought an unsporting manner, Grace roused Spofforth to produce one of the greatest bowling efforts of all time to drive his team to their extraordinary victory. In other words, Grace was, to a very large extent, personally responsible for the birth of the Ashes."

That fine example of original research and shrewd observation is by no means singular. Indeed, it seemed quite credible for a time that this uncanny serendipity was supernatural. Revelation follows revelation, and each struck me dumber than the last. A brief perusal of the massive bibliography, however, explains it all.

Simon Rae spared no effort -- nor, indeed, expense* -- in putting together his masterly labour of love. "It was," he told me, "a massive undertaking and I'll never do anything like it again." More's the pity.

W.G. Grace truly is a must for all devotees of the game and its bearded wonder, and I heartily recommend it.

* He went broke at one stage.

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