The History of a Hundred CenturiesRodney Ulyate |
Author: WG Grace
Publisher: L. Upcott Gill
Rating: 2 stars
This is a short book—short in length and short on substance. I had no right to be surprised. The preface admits that it was rushed into print, and all the telltale signs are there: The spelling is erratic, the syntax temperamental; facts and arithmetic go missing in action. The opening words, with their tortured tautology, are sadly representative:
If an apology be needed from me for putting this little book before the public, then I apologise. If not, then it is unnecessary for me to apologise for the egotistical nature of the work.
We are not in the hands of a seasoned wordsmith. WG appears to have dispensed with his wonted ghost, making The History of a Hundred Centuries perhaps alone among his books in that he actually wrote it. By no means is this a Good Thing. As Arthur Porritt, the shade of his best and biggest volume, recalls in his memoirs, Grace was “a singularly inarticulate man…. The task of getting the material from him was almost heart-breaking.” EW Swanton believed he was “as averse from writing about the game as he was from talking formally about it … loath as he was to undertake the labour of composition.”[i] The pen in this case was not mightier than the sword. To make matters worse, he is served ill by his oscitant editor, the Kentish amateur and histrion William Yardley, with whom the idea for the book originated. The pytos are legion. “Superb,” for example, is permitted to appear as “suberb,” and “overs” to become “others,” while no small violence is done to the names of William Oscroft and Percy McDonnell.
But one doesn’t like to nitpick. I waste my introduction on minor details only because the major ones are few and far between. The History of a Hundred Centuries is deathly boring; it could lull a charging herd of wildebeest. Its modus operandi is to repeat in prose what a five-year-old could deduce, without any labour of intelligence, from its voluminous scorecards. The following, in full, is the entry on Surrey v. Gloucestershire at the Kennington Oval in 1870:
There is very little to say about this match, as we had a complete walkover for Gloucestershire. F. Townsend and I took the score from six for one wicket to 240 for two wickets. Surrey utterly collapsed in the second innings, only making 46, of which eighteen were put on by the last wicket—Southerton, the last man in, making fifteen not out, that being the only double figure on his side in that innings.
The match analysis appears directly above this vignette, rendering it altogether nugatory.[ii] Nor is it an isolated case. Only a few pages later, WG replicates both content and (no less depressingly) verbiage in detailing Gloucestershire’s innings victory over Somerset in August 1879:
There is very little to say about this encounter beyond the fact that it was an easy walkover for us against Somersetshire. We went in first and scored 411, of which I made 113 and Mr F. Townsend 103. Somersetshire only made 126 in their first innings and 133 in the second, we thus winning the match by an innings and 152 runs.
When I was younger and more easily pleased, I could spend hours staring at and copying out old scorecards. Today the eyes glaze over. All the numbers in this volume are readily available, in more detail and with far greater accuracy, on CricketArchive. If statistical books are happily anachronistic now, The History of a Hundred Centuries is doubly so, for several of its entries (the match just discussed, for example) are no longer considered first-class. The title, strictly speaking, is also inaccurate, as the number of centuries featured here is 103. The author added the bonus deuce-ace, in his annus mirabilis of 1895, between the date of the landmark and the date of publication.
What we pine for, as we approach that landmark, is something rousing and exultant and climactic. What we get is the following:
This is my red-letter match, for in it I scored my HUNDREDTH CENTURY. The Fates apparently decreed that there should be no mistake about it, as my score was 288.
That’s it. We learn nothing more. The ALL CAPS only sharpen the blow.
I was reminded at this point of another lament of the long-suffering Porritt: “Had [WG] been left to write his own cricketing biography, it would never have seen the light…. All he would say, in recording some dazzling batting feat, was, ‘Then I went in and made 284.'” The exaggeration is but slight:
- Page 12: “I went in when three wickets were down for ninety, and carried my bat out. My 224 was the largest individual score that had ever been made in a first-class match at the Oval up to that date.”
- Page 20: “I went in first with BB Cooper, and we were not parted until 283 runs were telegraphed.”
- Page 92: “I went in with the score at 82, and left when it was 440—another record, as this is the highest individual score ever made on the Trent Bridge Ground, Nottingham.”
- Page 107: “I went in first, and was ninth out, having made 113 out of 174 scored from the bat. It did not look at one time as if I should be able to reach my 100, but Mr A. Newnham stayed with me, whilst he and I put on 84 runs—he eventually carrying his bat out for 25.”
For all that, there can be no doubting the pull of a book like this. It was, in theory, a very good idea, because the achievement it celebrates was unprecedented. Before WG, indeed, it was unthinkable: When he began his career, in 1865, the leading compiler of first-class centuries was Tom Hayward (1835-1876), with five; upon his retirement, with 124, the runner-up was Tom Hayward (1871-1939), with eighty.[iii] No factoid better instances the truth of Ranjitsinhji’s remark about the old one-stringed instrument and the many-chorded lyre.
This book, as I say, adds nothing to our understanding or appreciation of the achievement, but it does serve as a reminder of its author’s uncanny sense of occasion. No fewer than 38 of his first hundred hundreds were compiled in representative matches. He was notoriously hard on the Players, recording more centuries against them—and, for that matter, more half-centuries, too—than any other team. His most empurpled patch in the fixture, from 1871 to 1873, brought him 844 runs from just six innings. Only the footballing anthropophagite Luis Suárez, in his sadomasochistic relations with Norwich City, has ever taken quite so hungrily to a particular sporting opponent.[iv] A great many of these knocks were chanceless, and Grace does not scruple to describe them as such, but he is also honest enough to acknowledge just how lucky he could be:
- On his 117 not out for the MCC against Nottinghamshire at Lord’s in 1870: “During the course of my first innings, when I had made about sixty, I played a ball of JC Shaw’s hard on to my wicket, but the bails were not knocked off.”
- On his 158 for the Gentlemen against the Players at the Oval in 1873: “A curious circumstance occurred in this match, for when Emmett was put on to bowl in the place of McIntyre, when Longman and I had scored 44 runs, the second ball he bowled I played hard onto my wicket, but the bails stuck to the stumps.”
- On his 131 for the Gentlemen against the Players at Hastings in 1894: “I had a peculiar slice of luck in this innings, by the way—a ball bowled by Mold cannoning off my pad against the wicket without knocking a bail off.”
This, I feel certain, is some kind of record. I should be interested to know how often it happened, centuries aside, over the whole of his career. I can think offhand of at least one other instance, reported by “Shortslip” in The Sydney Mail of 7 June 1902:
When the Australians were going into the field, Murdoch said to Palmer, ‘If you can only get a yorker into WG first ball, George, you’ll get him.’
‘I’ll try,’ said Palmer.
The first ball was a yorker. It got past WG. It hit the wicket, but did not shift the bails.
The occasion was the first-ever Test Match on English soil. Grace went on to score 152. As he writes, in one of the book’s few quotable lines, “No man—I do not care how good—can persistently score largely without a bit of luck now and again.” But it is only the really good men who enjoy luck on this scale.
There is as much in The History of a Hundred Centuries—often, indeed, there is more—about his bowling, and about the efforts and achievements of his colleagues, as about his greatest cumulative batting feat. His early concerns about egotism were altogether unjustified, the personal pronoun being a relative rarity. Given the widespread belief that WG was a chesty prototype for Kevin Pietersen, this may come as something of a surprise. And it is hard to square his leviathan presence and his far-famed gamesmanship with such qualities as diffidence and humility. But, according to the last of his biographers who knew him personally, he was
essentially a modest man. No great cricketer talked less about his own achievements or more about the outstanding feats of others. If occasionally he delved into ‘old times,’ he mentioned the exploits of others, and not his own.
Useful virtues, and used to some effect in the discursive memoirs ghosted by Porritt, but quite useless for a book like this. In an entry ostensibly devoted to his even century for the Gentlemen against the Players in 1881, he gives considerably more space and praise to Charles Leslie’s 59. And, even when he does discuss himself, the pickings are passing slim. Seldom are we afforded any insight into his thoughts and feelings, his gambits and his stratagems, as he cocked that left toe and waited on the bowling. The anecdotes are few, and the few are uninteresting. Did he ever get nervous? How did he recalibrate his technique for sticky wickets? Which was the most arduous century he ever made? These questions go unanswered, and it seems unlikely that he even thought to ask them. Should you decide, despite what you have read here, to pick up a copy and judge for yourself, do yourself a favour: First consult Mike Atherton’s Opening Up—in particular the passages on his famous duel with Allan Donald. You’ll see there what is lacking in The History, and how badly.
Still, I cannot give it the one-star rating it so richly merits. According to CricketWeb’s guidelines, that would make it “possibly useful in the event of running short of kindling, but not otherwise.” I cannot endorse the ignition of books,[v] especially not such a rare one as this. CricketWeb takes pride in its exhaustive coverage of publications both new and old, but it does feel strange—futile even—to be critiquing a volume more than a century out of print, and which would cost a gazillion pounds to purchase in its first and only edition. For one thing, reader, you have no way of determining whether what I have said about it is true. Therefore, in addition to the demand (customary in these circumstances) that some enterprising publisher reissue the thing for the centenary of Grace’s death, I promise to look into how I might do so myself. Watch this space.
[i] This makes perfect sense when we read in Bernard Darwin’s biography that he was equally loath to undertake the labour of reading, arguing that “it spoils one’s eye for the ball.” Grace grew up in “a country home, with very little reading of books, but much talk of horses and guns and all rustic things.” Darwin summarises his attitude thusly: “If people wanted to read books, no doubt they got pleasure from it, but it was a pleasure that he could not really understand. Wisden, yes—perhaps, to confirm a memory or refute an argument, or in winter as an earnest of the summer to come—but in a general way books were bad for cricket. ‘How can you expect to make runs,’ he said to one of the Gloucestershire side, ‘when you are always reading?’ and added, almost gratuitously, ‘You don’t catch me that way.’ I have searched in vain for anyone who ever saw him take the risk, except in the case of a newspaper or a medical book in which he wanted to look up a point.”
[ii] Well, maybe not altogether: There is some fun to be had in reconciling the umpteen discrepancies between the descriptions and the scorecards. For example, in discussing Gloucestershire’s brush with the Australians at Clifton in 1884, Grace credits the home side’s second innings with a total of 230 for two, but the scorecard exhibits only 225 for two. I shall not say how long it took me to determine that the latter had it wrong.
[iii] The later Tom Hayward was a nephew of the earlier Tom Hayward. I am indebted to Max Bonnell for bringing this happy coincidence to my attention. If we look beyond Grace’s contemporaries, however, we find that Lord Frederick Beauclerk (1773-1850) equalled Hayward Senior’s tally, and that Thomas Walker (1762-1831) exceeded it by one. I am indebted for this information to “AndrewB” of the Cricket Web forum.
[v] Regular visitors to this website will be quick to observe that I made an exception for H. Lewis-Foster’s Burning Ashes. I would reply that the title was asking for it, and that the content would have moved even Heine to compromise.