That Boy Will Never Make a Cricketer

Third Man has been to that part of West Gloucestershire now covered in the urban sprawl of north east Bristol, hemmed in by the M4, the M32 and the near motorway standard A4174 which has spawned on its tributaries new housing estates with flags and orange bricks that rise up like leggo land wherever broad new tarmac rips through the countryside. 

It was to a village here called Downend that, in 1831, Dr Henry Mills Grace, of Long Ashton, Somerset, moved with his new wife and set up his first medical practice.

This Dr Grace was a cricketing fanatic. 

The game in those days relied on enthusiasts, who would often seize a space on the Common to convert with their own hands into crude cricket grounds, cutting and grubbing trees to achieve a space to play the game with any other person or family member that they could rope in to bowl at them. 

At Downend House father Henry was soon converting his garden into a cricket pitch.  Not satisfied with this he took a leading part in setting up of a cricket club on the rough surface of Rodway Hill Common.

Graceland - where Henry Grace, friends and relations hacked out a cricket ground

Led by Grace, they railed off an area of about forty by forty yards, hacked away the gorse and bracken, felled the odd tree and levelled out a reasonably good pitch to play the game first as West Gloucestershire, and ultimately as Gloucestershire County Cricket Club. 

These were pioneers.  Enthusiasts whose enthusiasm was infectious.  They recruited people to the game, practiced, developed their technique and issued challenges to nearby enthusiasts or took on professional touring sides like the All England Eleven. With the laws still hazy and with no boundaries disputes often broke out that disintegrated into brawls.

Dr Grace had five sons born between 1833 and 1850 who he taught to bowl to him, bat against him, field for him, make up his team in challenges against nearby or visiting sides and become themselves highly proficient players. His wife Martha had a willing cricketing brother Alfred or Uncle Pocock who joined in and crucially began to coach the fourth son, William Gilbert Grace. 

Each Grace before W.G. had hacked and swiped and pulled at every ball, scoring by daring, bravery and attack.  E.M., previously the most successful Grace, pulled every ball he received to square leg.  None of them wanted to know anything about Uncle Pocock’s new fangled ideas until W.G.. 

The uncle at last had found a nephew who was coachable and proceeded to give him a defence, provide him with a choice between attack and defence, and facilitate an extraordinary aptitude for shot selection.

Soon W.G. was joining in the family teams and challenges, sometimes playing against his brothers but always scoring runs and taking wickets.  He possessed in abundance that mixture of talent, application and restless innovation that typifies successful pioneers in any field.

On Tuesday afternoon, while the crowds were roaring in the stadiums of Mumbai and Bangalore it was good for Third Man to walk on the little changed Rodway Hill Common like the Graces before him.  To imagine the Doctor, the teacher, the field hand, the blacksmith and the wheelwright clearing the ground, pitching their wickets, pursuing the ball deep into the gorse. 

To hear the echoes of their joy and their jokes and their quarrels and their boasts and the cry of ‘Lost Ball, Lost Ball, stop running, Lost Ball’.

To eavesdrop on the arguments they had over the wisdom of that new stance or that new shot. 

“Why is young William standing so straight?  Why didn’t he try to hit that ball into Mangotsfield instead of batting it down at his feet? You’ve ruined him, Pocock. That boy will never make a cricketer with a grip like that.”

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