It would be easy to see the year 1864 as the starting point for modern cricket.
MCC legalised over-arm bowling, the first edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack appeared and a young William Gilbert Grace, just three days beyond his 16th birthday, made his first appearance at Lord’s.
He scored 50, playing for the South Wales Club against MCC. The match was not considered first-class, but it was still an impressive debut. The young Grace was a far cry from the heavily bearded, portly figure captured in hundreds of later photographs and portraits; this was a lithe young athlete, an all-round sportsman who excelled at everything he did. A man who might leave a cricket match to go and compete in a hurdle race, win it, and then return to continue his cricket. Not yet 17, he made his first class debut at the Oval the following summer, taking 13 for 88 in the match bowling in the old, round-arm style.
That Grace was streets ahead of his contemporaries as a batsman, and one of the most lethal bowlers in England, was evident early on. Every season from 1869 to 1879 he was the leading run-scorer in England and in 1874 he became the first man to claim the ‘double’ of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in a season. He repeated his feat in each of the next four years. Grace became the first sportsman in England to achieve celebrity status, often described as the most widely recognised man in Victorian England. His image was used to advertise Colman’s Mustard, and ghost-written books appeared in his name.
Grace was just 20 when he was elected a Member of MCC in May 1869. It was a convenient arrangement for both parties. The young star’s home county, Gloucestershire, was yet to play first-class cricket. Meanwhile, MCC had just bought back the new Grand Stand at Lord’s from the consortium that financed it. To make the stand pay, MCC needed cricket’s biggest names to play at Lord’s. Grace needed first-class cricket and MCC needed Grace. Over the next 35 years, Grace went on to play 127 matches for MCC, amassing 7,565 runs and 19 centuries as well as 386 wickets. It must rank as one of the most productive partnerships in cricket history.