Set at The Oval on the morning of his last
first-class match on Easter Monday 1908, Nick Warburton’s play opens with W.G.Grace (Kenneth Cranham) walking round
the ground and encountering a young man (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the groundsman’s hut. The two of them recall the highlights
of Grace’s long career – his debut for England against Surrey in 1866, where
Grace scored a hundred on the first day, took a catch to dismiss Julius Caesar, and went off on the third day to run a 400
yards hurdles race with the assent of his captain. Another famous occasion was the 1880 Oval Test, where Grace’s younger
brother G.F. (Fred) Grace took a match-winning catch to dismiss the Australian batsman Bonner. Such occasions were ingeniously
evoked through dialogue between the two main characters, punctuated by interventions from the Voice of Cricket (Christopher
Martin-Jenkins) providing details about the games – the teams, the scores and major performances.
As the play unfolds, it becomes that W.G.
does not want to retire – even though he is nearly sixty years old. The young man acts as his conscience, observing
at one point that W.G. perpetually ignores the realities of his existence – the death of his wife Bessie, the fact that
he can no longer dominate bowling attacks, and his increasing immobility in the field. At first Grace dismisses such remarks
out of hand: people still pay the price of admission to see him, so why should he care? However matters come to a head in
a climactic exchange, as the young men recalls the 1897 Trent Bridge Test, where W.G. had been selected ahead of the local
favourite Arthur Shrewsbury, even though Shrewsbury was considerably
younger and had a far superior batting average. Shrewsbury
retired five years later; but became so disillusioned (believing, quite erroneously, that he had an incurable disease) that
he shot himself soon afterwards at the age of 46. W.G. dreads that the same fate might befall him and thus refuses to retire,
despite the fact that he had announced his intention to give up two years previously after having made 74 for the Gentlemen
against the Players.
Eventually the young man turns out to be
the ghost of Fred Grace, who passed away soon after the 1880 Oval Test as a result of a severe chill. He offers a simple message
to his older brother: W.G. should be proud of his achievements and give up the game. Cricket lovers don’t want to feel
sorry for him; they would rather recall him in his prime when he dominated bowling attacks through the power of his stroke-play.
Kenneth Cranham vividly communicated
W.G.’s agonies as he contemplates a bleak future without cricket after a 44-year career. Although set in 1908, The Last Days of Grace shows how every first-class cricketer encounters similar emotional difficulties at the
end of their careers. Some succeed as coaches, writers, or in completely different fields. Hopefully Graeme Hick – who
has just retired after 24 years with Worcestershire - will enjoy new post as coach at Malvern College. Others such as David Bairstow
(who committed suicide at the age of 46) cannot adjust to life outside the game. Life outside the first-class game can be
pitilessly unforgiving, which helps to explain why cricket has a suicide rate that exceeds the national average for the respective
This Radio 4 Afternoon Play production was directed by Steven Canny.