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 cricketing nations.
This Radio 4 Afternoon Play production was directed by Steven Canny.