From his office in the labyrinth of history at Wellington’s Basin Reserve ground, Bell got a phone call that made his jaw drop. Would the museum be interested in some W.G. Grace memorabilia? Items that had been in the famous cricketer's family for generations and that had never been put on public display before — anywhere in the world?
Now, few cricket fans in the world would fail to recognise that name. It’s one of the biggest in the history of the sport. Dr William Gilbert Grace was a tower of a man, both physically and metaphorically.
A 19th Century England captain who practically wrote the manual as to how the modern game should be played, he dominated it for decades, until his death in 1915. It says it all that his name adorns the gates at Lord’s — the game’s famous home ground in London.
So what were his personal artefacts and memorabilia doing, unknown to the cricket world, at the other end of the planet?
“It’s extraordinary,” says Bell. “We could not believe that historical items of such significance to our game were so close to us all this time. Yet it turned out that Grace’s great-great grandson was living in Auckland, and this collection of 15 items had always been kept together in his family.”
That in itself is special, for sadly other significant W.G. Grace memorabilia that had been inherited by an earlier descendant had disappeared out of the family - including Grace's personal collection of 30 Wisden Cricket Almanacks, many autographed, with his hand-written annotations in the margins. Years later, they popped up for sale in Canada, and sold for an absolute fortune.
You can rely on Bell to ferret out that kind of story from the depths of cricket trivia. Long before he graduated with a Master’s degree in Museum Studies, he was a South Island boy in love with playing the game. Curating the country’s only Cricket Museum is truly his dream occupation — not the least because he gets to watch Test cricket out his office window in summer.
The Basin Reserve, a cricket ground since 1866, is by far the elder of Wellington’s two international cricket venues — the other is the modern Westpac Stadium. The Basin is also the only cricket venue in New Zealand to have official status as a protected historic place.
Having been in existence since the days of ‘W.G.’ himself, it seems a highly appropriate place to display the W.G. Grace collection, which has been loaned to the Museum until the end of April 2014.
“So for visitors to New Zealand during the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup, it’s an amazing opportunity to be able to see something very special to the game and personal to his family,” says Bell.
“There are unusual items like his shaving brush — which is in nearly new condition, as I don’t think he would have used it much, with his famous beard!
“We also have a pair of inscribed lawn bowls. It’s a little known fact that he also captained England at lawn bowls, against Scotland, and founded the English Bowling Association in his later life. He was an extraordinary man.”
New Zealand collections
Acquiring the W.G. Grace collection was also a chance for Bell to explore another little-known New Zealand connections with the great cricketer, stories told in the upcoming exhibition. “His cousin, William Gilbert Rees was an early settler in Central Otago, an explorer acknowledged as one of the founders of Queenstown.”
Influenced by Grace and his two brothers (all three represented England at Test cricket), Rees, too, was an adept cricketer. He played an early first-class match for New South Wales in 1857. His niece later married Hugh Lusk, a prominent New Zealand first-class batsman of the early 20th Century.
Not only that, but one of W.G.’s Test-playing brothers, Edward, visited New Zealand in January 1864, with George Parr’s All-Star England XI — the very tour that kick-started first-class cricket in New Zealand over 150 years ago.
Needless to say, such fascinating links with the first family of cricket mean Bell is dedicating the entire John Oakley Gallery wing of his Museum to telling the story of Grace, his connections to New Zealand and his relationship to Lord’s and the modern game.
That’s in addition to the museum’s regular treasure trove, which includes one of the world’s oldest bats.
Also on loan especially for the Cricket World Cup is the infamous “underarm” ball that Australia’s Trevor Chappell bowled to New Zealand’s Brian McKechnie to stop New Zealand winning a 1981 one-day international match — an incident that provoked outrage on both sides of the Tasman Sea.
Roll in quirky collections like that of the late Nancy Doyle — an Irishwoman who was the much-loved lunch lady in the players’ room at Lord’s for over 30 years — and the New Zealand Cricket Museum offers a sporting experience like no other.
Its doors will open to visitors every day for the duration of the Cricket World Cup, and Bell has a tip. However much time you plan to spend here, triple it. Cricket has always been a sport for absorbing stories.