K.S. Ranjitsinhji : Silk shirts and silken wrists. Excerpt from Indra Vikram Singh’s book ‘Don’s Century’

K.S. Ranjitsinhji

 (‘Don’s Century’ is a book on the cricket career and life of Don Bradman, paying tribute to him in 2008, the year of his birth centenary. It is also a panorama of batting from the 1860s onwards featuring 35 of the greatest batsmen and discussing whether Don Bradman was indeed the greatest of them all).

Batting, having already been defined by Grace, saw its next two stars descend from distant lands. If Prince Ranjitsinhji, later the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, delighted with his artistry at the crease, the Aussie Victor Trumper provided the thrills with his panache. The very thought of Ranji conjures images of the leg-glance. He was the inventor of the shot, one that was patently his own and an early glimpse of the suppleness of wrists that characterised the batting of later Indian stalwarts Gundappa Viswanath, Mohammad Azharuddin and V.V.S. Laxman.

Ranji worked hard to hone his talent, hiring professional bowlers from Surrey while he was at Cambridge. Simon Wilde wrote in his biography Ranji A Genius Rich and Strange: “He practised with as much purpose whether he had just been out for 100 or for 0. He was a severe critic of his own game, and if he was indeed a genius it was for his infinite capacity for taking pains, not for becoming a superlative cricketer overnight. He enjoyed theorizing about the game and putting those theories into practice.”

The outcome was a batting style that was as unique as it was novel, and it perplexed the English. Cardus elucidated in Good Days (1934): “In the ‘nineties the game was absolutely English; it was even Victorian. W.G. Grace for years had stamped on cricket the English mark and the mark of the period. It was the age of simple first principles, of the stout respectability of the straight bat and the good-length balls. And then suddenly this visitation of dusky, supple legerdemain happened; a man was seen playing cricket as nobody in England could possibly have played it. The honest length ball was not met by the honest straight bat, but there was a flick of the wrist, and lo! The straight ball was charmed away to the leg-boundary. And nobody quite saw or understood how it all happened.”

All those who saw Ranji bat vouched for the fact that he had an exceptionally quick eye and could hook the fastest bowling with ease. Though he had appeared in English first-class cricket since 1893, Ranjitsinhji’s first full season was in 1895 when he made his debut for Sussex against the MCC at Lord’s. He caused an immediate impact, carving out scores of 77 and 150. From then on he captured the imagination of the public and became a very popular, even mystical, figure.

The next year at the age of 23, Ranji topped the first-class averages at 57.92, surpassing Grace’s record season aggregate by scoring 2780 runs, and equalling the great senior’s 10 hundreds. In a unique feat, Ranji hit up a century in each innings of a match on the same day. Resuming at zero not out, he notched up 100 and 125 not out for Sussex against Yorkshire at Hove. The English were reluctant to pick him in their Test side, but his huge popularity ensured that he was selected for the second match. Appropriately, Ranji became the second England batsman after Grace to score a hundred on Test debut, an unbeaten 154 against Australia atManchester, having hit 62 in the first innings. In the process he nearly pulled off an improbable win. In the 1897 season, Ranji scored 1940 runs at an average of 45.12. He hit up his first double-century, 260 in just 250 minutes with 36 fours and a six against MCC at Lord’s, the highest by a Sussex batsman.

Ranji never took the tedious sea journeys well. Prone to attacks of asthma, he was taken ill during the month-long voyage to Australia in 1897-98, even though he joined the team only in the south of the European Continent. He was still unwell when the first Test began in Sydney. Even so, he battled through, carving out a monumental 175, which was a record for England until R.E. Foster bettered it with 287 at the same venue six years later. Ranji’s knock enabled England to win their only Test in a series they lost 1-4. It was a productive tour for him personally, averaging over 50 in the Tests and over 60 in the first-class matches. In all he collected 1157 runs. At the end of the tour, Ranji returned to his homeland after a decade.

Having missed the English season of 1898 as a result of a long sojourn at home, Ranji’s best came at the turn of the century, even though he was not quite as slim and his feet seemed not as nimble. In 1899 he became the first to score 3000 runs in a season. He bailed out England in the first Test at Nottingham, scoring 42 and 93 not out, and holding Australia to a draw. By the end of the series he had scored 970 runs in 12 Tests at a brilliant average of 53.88. He amassed 3159 first-class runs at 63.18 per innings.

After a trip to the United States during the winter, Ranji’s 1900 season was just as brilliant. So irresistible was his form that he knocked up successive double centuries, both forSussex – 222 against Somerset at Hove, and an unbeaten 215 versus Cambridge University at Fenners. Quite the master on rain-affected wickets, he breezed to 202 in three hours off the Middlesex bowling after a thunderstorm at Hove, the next highest by a Sussex colleague being 17. His five double centuries were a record for a season, bettered only by Bradman with six in 1930. Everton Weekes of the West Indiesequalled Ranji’s five double tons exactly half a century later. The now-unstoppable Ranji logged up 3000 runs for the second successive season, this time scoring 3065 runs and topping the averages at a mind-boggling 87.57, hitting up 11 hundreds.

1901 was yet another splendid season. Again Ranji scored two double centuries in a row, once more representing his county, an unbeaten 285 against Somerset at Taunton and 204 at the expense of Lancashire at the home ground of Hove. The first was an amazing feat, not only for the fact that it was his top score and the highest-ever by a Sussex batsman, but because he was out fishing the entire previous night! For the 1901 season his tally was 2468 runs at 70.51 per innings. In three consecutive seasons, Ranjitsinhji had totalled 8692 runs at an average of 72.43 with 27 hundreds. The wizard from the orient continued to enchant and befuddle at the same time.

He did not sail to Australia in 1901-02 and, perhaps due to the troubles in his personal life, lost form dramatically in the Tests in 1902, managing just 19 runs in four innings and never played at that level again. He still finished with a Test average of 44.96, a splendid achievement at the time. In first-class matches, though, Ranji continued to blaze away till 1904 when he again topped the 2000 mark as well as the averages – 2077 runs at 74.17.

Succession issues in Nawanagar kept Ranjitsinhji back inIndia, and he missed the next three seasons. He returned toEngland in 1908 as His Highness The Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, having being installed as ruler of the 3791 square miles, 13-gun salute princely State in circumstances so full of intrigue and danger as to render a racy novel hopelessly mundane. He played that season as well as in 1912, remarkably notching up 1000 runs each time. Ranji was seen on the cricket field one last time in 1920. Astonishingly, he played three first-class matches and, as was only to be expected, failed miserably. The fact was that his right eye had been removed five years earlier when on August 31 he had met with an accident while shooting grouse on the Yorkshiremoors. This was soon after he returned from France, ending a brief and miserable stint in the army during the First World War.

It is quite uncanny that another Indian of princely origin and dashing batsman who was also to lead Sussex, Nawab of Pataudi junior, Mansur Ali Khan, also virtually lost vision in his right eye after a car accident on July 1, 1961 on the way back to Hove after dining out at neighbouring Brighton. The difference was that Ranji had his mishap after his cricket career was over, while Tiger Pataudi met this fate when his journey in the game had hardly begun.

It was while Ranji was recuperating, eye still bandaged, that he travelled to Beckenham, Kent, on October 26, 1915 to attend the funeral of his former England captain W.G. Grace. The curtain had come down not just on one era, but for all practical purposes, two.

Hartland summed up the impact of Ranji on the game: “The batting star of the Golden Age in England was Ranjitsinhji, with a first-class average of 56 – virtually as high as any English-qualified player has ever achieved and quite phenomenal for the time, particularly since he scored at around 50 runs an hour. Taking a qualification of ten thousand runs for all English batsmen who faced their first ball in the nineteenth century, Ranji’s first-class average is approached only by Sussex teammate Fry with 50. Test bowling did not slow Ranjitsinhji much, and the combination of his high average and scoring rate in relation to others really does mark him as out of the ordinary.”

Ranji’s first-class average of 56.37 was the highest for a full career by an England-based player until as late as 1986 when Geoff Boycott retired with a fractionally higher average of 56.84. And if one considers that Ranji’s career was all but over in 1904; his appearances thereafter were sporadic in 1908 and 1912, and farcical in 1920, his deeds are even more astounding. Upto 1904, Ranji had scored 22,402 runs at an average of 58.49 with 65 hundreds in 267 matches, really in less than a decade. That is the true reflection of his genius.

To the outside world Ranji was an exceptionally gifted prince who toiled diligently in the nets to emerge as the finest batsman of his era. Yet not many realised the inner turmoil that he undoubtedly underwent during his best years at the wicket, what with the drama of his adoption that never was, the machinations over his succession as ruler and his financial woes at the time. And he was laid low by illness for long periods. One has to marvel at the fact that he excelled at the game under these trying circumstances. Or more likely, he used them as a spur to motivate himself and to prove to those who mattered that he was fit to be king.

Yet his charm transcended all the elegant runs that he made. As Jessop wrote: “From the moment he stepped out of the pavilion he drew all eyes and held them. No one who saw him bat will ever forget it. He was the first man I ever knew who wore silk shirts, and there was something almost romantic about the very flow of his sleeves and the curve of his shoulders. He drew the crowds wherever he went, and at the height of his cricket days the shops in Brighton would empty if he passed along the street. Everyone wanted to see him.”

There was little doubt that Ranjitsinhji had transformed batting forever. As late as 1944, Pelham Warner wrote in The Book of Cricket: “With his wonderful eye and wrists, he could play back to almost any ball, however good a length, and however fast. Like Bradman, he seldom played a genuine forward stroke, for, again like Bradman he found that balls to which he could not play back he could, with his quickness of foot, get to and drive.” This ‘play back or drive’ method, however, could only be used by one with a sharp eye and quicksilver footwork, like a Ranji or a Bradman. English batsmen attempted to copy it with disastrous results. It takes someone extraordinary to play in an extraordinary way. Ranji scored more profusely than anyone had done before, just as Bradman was to do three decades later.

(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email singh_iv@hotmail.com. Follow Indra Vikram Singh on Twitter @IVRajpipla.)

Indra Vikram Singh’s latest books published by Sporting Links :   A Maharaja’s Turf  ISBN 978-81-901668-3-6,   The Big Book of World Cup Cricket  ISBN 978-81-901668-4-3,   Don’s Century  ISBN 978-81-901668-5-0,   Crowning Glory  ISBN 978-81-901668-6-7.

Distributed in India by :  Variety Book Depot, AVG Bhawan, M-3, Middle Circle, Connaught Circus, New Delhi-110 001, India. Tel. + 91 11 23417175, 23412567.

Available in leading bookstores in India, and online on several websites.

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