Ranji: Prince of a small state, king of a great game
KS Ranjitsinhji, born September 10, 1872, was a magical batsman, the first wristy wizard from the orient and the creator of the leg glance. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the life and career of the man better known as “The Prince of a small state, but the king of a great game”.
Magic with the Willow-wand
The first Sussex season had seen ‘balls leave his blade with the swiftness of thought’. Some others claimed that the ball flowed from his bat like water rushing down a hill.
His first match for Surrey against the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord’s had brought him 77 not out and 150 and anything finer than his hitting had never been seen at Lord’s.
The suppleness of his Eastern wrists had led him manufacture the novelty of the leg-glance, played fine — in arcs that defied the hard-core logic of batting of the day that dictated balls to be hit back in the direction from whence they came. He discovered angles that were acute and mysterious. And his late cut was such that it was claimed, “envious gods are still practising it in the Elysian fields.”
His methods were equated with the many splendored treasures and enigmas of the land from which he hailed. “He combines an Oriental calm with an Oriental swiftness — the stillness of the panther with the suddenness of its spring,” wrote AG Gardiner. And his steadfast friend for life, CB Fry said, “One would not be surprised sometimes to see a brown curve burnt in the grass where one of his cuts has travelled, or blue flame shiver around his bat in the making of one of those leg-strokes.”
He had acquired a following even before the end of the first season. The lithe form of Prince KS Ranjitsinhji could be recognised by all who could distinguish a cricket bat from a walking stick. While his strokes sparked and sizzled with lustre that was unique, even while he fielded the crowd could pick him out with ease as he waited like a coiled spring at slip or moved sharply in anticipation at point. Everyone knew how his hands found each other behind his back between the deliveries, how the back of his gossamer shirt fluttered in the wind while tremors rippled down to the wristbands which he always kept so tightly fastened.
Neither was he all style, for substance there was plentiful. He had scored 1,766 runs at 50.16 for Sussex that initial season. By the end of the summer he had made runs on all sorts of wickets — 100 at Nottinghamshire after heavy rain, 137 against Oxford University on a fusty, spinning track and 72 against Middlesex on a flier.
Yet, his claims to a Test spot against Harry Trott’s Australians were not without pitfalls. At Sheffield Park, that most lush of Sussex estates, he stroked the ball ethereally to score 79 and 42 for Lord Sheffield’s XI when the Australians landed in England in 1896. He had already scored 74 against MCC at Lord’s in the new season and had followed it up with 64 and 33 against Lancashire and three consecutive hundreds against Yorkshire, Gloucestershire and Somerset.
The English crowd was eager to see this magical import from the outposts of the Raj, this most sparkling treasure from the Jewel in the Crown, take on the might of Ernie Jones, Hugh Trumble and George Giffen. But, then, never had an Indian been good enough to be hailed as the best and the most exciting batsman of the land. It was a first. And it created complications.
It was 1896, the year one can associate with the modernisation of sports. The Summer Olympics were held in Athens in their modern form for the first time. And from the following year Test teams were chosen by an independent selection committee in England. However, that summer the old process was still in vogue. The home county on whose ground the match was being contested had to select the eleven. And when Lord’s was decided as the venue of the first Test match, it was Lord Harris, supremo of the MCC, six years previously the Governor of Bombay, who was the principal selector. And he was not in favour of playing ‘birds of passage’.
Ranji was omitted and it resulted in vehement outcry in the press and among the public. An apprehensive Ranji, invited by AN ‘Monkey’ Hornby of Lancashire to take part in the second Test at Old Trafford, insisted that the Australians be consulted before the final selection. The tourists were asked, and Trott merely expressed his delight.
Just before the Manchester Test, Ranji had turned out for the Gentlemen against the Players at Lord’s. He had scored 47 and 51 not out, in what Wisden termed was: “One of the most brilliant and delightful pieces of batting seen at Lord’s.” The 47 had come in 10 minutes and each of the 12 balls he faced before he was leg-before had been hit for a boundary except for one which was dispatched for three. The bowlers of whom he was contemptuously dismissive happened to be the fearsome Tom Richardson, George Lohmann, JT Hearne and Johnny Briggs.
Ranji batted on his Test debut at No 3, and fought hard to score 62 as wickets fell around him. England followed on and by the end of the second day the Indian maestro had stroked his way to 41. But, with England struggling at 109 for four, and defeat looming threateningly ahead, not too many people turned up on the final day.
Wickets continued to fall the following morning, but Ranji rose to the occasion and played an innings that could, as Wisden put it, “without exaggeration, be fairly described as marvellous.” He repeatedly brought off his exotic leg-side strokes, finding angles and gaps that left everyone breathless but him. There were only a couple of strokes that did not hit the middle of the bat and neither came close to being a chance. In three hours and 10 minutes, he had played a gem of an innings of 154 not out, including 23 boundaries.
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