“When he batted, a strange light was seen for the first time on English fields, a light of the East. The leg-glance was Ranji’s own stroke. He is today a legend. We can feel the spell yet, we can go back in our minds to hot days in an England of forgotten peace and plenty, during which Ranji did not so much bat for us as enchant us in a way all of his own so that when at last he got out, we were as though suddenly awakened from a dream.”
Ranjitsinhji, the ruler of Nawanagar State and one of the greatest batsmen in the history of cricket, was born on 10 September 1872 at Sadodar in Nawanagar state in Kathiawar. Also known as the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, he died on 2 April 1933.
His family was related to the rulers of Nawanagar state. There is some controversy over whether Vibhaji, the Jam Sahib (ruler) of Nawanagar, adopted Ranjitsinhji as his heir as there seemed to be no official documents to prove this. Nevertheless, Ranjitsinhji would later become the ruler of Nawanagar.
In any case, thanks to Vibhaji’s financial support, the young Ranjitsinhji was able to attend the Rajkumar College for Princes (which was a school). Though he played cricket while in school and was good at it, tennis caught his fancy more. He did well academically too.
Impressed by Ranjitsinhji’s intelligence and all-round abilities, the principal Macnaghten took his star pupil to London in 1888, along with two other bright students.
As the writer Dilip d’Souza wrote in the Caravan magazine in November 2010: “By his teens, Ranji had won a prize for reciting ‘Young Lochinvar’ and was also his Jamnagar school’s best cricketer. In a match in 1888, his last year, he took ten wickets, scored 81 not out (better than either of the unfortunate opponents’ innings) and eight not out — top scoring both times — and pocketed a catch as well. A prince’s match, without question. As children of privilege did at the time, he then travelled to England to attend college at Cambridge.”
In Cambridge Ranjitsinhji stayed with a British family till 1892. He joined the Cambridgeshire County Cricket Club in June 1891 and was later chosen in a South of England squad to play a local side, and performed moderately well. He started working on his batting technique, taking help from cricketers like Daniel Hayward. In 1892 he began to show his class, scoring some 2,000 runs in all the matches he played.
He played for Trinity in 1892, scoring at an average of 44, the second highest of the season. “[Ranji] was not included in the Cambridge side in 1892. In a sign of racism that would continue to haunt Ranji throughout his cricketing career, F.S. Jackson, captain of the Cambridge side, later admitted that the fact that Ranji was an Indian had counted against his inclusion,” Stuart Wark wrote in espncricinfo.com in July 2013.
He started his first-class career with Cambridge in May 1893. His quality of batting and fielding was noted. His 58 and 37 against a visiting Australian side led to standing ovation by the crowd.
His Test debut in July 1896 was the stuff of dreams. A careful 62 in the first innings was followed by 154 not out in the second. The crowd was ecstatic. Most commentators were impressed.
George Giffen, the Australian all-rounder, said Ranjitsinhji’s innings was the finest he had ever seen, and the Indian was the batting wonder of the age. And yet, racism did raise its ugly head from time to time – a young Indian performing brilliantly in this most English of games in the 19th century was difficult to digest for some people in both England and Australia.
In 1896 Ranji overtook the great W.G. Grace’s record for the highest aggregate in a single season. In the 1897-98 tour of Australia that England lost 1-4, Ranjitsinhji hit 175 to take his team to its only victory against their classier opponents.
In his career, he played a total of 15 Tests, scoring 989 runs with a batting average of 44.95. In first-class cricket, he amassed 24,693 runs in 500 innings at an average of 56.37. He hit 72 tons that included 14 double centuries.
Ranjitsinhji, who became the ruler of Jamnagar on 11 March 1907, lost an eye in a shooting incident in 1915. After a brief illness, he died on 2 April 1933. The Wisden once wrote of this prince among players: “If the word genius can with any propriety be employed in connection with cricket, it surely applies to the young Indian’s batting.”