Indian cricket July 11, 2013

Who was India's first great batsman?

In part one, a look at three Indian-born batsmen who went on to achieve glory in other countries

A portrait of Ranjitsinhji playing his favoured leg glance © Getty Images

There are numerous articles and opinion pieces proclaiming the undoubted greatness of Sachin Tendulkar. He has been the heart of the Indian batting order for decades, his place in the pantheon of legends is unquestionable, as is his status as India's greatest batsman in the past 20 years*. However, it is interesting to delve back in history to consider who India's first great batsman was. For the purposes of the argument, an entirely arbitrary decision was made to only include batsmen who played Test cricket.

The first player born in India to play Test cricket was Bransby Cooper. He was born on March 15, 1844 in Dacca in British India, which is now known as Dhaka in Bangladesh. His family moved to England when he was a child, and he played first-class cricket for a number of counties before moving to Australia in 1869 after a brief sojourn in the United States. Cooper was quickly selected for Victoria, and was soon recognised as the leading batsman in colonial cricket. He was duly chosen to play in the first official Test match in Melbourne 1877 which, in a nice coincidence, started on his 33rd birthday. This was to be his only Test match; scores of 15 and 3 were not indicative of his batting prowess. It is hard to make a compelling argument that Cooper was India's first great batsman, as he never played first-class or Test cricket for, or even in, India. Nonetheless, it is worth acknowledging him as the first Indian-born person to play Test cricket.

The next individual who could be considered India's first great batsman was also born in India, but also did not represent them at Test level. This man was KS (Kumar Shri) Ranjitsinhji, known by all supporters of the game simply as Ranji. He was born on September 10, 1872 to a minor nobleman in the Indian province of Kathiawar. However, in a stroke of great fortune for Ranji, Jam Sahib Vibhaji, who was the ruler of the local province, adopted Ranji as his heir. This allowed Ranji the opportunity to attend school in England, and his obvious skills with the bat were shaped by RS Goodchild, who was the headmaster of St Faith's College.

Ranji attended Cambridge University after finishing school, but he was not included in the Cambridge side in 1892. In a sign of racism that would continue to haunt Ranji throughout his cricketing career, FS Jackson, captain of the Cambridge side, later admitted that the fact that Ranji was an Indian had counted against his inclusion. However, Ranji continued to perform with the bat, and was awarded his Blue in the game against Oxford at Lord's in 1893. After leaving Cambridge, Ranji joined Sussex in 1895 and scored 1766 runs at 50.16.

In 1896, Ranji continued his excellent county form, and he was widely viewed as being worthy of a place in the first Test team to play the touring Australians at Lord's. In light of the frequent whinging about selectorial blunders in current times, it is worth reflecting that England did not have a standard set of national selectors in 1896. Instead, it was the right of the county at which the Test was played to determine the players. Lord Harris, the president of the MCC at the time and the former governor of Bombay from 1890 to 1895, was vehemently against the inclusion of Ranji in the English side. He openly referred to Ranji a "bird of passage", arguing that since Ranji had been born India rather than England, he should not be considered. This flew in the face of the fact that England selected players including Billy Murdoch, John Ferris, Sammy Woods and Plum Warner, who were all born outside of England. Also, it is quite ironic to note that Lord Harris was born in the West Indies. Nonetheless, his views held, and Ranji was overlooked for the first Test side.

However, Lord Harris' power was limited to affairs at Lord's, and with the second Test played at Old Trafford, the Lancashire board immediately selected Ranji to make his international debut. With his selection, Ranji became the first person from India to play for England, and followed Cooper as only the second Indian-born Test cricketer. Ranji immediately showed his class, compiling 62 in his first innings, and following it with 154 not out in the second. Only one other English player passed 50, and whilst Australia won the Test, the great Australian allrounder George Giffen described Ranji's innings as the finest he had ever seen. He also added that it should not be surprising as Ranji was the batting wonder of the age.

Interestingly, Ranji was never to play first class-cricket in India. However, he did play club cricket during the 1898 summer. In September and October of 1899, Ranji led a team of English players on a tour of North America, playing two games against the Philadelphians. At this time, the Philadelphian Gentlemen were able to put a team on the field that was competitive against most world sides, and in Bart King they possessed one of the best bowlers in the world. The KS Ranjitsinhji XI won both games by an innings and over 100 runs, with Ranji's contribution in his side's two innings being 68 and 57. In spite of the team winning both games convincingly under his leadership, and his captaincy efforts with Sussex over the years, Ranji was never considered for this role with England. There were enough individuals of Lord Harris' ilk in the various positions of power who ensured that Ranji would never rise to become the first Indian-born player to captain England. That honour would come later to Douglas Jardine.

Ranji was officially installed as the Maharajah Jam Saheb of Nawanagar on March 10, 1907. The responsibilities of ruling restricted Ranji's opportunities to continue playing cricket in England. He played on in a limited capacity in 1908 and 1912, but injuries and illness prevented him completing the seasons in full. In 1915, Ranji suffered a hunting accident in Yorkshire, which resulted in him losing his right eye. He wore a glass eye and spectacles thereafter, but his first-class career was effectively over.

Ranji died in the palace of Jamnagar on April 2, 1933 of heart complications following a dose of pneumonia. His body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered into the Ganges. It is clear that he deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest batsmen of all time. Perhaps Wisden's summary of Ranji remains the best: "If the word genius can be employed in connection with cricket, it surely applies to this Indian batsman." However, it is difficult to argue that he was India's first great batsman. A common criticism of Ranji in modern times is that he did nothing for Indian cricket, and in fact viewed himself as solely an English cricketer. He certainly did not ever play first-class cricket in India, and did push his nephew Duleepsinhji to play for England rather than India. It is difficult now to accurately assess what effect Ranji had upon cricket within his native country. He certainly inspired such Indian greats as CK Nayudu to believe that they were able to compete and excel at cricket as much as any English player.

Ranji's nephew, Kumar Shri Duleepsinhji, is another candidate for the first great Indian batsman. He was born on June 13, 1905 in Kathiawar, which roughly corresponds to what is currently Gujarat state. As with his famous uncle, Duleep went to Cambridge and achieved his Blue there in 1925. He also represented England rather than India at Test level, but he only played 12 Test matches. However, he showed his undoubted class in these dozen games, scoring a total of 995 runs at 58.5. This average stacks up well against anyone in the history of international cricket, and is in front of English contemporaries such as Wally Hammond (58.45), Patsy Hendren (47.63), Frank Woolley (36.07) and Douglas Jardine (48).

Duleep's highest score at Test level occurred in the second Test of the 1930 Ashes series against Australia. He scored 173 in England's first innings, in which only one other player, Maurice Tate, who swung lustily at the end for 54, passed fifty. Unfortunately, Duleep's innings has been largely forgotten with the passage of time, as a certain Donald Bradman responded for Australia with 254 in what he described as his greatest innings. Duleep followed his first-innings century with a polished 48, but Australia went on to win comfortably by seven wickets. However, it was his efforts in a Test match against newcomers New Zealand that really demonstrated Duleep's poise and great technique. On a pitch at Lancaster Park in Christchurch on which neither team passed 200, Duleep top-scored in both innings, with his first innings of 49 being the highest score in the match. His unbeaten 33 then steered England home from a slightly precarious position during a small fourth-innings chase.

Sadly, Duleep struggled throughout his career from ill health, and this limited his first-class and Test career significantly. He died at the very premature age of 54 from a heart attack on December 5, 1959. He was an incredibly popular individual, and it appears that he was not subject to some of the more blatant prejudice that affected Ranji's career. However, as with both Cooper and Ranji, Duleepsinhji did not actually play for India in Test cricket; his first-class career finished in 1932, the year India played their inaugural Test. As such, it would seem appropriate to look further again to determine exactly who was India's first great batsman.

* Arguments about whether Tendulkar is better than Sunil Gavaskar can wait for another day.

Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ashok on July 15, 2013, 21:24 GMT

    I am amazed that actual question in the heading "Who was India's First Great Batsman" was never addressed in the article. Of course Gavaskar & Tendulkar are the modern Indian great Batsmen. But a whole series of Indians who were great players come to mind such as Vijay Merchant, Mushtaq Ali, Vijay Hazare, Nimbalkar, CK Nayudu, Polly Umrigar, Vinoo Mankad & Vijay Manjrekar to name a few from pre 1960 era. Whilst Cooper was born in India, he was not an Indian. I can also think of dozens of Indian born cricketers who distinguished themselves playing for England such as MC Cowdrey, R.Subba Row to Nasir Hussain - was born in Chennai but captained England. Vijay Merchant & Vijay Hazare from Pre-war era were like Gavaskar & Tendulkar from current era. Mankad was a world class all rounder whilst Umrigar & Manjrekar were great batsmen too. Ranji & Duleep were Princes who never played for India. The Prince who proudly played for India & was the greatest Indian Captain was "Tiger" MAK Pataudi!

  • Ramanathan on July 13, 2013, 8:57 GMT

    What about the senior Nawab of Pataudi, who after India played its first innuagural test against England in 1932 preferred to represent England and took part in the 1932-33 Bodyline series. Incidentally all three Indians who represented England scored centuries on debut

  • John on July 13, 2013, 8:57 GMT

    As an aside, check out the scorecard for that Second Test in 1930, where Duleep made his 173. The two teams bowled more than 500 overs between them in the match in just three days. Our players can't manage that in five! But at least in those days they had civilized gaps between Test matches that enabled everybody to draw breath, recover, reflect and anticipate.

  • Zeeshan on July 13, 2013, 3:30 GMT

    Fun piece! So can technically we can stretch it a bit and say, Bransby Cooper was the first and only Bangladeshi born player to play the first Test? ;)

  • Sarma on July 12, 2013, 5:20 GMT

    Good of you to have remembered Indian batsmen. I like to analyse batting performances in tests and ODIs in a relative way and tend to give computer-assigned marks per test match.

    In my analysis, the following are the Indian test match batsmen's ratings (qualification: at least 25 test matches):

    Sunil Gavaskar (73.83 marks per match); Vijay Hazare (69.34); Rahul Dravid (68.88); Sachin Tendulkar (67.69); GR Viswanath (67.64); PR Umrigar (67.22); Virender Sehwag (67.21); VL Manjrekar (66.27); Nawab of Pataudi Jr (63.11); Farokh Engineer (63.02); NS Sidhu (62.97); AL Wadekar (62.95); Pankaj Roy (62.89); DB Vengsarkar (61.56); Gautam Gambhir (60.79); CG Borde (60.46); Nari Contractor (60.29); Mohd.Azharuddin (59.73); VVS Laxman (59.73); DN Sardesai (59.46); Mohinder Amarnath (59.09); SC Ganguly (57.64); Sandeep Patil (57.33), Wasim Jaffer (56.49); AD Gaekwad (56.36); CPS Chauhan (56.31); ML Jaisimha (55.43), etc.

  • Dummy4 on July 12, 2013, 3:31 GMT

    India's first great batsman was Vijay Merchant. He had a brief test career interrupted by WWII, and finished with an unbeaten 154 in his last test innings. But his first-class batting average (72+) was second only to Bradman's (95+). The first truly great Indian all-round cricketer was Vinoo Mankad, who was good enough to make a world XI as either batsman or bowler in the 1950s.

  • PALLAB on July 12, 2013, 1:31 GMT

    @Gobhav;just rest it.Dravid never could perform consistently on hard/pacy decks of SA/OZ (average records in both) barring that superb series in OZ'03 when even bats like Ganguly succeeded.Also did not perform against SA in India '00 & Pak in India '99 with very good pace attacks.RD had great peak run b/w 2001-06(some unexplainable cricket phenomena when most top bats did exceedingly well) like Ponting,Kallis etc.Gavaskar maintained a successful run in the greatest era for express pace/fast quick bowlers in Test history(which almost ran parallel to his career)with a relentless quest for excellence/drive unheard of.Tendulkar had the best average 58 among all great bats of 90s- a decidedly tougher era.RD though accomplished great was not considered even for the Third ESPN all-time XI.And during his peak run, even marauding Sehwag (almost same amount of aggregate runs as RD in the twin OZ/Pak series in 03-04)& Laxman helped him in those Indian victories where RD had decisive batting stats

  • Gomathi on July 11, 2013, 19:26 GMT

    It is very degrading to consider Only Sachin and Sunil to be the greatest cricketers of India. There was a silent servant who went to bat often at a fall of wicket with barely anything on the board, would turn the match on its head, before you know it. That legendary batsman did not thumb his chest, crave publicity or play for personal glory. The work ethic, team spirit and self belief of that person along with water tight technique and batting that produced so many unexpected victories should mAke him the Greatest ever Indian batsman. yes, people call him Rahul Dravid.

  • Tom on July 11, 2013, 15:01 GMT

    It's nice to see an article ignoring the "of all time" business for a change, and thus allowing the discussion to progress beyond Tendulkar. Great players cast huge shadows and it's good to see some of those who have been overshadowed in Indian sporting mythology getting their time in the sun. If discounting cricketers who didn't play Tests for India, then the Nawab of Pataudi Snr. probably makes the first really compelling case, although his performances for India were pretty poor. After that, it's got to be Vijay Merchant, I'd have thought.