1896 October 20, 2007

Ranji and racism

When KS Ranjitsinhji's selection for England was blocked by the MCC

Ranji displays his leg glance, a stroke he is credited with perfecting, and quite possibly inventing © Cricinfo

Selectors are used to being on the end of brickbats. If a team fails, it's often their fault; if it succeeds, they barely warrant a mention. But sometimes they attract flak deservedly.

One such instance came in 1896 when even the staid and pro-establishment press was moved to splutter with indignation. The cause of the disquiet was the decision not to pick KS Ranjitsinhji for the first Test of the summer against the Australians.

Ranjitsinhji, who had arrived in England from India in 1888 aged 16, was no stranger to prejudice, despite his royal status. He had struggled to get into the Cambridge University side, only doing so in his final year when the weight of his runs in secondary matches, and obvious class, made him impossible to ignore.

In 1895 he qualified for Sussex and immediately made his mark with four hundreds and a season average of almost 50, finishing fourth in the national averages. But it was the way he batted that captivated the public as much as the scores he made.

In 1896 he started the summer in an even richer vein of form, and by mid-June he had four hundreds to his name. Against the Australians in May he had taken the attack to Ernie Jones, their fearsome fast bowler, and made 79 and 42 while those around him - including WG Grace - had struggled. It was generally presumed that he would make his Test debut in the series opener at Lord's.

But at that time the selection of the England side was down to the hosts of the match, and so it was the MCC committee who sat down in the third week of June to discuss the team. Overseeing discussions was MCC president Lord Harris, who had just finished a five-year stint as governor of Bombay. During that time he had decided the youth of India needed an active pastime and, despite much local opprobrium, he set about building a structure for cricket.

But on the subject of Ranji, Harris's view was clear. Even though Ranji had learned his cricket in England, he was only a resident and would one day return to India and, therefore, he was not eligible for selection - he referred to such players as "birds of passage". As Simon Wilde notes in his biography of Ranji, the MCC might have been able to use the get-out that he had been born overseas were it not for the slight complication that Harris, who played four Tests for England, was born in Trinidad.

In asking Mr Ranjitsinhji to play, the Lancashire club undoubtedly cast a reflection on the MCC

The Field

Harris's stance, given all that he did to promote cricket in India was odd. Edward Docker, in A History of Indian Cricket, suggests that Harris "while sternly believing that an Englishman had a duty and an obligation in India, didn't wish the association to be too close lest it contaminate."

But there was clearly no unanimity among the MCC selectors and the announcement of the side was delayed. The secretary of the club was forced to write to Ranji and ask him to hold himself in readiness while the discussions dragged on. On the Saturday before the Monday start, the Times attacked the "unnecessary mystery about the constitution of the England XI" but named nine certainties - Ranji was not among them - and said the last two places were between Richardson, Peel, Gunn and Wainwright. The day before, Ranji had become the first amateur to pass 1000 runs in the season.

Late on the Saturday morning the MCC finally named their team. At the same time the club secretary contacted Ranji to explain his omission. The exact reasons given to him were never revealed.

When England took the field at Lord's on the Monday in front of a record crowd of more than 30,000, there was clearly some unhappiness with Ranji's absence and even the Times touched on it, although offering the establishment line that he should not play if the true England name "was to be adhered to". Ranji, meanwhile, was at Hove making a first-ball duck for Sussex against his old university.

England won by six wickets, and three weeks later the Lancashire committee sat down to pick the side for the second Test at Old Trafford. They had no reservations about choosing Ranji, who was, if nothing else, a tremendous financial draw. For unconnected reasons they too delayed naming the team until the last moment. Ranji was invited to play and he replied with a gracious acceptance as long as the Australians did not object and the committee's decision was unanimous.

Lord Harris: blocked Ranji's selection © MCC
The newspaper reactions were as positive as they had been critical of the MCC. The Field wrote, the decision "cast a reflection upon the MCC".

All that was left was for Ranji to underline his credentials on the pitch. Batting at No. 3 he made a cautious 62 before being held so low at point that some reports suggested he queried the catch with the square-leg umpire. England followed on and it was then that Ranji's true class became apparent. In three hours and five minutes of brilliant counter-attacking batting, he struck 154 not out. It wasn't enough to save England, but it cemented his place in the public's affections, and made his selection for the final Test a certainty.

But not everyone was won over. Lord Home Gordon, a well-known writer, recalled the reaction of one MCC member who overheard him praising Ranji's innings - Gordon should, the member spluttered, be expelled from the club for having "the disgusting degeneracy to praise a dirty black". Another bemoaned the fact that "a nigger had shown us how to play cricket".

The rest of the summer was a relative anticlimax - Ranji still finished with 2780 runs at 57.91 - but Ranji's innings at Old Trafford appeared to have taken something out of him. He was also troubled by asthma attacks. In the final Test at The Oval he failed twice and missed the last day's play through illness. But he had already proved he was there to stay.

Ranji by Simon Wilde (Kingswood Press, 1999)
The Willow Wand by Derek Birley (Wisden Cricket Library, 1979)

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? Email us with your comments and suggestions.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo