No. 7 February 6, 2010

The light of the East

Ranji opened up the region behind square on the leg side as a legitimate area for making runs

1887-1902

If Ranji is popularly remembered today, with regard to his cricket anyway, merely as the most mystical artist of them all, it does desperate injustice to his influence upon the science of the game.

Ranji fundamentally furthered the craft of batting to an extent that nobody, not Bradman or anyone else, has since managed. It was not out of a desire to appear exotic, but because of a natural handicap, allied with what Ranji himself wrote of that pioneer WG Grace - "to make utility the criterion of style" - that he opened up the region behind square on the leg side as a legitimate area for making runs.

The genesis of the "leg glance" as it came to be known, is a fascinating tale. Dan Hayward, Ranji's coach at one time, pinned his pupil's rear foot to the ground in order to correct his proclivity to move out of the line of the ball and towards point against fast bowling. Yet as the left foot, by force of habit, continued to make its way across, Ranji was left in a twist with the bat on the wrong side of the front foot, so that twirling his wrists to deflect the ball fine seemed the natural way out.

Backward of square on the leg is now a vastly productive - and apparently obvious - area of scoring, but back then, as historian HS Altham wrote, "Ranji was a law unto himself." Batsmen simply did not play across the line, and captains rarely ever posted more than two men on leg.

The wonder for many was the astonishing speed Ranji generated on this stroke, and against deliveries with varying lines and virtually any length: a testament to his hand-eye coordination, and as his dear friend and illustrious team-mate CB Fry remarked, the facility "to move as if he had no bones".

Not only this. Ranji was the first international cricket star of colour. Though never a flagbearer for either his race or his country of birth, India, Ranji's overwhelming success and popularity transmitted the message into the world's consciousness: this need not be a white man's game, nor one played in some God-ordained manner. Till this day, Asia produces the wristiest strokemakers of all. It was Ranji who began it. "When he batted a strange light was seen for the first time on English fields, a light out of the East," Cardus wrote of him. "It was lovely magic …"

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan. This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine