November 30, 2013

The stars of Kathiawar

In all the talk of Bombay's credentials as a historical stronghold of Indian cricket, a region to the north gets overlooked

When, in September 1888, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi travelled to London to study law, he was carrying letters of introduction to four people. One was Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, who also hailed from Kathiawar. Gandhi did not meet Ranji then, nor did the two come across each another in subsequent decades, when one became a major political leader and the other a famous cricketer and ruler of a princely state. So far as I can tell, these two Kathiawaris did not meet face-to-face - but they did meet in the afterlife, in the pages of a novel by an Englishman, which cast them both as students in Rajkot, with the wily bania - playing for the plebeian Kattywar High School - bowling googlies against the aristocratic batsman representing the Rajkumar College.

Late last year I was with my daughter in Kathiawar, visiting sites associated with the early life of the Mahatma. We spent a day in Rajkot, where we visited Gandhi's ancestral home, which is now a museum, and then his school, now renamed after its most famous graduate. We then drove on to Morbi, the home town of Gandhi's closest friend, Pranjivan Mehta. Our next stop was Wankaner, where Gandhi's father had once served as Diwan.

Driving through the Saurashtra countryside, I spotted a sign that said "Jamnagar: 100 kilometres". When I saw the sign, the Gandhi scholar in me receded and the cricket nut called. That night, in our hotel in Morbi, we went into Google and came out with a booking at the splendidly named Hotel Aram in Jamnagar. The next morning we were in the town that once served as the capital of the state Ranji erratically and indifferently ruled over, Nawanagar.

In Jamnagar we drove around the palaces, and then went in search of cricketing memorabilia. I remembered reading a piece by Dilip D'Souza that mentioned a statue of Vinoo Mankad in the town. We asked as to its whereabouts. It was, we were told, near a place called Cricket Bungalow. This was a pavilion built by Ranji when he was Jam Saheb, overlooking a ground where matches were still played and where young boys still regularly practised. On the roundabout adjacent to the ground was the statue of the great allrounder, a cricket ball poised in a raised left-arm.

My daughter obligingly took a photo of her middle-aged father next to the Indian cricketer he most admired. Meanwhile two youngsters on a motorbike came up, looking at the statue with affectionate respect. "Vinoo bhai Mankad," said one, to himself, reflectively. I asked who his own favourite cricketer was. "Ravindra bhai Jadeja," he answered, naming the Jamnagar boy then cementing his place in the Indian team.

The first world-class cricketers from Kathiawar were Ranji and his nephew KS Duleepsinhji. When a clamour arose for his nephew to lead the Indian touring team to England in 1932, Ranji notoriously said: "Both Duleep and I are English cricketers." The hurt that patriotic Indians felt was partly mitigated when Ranji helped choose a talented youngster from Jamnagar for that tour. His name was L Amar Singh. A fine swing bowler and useful lower-order batsman, Amar Singh played with distinction in India's early Tests before dying at the age of 30.

His older brother, L Ramji, played one Test for India. He was an out-and-out fast bowler, a holy terror in the Bombay Quadrangular when he wore a vermilion tilak on his forehead, running up to bowl as a partisan crowd shouted: "Har Har Mahadev!"

Ranji, Duleep and Amar notwithstanding, the greatest Kathiawari cricketer was Mulvantrai (known always as Vinoo) Mankad. Mankad first played for India in a series of unofficial Tests in 1937-38. The Second World War then broke out, delaying his official debut until 1946. For the next decade he had only Keith Miller for competition for the title of best allrounder in the world. He was a superbly skilled slow left-arm bowler, an attacking opening batsman, and absolutely indispensable to his team, in a manner that no Indian cricketer since - not Kapil Dev, not even Sachin Tendulkar - has been. Consider these figures: in the five Test matches that India won when Mankad was around, he averaged over a hundred with the bat, while taking more than eight wickets per Test at some 13 runs apiece.

Mankad last played for India in 1959. In the 1960s another Kathiawari played a few Tests for India. He was a wicketkeeper-batsman named KS Indrajitsinhji. As his initials indicate, he was of noble birth. In fact, he was a kinsman of Ranji and Duleep, and was himself born in Jamnagar. He was an excellent stumper and decent bat, whose Test appearances were restricted because his career overlapped with that of Farokh Engineer and Budhi Kunderan.

A close contemporary of Indrajit was the gifted allrounder Salim Aziz Durani. He was raised in Jamnagar, where his father once worked, and where his mother lived. He made his first-class debut for Saurashtra before moving to Rajasthan, which was the state he represented during the years he played for India. Durani played an important role in several series wins - against England in 1961-62 and 1972-73, and against West Indies in 1971.

After Durani and Indrajit, for several decades Kathiawar was relegated to the backwaters of Indian cricket. The first-class team representing the region, Saurashtra, was never competitive in the Ranji Trophy. Now, however, an Indian XI rarely enters the field without at least one, and often two, Kathiawaris in it. These are the hugely accomplished batsman Cheteshwar Pujara, from the town of Rajkot, where Gandhi once lived, studied and worked; and the talented allrounder Ravindra Jadeja, from Ranji's former capital of Jamnagar.

Down the decades, Kathiawari princes have ennobled Indian cricket; Kathiawari commoners have enriched it. And lest it be forgotten, the region has contributed immensely to Pakistani cricket too. For the most remarkable of all cricketing families, the Mohammads, were born and raised in the Kathiawari chiefdom of Junagadh.

Years ago I read a piece by the poet-policeman Keki Daruwala on his boyhood days in Junagadh, where his father was a state official. One day, the cricket-mad young Parsi was taken to play with Hanif and Wazir, who were just a little older than him. They told Keki to first test his skills against their younger brother. After the five-year-old Mushtaq had bowled him a series of fizzling legbreaks and googlies, poor Keki retired home, defeated.

Of the five Mohammad brothers, four played for Pakistan. Wazir, Mushtaq and Sadiq were all very good batsmen, and Mushtaq (as we have seen) could bowl a bit too. Hanif, of course, was one of the immortals. He was venerated in Pakistan but also in India and the West Indies, where he played some memorable - but to disgusted home fans, interminable - Test innings. Apart from his supreme skills with the bat, Hanif was a capable wicketkeeper, who may incidentally also have been the only player to have bowled left-arm and right-arm in the same over of a Test match.

I travelled through Kathiawar principally because I wanted to see at first-hand the terrain that shaped Gandhi and his work. As the Mahatma's homeland, the region has a honoured place in the political and social history of India (and its spiritual and moral history too). It also has a secure spot in the more modest realm of the history of cricket. Proof may be found in this imaginary All-time Kathiawari XI, which, in batting order, shall read: 1. Hanif Mohammad, 2. Vinoo Mankad, 3. KS Ranjitsinhji (captain), 4. KS Duleepsinhji, 5. Cheteshwar Pujara, 6. Mushtaq Mohammad, 7. Salim Durani, 8. Ravindra Jadeja, 9. L Amar Singh, 10. KS Indrajitsinhji (wicketkeeper), 11. L Ramji

One of my cricketing fantasies pits this side against a likewise imaginary all-time team from Bombay, which runs: 1. Sunil Gavaskar (captain), 2. Vijay Merchant, 3. Dilip Vengsarkar, 4. Sachin Tendulkar, 5. Vijay Manjrekar, 6. Polly Umrigar 7. Dattu Phadkar, 8. Naren Tamhane (wicketkeeper), 9. Ramakant Desai, 10. Padmakar Shivalkar, 11. Subhas Gupte.

In such a contest my instinct would be to back Ranji's XI. Perhaps their batting is marginally weaker, but they have two world-class bowlers (Mankad and Amar Singh) against one (Gupte). And their outcricket will surely be better. The Bombay batsmen were all singularly unathletic, and Ranji and Duleep were both excellent fielders. So were Amar Singh and Vinoo Mankad. And so, of course, are Pujara and Jadeja, the current torchbearers of the great tradition of Kathiawari cricket.

Historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha is the author of A Corner of A Foreign Field and Wickets in the East among other books. This article was first published in the Kolkata Telegraph

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Subramani on December 5, 2013, 7:25 GMT

    It was a pleasure reading the comments of jay57870 an obviously knowledgeable cricket follower. He must understand though that history is not always totally accurate because subjectivity is integral to it. It becomes difficult for historians to ply their trade with people who have lived the times being talked about ! I too belong to that tribe.

  • Naresh on December 4, 2013, 6:39 GMT

    Nice delve into history by the author. Also some excellent research by some fans giving their views and preferences. @nampally - your knowledge of Indian cricket amazes me and also some nice comments by jay57870. This shows how important cricket is to INDIA. The constant referrals back to the good old days digging up who is who.

  • Jay on December 4, 2013, 4:28 GMT

    Guha's drive down Memory Lane in Kathiawar is gripping, even as he hits a few road-bumps & goes astray sometimes. To say that Mankad was "absolutely indispensable to his team" - more so than Kapil & Sachin - is going over the top. Great as Vinoo was, his winning 5 Tests were all at home against so-so teams: NZ(2), Pak (2) & Eng (1). Compare Gavaskar's phenomenal 1971 debut with 774 runs in 4 Tests to help India beat Sobers, Lloyd, Kanhai & Co in WI. Gavaskar was as "indispensable", if not more so, as one of the greatest openers of all time, to become India's first Little Master. Only to be surpassed by the next Little Master - Tendulkar - arguably the best batsman ever. Ask the great Hanif, Pakistan's Little Master who proclaimed recently: "Sachin deserves the title of Little Master, not me"! Guha is straying: Only last year he referred to Sachin as "India's greatest batsman" (in "The joy of Sachin"). He's retired, still Guha wants to get him out? LOL, it's called "Mankading", Guha!

  • Jay on December 4, 2013, 1:34 GMT

    There have been positive transformational changes in Indian cricket since Independence. Guha goes over the top again when he claims "The Bombay batsmen were all singularly unathletic". Really? As good as Mankad was, I enjoyed watching Umrigar & Phadkar too - for their all-round batting, bowling & fielding. Much as I admire the veterans in the Kathiawar & Bombay teams, the bar is raised much higher in modern-day competitive cricket. The fitness levels & outcricket are markedly improved. Gavaskar & Tendulkar would never have scaled the heights if they were "singularly unathletic"! Still Guha has to be complimented for narrating a piece of interesting cricket history. It's not so much about Bombay vs Kathiawar though. It's what Gandhi strove for: power has shifted from the maharajas to the common man - from Ranji & Duleep to Pujara & Jadeja. The Bombay stronghold has dissipated to all corners of the nation. "The stars of Kathiawar" depicts a real meritocracy! Good read indeed, Guha!

  • Jay on December 3, 2013, 11:11 GMT

    Guha - It's a good read. Only that the narrative becomes a "fantasy" when a historian conjures "imaginary" teams for comparison that's debatable. Guha's admission that Indrajitsinhji's "Test appearances were restricted because his career overlapped with that of Farokh Engineer" is a case in point. So not to include Bombay's Engineer - a world-class keeper-batsman who represented the Rest of the World (in Eng & Oz) in the early 70s - is a glaring omission. What's more, he was in the elite team that beat England for the first time on its soil in 1971. It had several Bombay stars: Wadekar (captain), Sardesai, Solkar, Gavaskar & Ashok Mankad (Vinoo's son): Over half the side! The Poms even had Bombay-born John Jameson as opener. India had earlier beaten the great Sobers & Co in WI. It was a tipping point in Indian cricket: David had beaten Goliath on the road, twice! I was there at The Oval to hail the epochal moment. A big change from what I'd seen in earlier times at the Eden Gardens!

  • Kshaumesh on December 3, 2013, 6:02 GMT

    Excellent article Mr. Guha. The Kathiawar XI & Bombay / Mumbai XI was too good.!!. Mysore / Karnataka XI proposed by one of the readers is stuff of legends!!. Missed out Kumar Shri Ghanshyamshinhji Daulatsinhji Jhalla Limbdi (Maharaja of Limbdi) and Natwarsinhji Bhavsinhji (Maharaja of Porbandar). Both were in the Indian team during its 1st tour to England. As mentioned in the profile of Maharaja of Porbandar was Officially the Captain of the team. However, he stepped aside & handed over captaincy to C.K. Nayudu for the 1st test match. A very fine sporting gesture on his part.!!

  • uncle bob on December 2, 2013, 21:23 GMT

    I thought Ajay Jadeja was also from Jamnagar. He is also a kathiyawari.

  • Dummy4 on December 2, 2013, 6:10 GMT

    @ Rashid Ibrahim Mohajir, I am sure Javed Miandad would have made this list with his eyes closed but I guess one has to have represented the Ranji team, Kathiawar XI at some point in their career to be considered for this XI.

    @ Ramachandra Guha, love the article. My dad who was brought up in Junagadh and saw some of these players closely almost guessed the entire XIs that you have compiled here. He has even been close friends and played with some cricketers who were extremely close to making the Ranji side and then didn't because of unforeseen circumstances. But wonderful...brought a smile to our faces.

  • Rodney on December 2, 2013, 4:33 GMT

    Good mr Guha you wrote this on kathiawar ,you could finish it but had you thought of writing this on bombay you would never be able to finish it and just to tell you the ranji team of bombay in 70's&80's was more stronger then your kathiwar 11.

  • Harish on December 1, 2013, 23:32 GMT

    Bit surprised that Mr. Guha forgot to mention Karsan Ghavri who was from Rajkot. He played 39 tests and had taken 109 wickets and almost 1,000 runs.

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