Vasant Raiji salutes the great Ranji, a century after the cricket world discovered his genius

A hundred years ago, an Indian prince, a pretender according to some, set English cricket fields ablaze with his dazzling performance with the bat.

"When he batted a strange light was seen for the first time on English fields," wrote Neville Cardus. "He moved as if he had no bones. One would not be surprised to see brown curves burning the grass where one of his cuts had travelled, or blue flame shimmering round his bat as he made one of his strokes," observed C B Fry, one of his team mates. His name, Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, affectionately known as Ranji.

Ranji began his cricket career first with Cambridge University in 1893 and later with Sussex in 1895. But it was not until 1896 that the cricket world noticed his genius and extraordinary talent. His performances in the early part of the summer of 1896 were so good that everyone expected Ranji to be chosen to represent England in the first Test at Lord`s against the visiting Australians.

However, Lord Harris, all powerful at the MCC headquarters, had different ideas. His Lordship objected to Ranji`s inclusion in the England team not on cricketing merit but on the ground that Ranji had no birth qualification to play for England and called him `merely a bird of passage`. He firmly believed that only England born should represent England. Lord Harris`s word prevailed and Ranji, after being asked to keep in readiness, was not chosen for the Lord`s Test.

The second Test was to be played at Old Trafford where the selection of the team rested with the Lancashire committee. The Lancashire selectors did not subscribe to the views held by Lord Harris and straightaway invited Ranji to play.

To say that Ranji justified the faith reposed in him by the Lancashire committee would be the understatement of the year. Coming out to bat when England were in dire straits, Ranji played one of the great innings in the history of Test cricket. "The prince`s 154 not out was absolutely the finest innings I have seen. I have seen nothing to equal it. But then Ranji is the batting wonder of the age," remarked George Giffen, the Australian allrounder.

Clem Hill, another opponent in the match described Ranji as "more than a batsman - nothing less than a juggler." "It is safe to say that a finer or more finished display has never been seen on a great occasion," wrote Wisden, always subdued in its praise.

Apart from his unbeaten 154 (a hundred of which came before lunch) Ranji made nine other centuries during the season which included one in each innings against Yorkshire on the same day. By scoring 2,781 runs in 1896, he lowered W G Grace`s 25-year-old record for the highest aggregate for a single season.

With an average of 57.91, Ranji topped the English batting averages. Little wonder that he was selected by Wisden as one of the Five Cricketers of the Year. "If the word genius can with any propriety be employed in connection withe cricket, it surely applies to the young Indian`s batting," wrote Wisden.

1896 was no flash in the pan for Ranji continued to dominate the English cricket scene till the end of the century. The following year he toured Australia scoring a hundred on his Test debut on Australian soil. In 1899 he became the first batsman in the world to score over 3,000 runs in a season, a feat which he repeated in 1900.

In 1907 Ranji was installed as the Jam Saheb of Nawangar. It was soon rumoured that Ranji may not play in England again as his duties as ruler would keep him busy in his state. It was then that A G Gardiner, writing in The Daily Telegraph, coined the well-known phrase "prince of a little state, but the king of a great game".

The rumours about his retirement were unfounded and Ranji continued playing until 1912 but his appearances on the field were fewer and at irregular intervals. The best was now over. Ranji `the charmer` had gone out of the game. In 1920, when cricket was resumed after the First World War, Ranji made his last appearance for Sussex playing four innings with vision only in one eye. As a result of an accident in 1915, he had lost his right eye.

"When Ranji passed out of cricket a wonder and glory departed from the game forever," wrote Cardus.

In all Ranji played 500 innings (62 times not out) and scored 24,693 runs at an average of 56.37. He made 72 centuries of which fourteen were double centuries.

However impressive his figures may look they do not reveal Ranji`s outlook on the game. He once said: "When I have finished I hope I may be remembered not only for the success it has been my fortune to enjoy as a player, but rather as one who tried his best to popularise the game for the game`s sake." There is no doubt that the game gained by Ranji`s association with it.

Ranji will always be remembered as the inventor of the leg glance, a stroke which he created and made it all his own. Also as the author of The Jubilee Book of Cricket, a classic in cricket literature on the technique of the game.

What sort of a man was Ranji? "He was loved not because of his mighty scores but for something which mattered a great deal more, he was loved by many friends because he was personally charming, piquantly amusing and above all, wildly generous," wrote A A Thomson. Wisden describes him as "all that a cricketer should be - generous in defeat, modest in success and genuinely enthusiastic regarding achievements of either colleagues or opponents."

What is Ranji`s contribution to Indian cricket ask many Indians. A charge has been levelled against Ranji that he regarded himself as an English cricketer and did little to promote the game in his own country. It is indeed difficult to evaluate Ranji`s contribution to Indian cricket because it is invisible and indirect. Ranji was the first Indian to touch the imagination of the British people, our rulers at that time.

According to A G Gardiner, "It is the Jam Saheb`s service that, through his genius for the English game, he has familiarised English people with the idea of the Indian as a man of like affections supposed to be particularly our own." Ranji inspired countless young Indians - and the great C K Nayudu was one of them - to play and excel at this English game. He raised our pride and belief in ourselves as Indians at a period of time when we were not masters of our own destiny. That is by no means a mean contribution. And it goes even beyond the realm of cricket which after all is only a game.

Source :: Rediff ON The NeT (http://www.rediff.co.in)