The Ranji Trophy's history is proud and prestigious, and it is a competition in which few foreign players have participated. The only time that overseas cricketers really featured was in the latter stages of World War II when a substantial number of Allied servicemen were based in India and made spasmodic appearances for domestic sides.
Denis Compton served in India from 1943 and, to the amusement of anyone who knew how he regarded any form of physical exercise or discipline, was a sergeant-major in charge of ensuring units were fit. One drill he devised was to pretend to send his men on a long run, only to hide a barrel of beer a short distance from the camp where they all assembled on the understanding that when they returned, they told their superiors what a gruelling time they had been put through. As a result, Compton's reputation as a hard taskmaster grew.
As was the norm for well-known international sportsmen, he was also called upon to play games. In 1944, he played football in Burma as part of a morale-boosting tour, and he also turned out to play cricket. It kept him in shape and was good public relations. After three games in 1944-45 - with a hundred in each - he was posted to a commando unit at Mhow, near Indore, the capital of Holkar state.
His presence was soon revealed and Colonel C.K. Nayudu, the former India batsman and military attache to the Maharaja of Holkar, who had actively been recruiting overseas cricketers to bolster Holkar, pounced. Compton's commanding officer agreed to allow him a limited number of days off to play cricket.
With such a restriction on his availability, Compton only played once in the early stages of the Ranji Trophy, making 22 against Bengal. But come the semi-final, he was drafted into the side and he top-scored with 81 as Holkar beat Madras.
The final, played at the Brabourne Stadium, was against Bombay and, as was the custom, was to be played to a finish, however long it took. Vijay Merchant, Bombay's captain, won the toss and on a perfect pitch and in searing heat, chose to bat. His side made 462, taking a first-innings lead of 102.
When Bombay batted again, not only were Holkar behind, but they also had to contend with Nayudu's rather strange insistence that none of his side could take a drink during the day's play, including at the scheduled breaks. He made an exception for Compton. It was hardly surprising that the Holkar bowlers flagged and Bombay made the most of the self-imposed disadvantage by amassing 764, setting a massive target of 869.
Holkar were soon in trouble on 12 for 2, but then Mushtaq Ali and Compton came together. The pitch remained good, and both batsmen found the going easy. As the stand went on, the possibility of a remarkable win briefly flickered. Mushtaq later recalled that they "stole many impossible singles from gaps in the field. It was surprising how Denis and myself could get that understanding between us, so as to produce perfect running between the wickets." If that recollection is accurate, then it is also remarkable; Compton's inability to judge a run was legendary.
But then Mushtaq holed out attempting to clear the ropes and the innings lost its way. Even so, Compton continued battling. He was joined by OP Rawal, the No. 11, with almost 500 still needed, and the pair put on 109, almost all by Compton. He finished unbeaten on 249. The match produced 2078 runs - at the time a record aggregate for a first-class match.
There is another story surrounding Compton's innings. He claimed that on the seventh or eighth day he was approached by Seth Hiralal, a rich local businessman. "Mister Compton, this is a very important match for the whole locality," Compton later recalled. "It is very necessary that we win, so for every single run you make after passing your century I will give you Rs100."
That inspired Compton. "Now then, my son, every time you clock one through the covers for four it's about £30 a go - so c'mon Denis, you may as well spend the next hour and more working for your pension instead of sitting in the pavilion swatting flies'." he said. "So I call for a fresh white topee, fix it firmly on my head, and take a new guard."
When Rawal was dismissed, Compton said he returned to the pavilion "taking no notice of the applause because I'm too busy working out my earnings - 147 x £7.50, about £1300 - anyway an absolute fortune then. I get my pads off and towel myself down and Nayudu, says he will take me to the private marquee where the wealthy merchant is watching the match. Round we go and there, waiting for me on a silver salver and marked 'Personal and Very Urgent', is an envelope. I open it, thinking what sort of house I might buy with it when I get home. Inside is a note from the merchant saying, `Sorry, have been called to Calcutta on very urgent business'."
Mushtaq Ali, however, offered a different take on the story, insisting the offer was for the first innings only, adding that he was paid Rs450 for his 109. "That day, if I had consciously played for money, I could have made a fortune," he explained. "Instead I played aggressively as I have done throughout my career."
Compton's spell in India was not finished. In 1945-46 he was back and played twice, once for East Zone against the Australian Services, and finally for Europeans against Hindus in the semi-final of the Bombay Pentangular Tournament. In the match against the Australians, who were on their way home from the Victory Tests in England, he was on 96 when there was a pitch invasion by left-wing students protesting against the arrest of some colleagues.
The student leader walked up to Compton and politely said: "Mr. Compton, you are a very good batsman, but you must go." After a brief delay, the game resumed and he completed his century with an edge though first slip who was still more worried about what was happening behind him.
Compton's record in India was remarkable. In ten matches between 1944-45 and 1945-46 he made 1306 runs at 87.07, including seven hundreds.
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Denis Compton Tim Heald (Pavilion, 1994)
The Hindu Ramachandra Guha
Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo