In July's issue of Wisden Asia Cricket, former Hyderabad offspinner V Ramnarayan reviews the latest biography of Ranji and calls it a well-researched hatchet job.

Batting for the Empire by Mario Rodrigues systematically demolishes the once-held notion that the celebrated cricketer Ranji was the finest ambassador India ever sent to England. With its striking cover photograph of Ranji at the batting crease, the book is sure to attract even the casual cricket lover, but it is meant really for an altogether more cerebral readership. It is a painstaking attempt to de-mythify Ranji the man, and a near-scholarly work.

Hardcore cricket followers and cricketers with an interest in the history of the game, if such a breed still exists, are rarely swayed by the larger-than-life personae the media creates around cricketers. To them the appeal of Ranji would be based on his feats on the field - that he played for England, scored a hundred on Test debut and captured the imagination of critics and fans alike with unequalled artistry at a time when his countrymen were a subject race and treated as such. Their respect for Ranji the player may not need the buttress of admiration for Ranji the prince, but even they will find disillusionment in the image of their hero - as despot, buffoon, schemer, spendthrift, unreliable borrower, and despicable toady of the British empire - that emerges from Rodrigues's hard-hitting biography.

Another category of readers likely to find the book illuminating is followers of recent Indian history, especially scholars with a deep interest in the affairs of the princely states, in particular the politics of the western Indian region of Kathiawar.

It is the sophisticated reader of recent vintage, owing much of his appreciation of cricket and cricketers to an increasing body of work by experts in fields other than cricket, who may actually read it from cover to cover, for readable the book surely is. This elite readership, familiar with the writings on Ranji of such reputed authors as Simon Wilde, Mihir Bose, Ashis Nandy and Ramachandra Guha, already knows that the 'Black Prince' was one of the greatest players the game has known but not quite the white knight that his hagiographers, English and Indian, make him out to be. Rodrigues's work offers them a wealth of information that will strengthen such an impression.

Rodrigues has succeeded in revealing Ranji in his true colours in his role of Jamsaheb of Nawanagar. It is obvious his research has been extensive, ranging from purely propagandist literature - both for and against - including the vernacular press and official mouthpieces of the state, to the more objective writings of cricket writers and historians. While we can hardly fault the systematic way he has gone about his job, we do get the impression sometimes that he takes a spade to a soufflé, piling on the evidence long after the jury have decided to return a verdict of guilty. And, while his acceptance of adverse criticism of the Jamsaheb by his detractors is generally unquestioning, he displays a constant streak of skepticism towards any praise of him or statements made by Ranji himself that show him in a good light.

Ranji's unswerving loyalty to the Empire, his total faith in hereditary rule and suspicion of democracy, his opposition to the freedom movement led by fellow Kathiawari MK Gandhi, his desperate attempts to perpetuate the Indian princely order, his claim that he and his nephew Duleepsinhji were "English cricketers", his refusal to play an active role in Indian cricket - all these and worse are pitilessly exposed in the book.

The last chapter includes this defence by Mihir Bose: "So if Ranji did not do much for Indian cricket it is because he did not think of India as a cricketing nation. He did not think of India as a cricketing nation because he could not conceive of India as a political nation. India as a political nation was born fourteen years after Ranji died and, had he lived, as his successors' actions show, he would have undoubtedly opposed it ... Had Nawanagar managed to get together a Test team then, I am sure, Ranji would have advised Duleep to play for Nawanagar. For inasmuch as a king is ever a nationalist, Ranji was a Nawanagar nationalist. He was, perhaps, a Rajput nationalist, if that term can have any meaning ..."

Rodrigues does not endorse this view. He refuses to give Ranji the benefit of doubt. His biography is an indictment that allows for few grey areas or bright spots, while painting a vivid picture of a dark prince.

Batting For the Empire
by Mario Rodrigues
Penguin India, 2003
pp 292, Rs 299