This is a week which connects two partners who piled up runs for Sussex – KS Ranjitsinhji and CB Fry. Arunabha Sengupta covers their immortal partnerships which kept English crowds enthralled at the turn of the last century.
This week needs to witness a festival of lights around the Sussex County Cricket Ground at Hove. On one side should rage sparks, flashes and fireworks of exotic hues, fizzing across the ground in trajectories and paths of mystery. At the other end, bulbs should be arranged in mathematical order, with scientific precision, lit at exact intervals – in colours that may be bright, yet fundamental and primary.
The Magician from the East
The beginning of this week marked the 140th birth anniversary of one of the greatest batsmen to ever play for Sussex. On September 10, 1872, at Sarodar, Kathiawar, was born the pioneering wristy wizard of India. And this oriental genius made his mark in the fields of England, ended up as a prince of a small state, and will be remembered as the king of a great game.
In an age of the honest length ball and the straight bat, Ranji traced impossible angles.
WG Grace, Arthur Shrewsbury, George Gunn, all of them eminent Victorians, had defined the game through strict and rigorous structure. Following defined rules and manuals, the encounters proceeded according to the edicts of the noble game.
And then came the Eastern enchanter with the blade that could bend at angles hitherto considered impossible. “Ranji, call him a batsman? He is a bloomin’ conjurer,” observed George Giffen. The enigma of the distant land, the charm of the rope climber, the magic carpet, the mystic – were glimpsed through his batting.
Ted Wainwright of Yorkshire used to say, “Ranji? He never made a Christian stroke in his life.”
And Neville Cardus agreed. After all Ranji’s batting was all black magic. A sudden sinuous turn of the wrist and lo! the ball had vanished … and where? The bowler, knowing he had aimed at the middle stump, saw, as in a vision, the form of Ranji, all fluttering curves. The bat made its beautiful pass, a wizard’s wand. From the very middle stump, the ball was spirited away to the leg-side boundary.”
He is reputed to have invented the leg-glance and played the cut extremely late. Contrary to the customary lunge at the ball of tempting length, Ranji often stepped back and drove.
Sixth consecutive First-class hundreds
And at the other end of this light from the East one would often find an eternal student of the game who took batsmanship to the level of abstract rational science.
This is a special week for CB Fry as well, marking the anniversary of perhaps his greatest cricketing achievement.
On September 12, 1901, Fry batted for Rest of England at Lord’s and scored 105 against Yorkshire before being caught by George Hirst off Wilfred Rhodes. This marked the end of a dream sequence of six hundreds on the trot in as many First-Class games. The five hundreds before the Lord’s innings had been scored for Sussex, the saga starting 17 days earlier with 106 against Hampshire at Portsmouth, followed by 209 against Yorkshire, 149 against Middlesex, 105 against Surrey and 140 against Kent . Till now the feat of six consecutive hundreds has not been surpassed. It’s has only be equalled – by Don Bradman in 1938-39 and Mike Procter in 1970-71.
Fry’s batting was based on the academic theory of the game, always learning and putting principles into practice. Even when struck on the hand, he would take off the glove, jerk his arm, and look closely at the stinging area. Perhaps determining the exact force with which the ball must have struck to leave a mark of that shape and colour. He drove down the ground harder than any man of his time, but maintained the studied accuracy in the stroke, not deviating in direction or energy than described by perfect science.
Fry’s game was grand but grounded within natural laws. Ranji’s explored – nay, started with– the full range of occult. According to Cardus, while Ranji seemed to toss runs over the field like largesse in silk purses, Fry acquired them – no, not as a miser his hoard, but as the connoisseur his collection.
Again, Wainwright of Yorkshire used to explain the peril of the bowlers when faced with the line up of Sussex. “It were t’ same tale every year. Sussex 20 for one at half-past twelve. Vine out. Then Sussex 43 for two at one o’clock. Aye, we told oursel’s, every blessed year, we’re doin’ reight well. Yorkshire! But bless your soul, we knowed there were nowt in it. At the fall of the second wicket Ranji’d come to the middle, swishing that bat of his like a cane. At close of play the score read, more oft than not, 392 for two.”
The partnerships flourished and bowler after bowler suffered.
In an era dominated by the ball, Ranji piled 24,692 runs at 56,37, while Fry got 30,886 at 50.22.
Ranji played 15 Tests for England, transferring his brilliance into international cricket with consummate ease. His debut yielded 62 and 154 not out at Old Trafford, and he made 989 runs at 44.95, a staggering average for those old days.
Fry was not so successful in Tests managing 1223 runs at 32.18. However, he made up for it in other fields, playing football for England and ending up as the joint world record holder for long jump. And, if ambition remained unfulfilled when he grew older, he made up for it in even more diverse fields of scholarship and diplomacy.
The partnership continued beyond cricket. Ranji, as Jamsaheb of Nawanagar, became the representative of India in the League of Nations and Fry became his advisor. However, they fell somewhat short of matching the towering feats achieved while partnering each other with the willows.
And it is that former partnership lives on, in memories giving way to legends – of a golden era of cricket which saw the two bat – the academic and the artist, the scourge of bowlers, the toast of Sussex.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)