Khandu Rangnekar, June 27, 1917, was widely considered the best Indian left-handed batsman of his times. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a domestic champion and an ambidextrous fielder.
The story has been repeated many a time in the Indian domestic circuit. A woman had given birth to five children, none of them survived. The sixth one went on to live for four years before he was diagnosed with gastroenteritis; it was the early 1920s, and no medicine seemed to help.
The woman set out for Jejuri, situated 58 kms from Pune, and climbed up the 700-feet high temple to pray to Lord Khandoba with her son, who became unconscious during the ascent. But the woman’s prayers were answered and the son regained consciousness within 10 minutes and sprinted down the 950 rock steps! That child grew up and went on to excel in both cricket and badminton and came to be know in the sporting world as Khanderao Moreshwar Rangnekar. The above story is no urban legend as it was narrated to Makarand Waingankar, the veteran cricket journalist, by Mrs Vimal tai Rangnekar — wife of Khandu Rangnekar.
Rangnekar was a sparkling left-handed batsman, a handy medium-pacer and an athletic cover-point fielder. He was also a brilliant badminton player. In fact, Madhav Mantri says that Rangnekar “brought his attacking badminton skill on the cricketing field”.
Though he batted left-handed he bowled and played badminton with his right-hand, and was an ambidextrous fielder who used both hands to throw with equal proficiency — an attribute that would have made John Buchanan happy in the 21st century.
In all First-Class cricket, Rangnekar scored 4,602 runs from 85 matches at 41.83 with 15 hundreds. In Ranji Trophy alone — which he played till he was 42 — he scored 2,548 runs from 42 matches at 49.00 with eight hundreds. These were very impressive numbers given his era.
Rangnekar made his debut in the Bombay Pentangular of 1939-40, but he did not get a chance to bat in the first three matches for the strong Hindus. He made his Ranji Trophy debut the same season for Maharashtra against Western India at Poona. Batting at seven he added 150 with DB Deodhar, and smashed a 98-minute 102. Opening bowling in the fourth innings he picked up two for 28.
During this period his badminton also thrived: he won both the Western India men’s doubles and mixed doubles in 1940, and went on to win the men’s doubles in 1942 and 1944 as well. He eventually reached the national final of both men’s singles and men’s doubles; though he could not win the singles, he clinched the doubles title.
India kept the torch of First-Class cricket alive in the early 1940s when the major Test-playing nations of the world were busy waging wars. After that single Ranji Trophy match Rangnekar shifted to Bombay next season, and scored 202 against his old team at Bombay in a valiant effort: Bombay scored 650 chasing Maharashtra’s 675.
His stunning form continued: the 202 was followed by a 117 playing for an Indian XI against Ceylon at Bombay and a 135 for Rest of India against Maharashtra, also against Bombay – making it three hundreds in three innings. However, the structure of domestic cricket in India meant that those three were his only innings in that season.
His catch of Gul Mohammad in the 1944-45 Pentagular against Muslims at cover-point was a stunner. Seldom had an Indian fielder gained recognition through a catch in the era, and display of emotion was an unfamiliar aspect in the 1940s. However, the bowler CS Nayudu “was so thrilled that he hugged [Khandu] Rangnekar for five minutes.” The catch became the talk of the town, and the ball is still on display in the Rangnekar household in Aurangabad, a photograph of which is shared below for CricketCountry readers.
He struck gold again in the 1945-46 and 1946-47 seasons: over the two seasons he played 15 matches he scored 1,229 runs at 61.45 with five hundreds. He was not selected for the 1946 tour of England, but he proved his mettle for the Rest of India against India to England Touring Team at Bombay.
Against a side packed with Test players Rangnekar strode out at 13 for two and scored 106 when nobody else scored 50. The innings proved crucial as Rest of India eventually pulled off an upset win by 13 runs. It was mainly because of this innings that he was selected for the Australia tour of 1947-48.
Australia turned out to be a disaster for Rangnekar. The batsman who had been in sublime form till now suddenly looked all at sea on the bouncy tracks against some of the best fast bowlers in the world. He struggled throughout, scoring 173 runs in nine matches at 10.81 without a fifty.
Despite his poor form he was selected for the first Test at Gabba. He scored one and zero, falling both times to Ernie Toshack, who picked up five for two and six for 29 in the Test to dismiss India for 58 and 98. After missing the second Test at SCG he was recalled for the third at MCG – where he batted at nine, scoring six; following on, he batted at nine again, scoring a 14-ball 18 with three fours – his highest Test score.
Rangnekar was given a chance in the fourth Test at Adelaide as well — a Test immortalised by Vijay Hazare’s twin tons, but he was demoted to No 10, a position at which he scored eight and a duck. Australia went on to win the series 3-0, and Rangnekar’s Test career came to an end after three Tests, scoring 33 runs at 5.50.
He found himself back in his comfort zone once he was home. He played for Cricket Club of India against the touring West Indians of 1948-49, but despite his 31 and a career-best five for 112 (he clean bowled Clyde Walcott in the innings) he was not picked for the Tests.
He switched loyalty to Holkar in the 1950-51 season and walked out to bat at 330 for six against Hyderabad at Indore. He added 112 with CS Nayudu and 219 with Jamshed Bhaya, and lifted his side to 757 with a career-best score of 217.
He played sparingly as the years went by; he played his last Ranji Trophy match against Vidarbha at Indore in 1958-59: he scored 113 in the first innings, and was out there unbeaten in the second as Madhya Pradesh won by seven wickets. In the process he joined the rare band of cricketers with hundreds in their first and last Ranji Trophy matches.
Rangnekar continued to play First-Class cricket till 1963-64 — playing mostly in Relief Fund matches. After retirement he assumed various positions of responsibilities, including the Thane Municipality President in the 1960s; the Vice-President of BCCI from 1962-63 to 1969-70; and the President of Bombay Cricket Association in 1962-63. He also worked for Indian Customs in Bombay and ran a textile store business.
One of the four teams of the Sportstar Trophy for Mumbai Under-19 cricketers has been named after Rangnekar (the other three have been named after Vijay Merchant, Vijay Manjrekar, and Dattu Phadkar). A badminton hall in Thane (West) has been named after him as well.
Khandu Rangnekar passed away of throat cancer on October 11, 1984.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/