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Ranga Sohoni: Maharashtra’s champion all-rounder

Ranga-Sohoni
Ranga Sohoni. Photo Courtesy: www.mullocksauctions.co.uk

The debonair Ranga Sohoni was born on March 5, 1918. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a champion domestic all-rounder who played a key role in the rise of Maharashtra in the early 1940s.

Had Sriranga Wasudev Sohoni been picked at the right time, he might have thrived at the highest level. He had all it took to be a competitive all-rounder: he batted well under pressure, could hang around till he saw his side through in tight situations, and could bowl relentlessly on unhelpful Indian surfaces.

The fact that most of his twenties was taken away by World War II did not help, either. Despite his 5’8½” frame he used to be quick; however, by the time he got a chance to play for India a shoulder injury had forced him to reduce his pace significantly, and he was sorted out at the top level by quality batsmen. Though he played a few gutsy innings his bowling let him down: he was probably a tad too slow to trouble Englishmen or Australians.

From 108 First-Class matches that spanned close to three decades, Sohoni scored 4,307 runs at 28.17 with eight hundreds. He also picked up 232 wickets at 32.96 with 11 five-wicket hauls and two ten-wicket hauls. In Ranji Trophy, his numbers were exceptional (42 matches, 2,162 runs at 34.87, 139 wickets at 24.49); alas, he could never replicate his domestic success story at the top level.

Early days

Born in Nimabhera, Rajasthan, the Sohonis had moved to Maharashtra at an early age. His father worked for the Public Works Development (PWD). He made his First-Class debut against Bombay at Poona at an age of 17; unfortunately, the young seamer got to bowl less than nine overs, but he still managed to pick up two for 33. Maharashtra were eliminated, and he did not get another First-Class match that season.

When he came back against Western India at Jamnagar, he was used as the fifth bowler by Professor DB Deodhar. Sohoni triggered a collapse, picking up a career-best haul of seven for 20 as Western India were skittled out for 108 after being 68 for three. He also picked up four for 83 in the second innings, thereby registering his first ten-for in only his second match. Unfortunately, Maharashtra lost the match and once again Sohoni did not get another First-Class match.

A similar misfortune happened the next season: once again it was Western India (though the venue was Rajkot); once again Sohoni finished with one for 20 and five for 58; once again Maharashtra were eliminated; and once again Sohoni’s First-Class season was restricted to a single match. From three matches spread over three seasons Sohoni had picked up 19 wickets at 11.26.

The twin triumphs

Once again he crossed the path of Western India next season, this time at Poona, and slammed 109 in 120 minutes before being retired out. The innings marked the launch of the batsman; Sohoni scored 60 and returned figures of four for 105 in the semifinal against Southern Punjab at Poona.

Then came the final — against United Provinces at Poona. The tourists batted first and were bowled out for 237; once again introduced as the fifth bowler, Sohoni had three for 32; promoted to open with Kamal Bhandarkar he scored 96, adding 188 in a mere 160 minutes. Maharashtra took a 344-run lead, and once again Sohoni led the rout, finishing with three for 97. It was Maharashtra’s maiden Ranji Trophy win.

Sohoni was not done, though: he started the next season with a bang, with a rollicking 120 against Bombay at Poona; he added 204 with Bhandarkar in only 139 minutes; Deodhar scored 246, and Maharashtra scored 675. The score had almost turned out to be too less as Bombay responded with 650.

Sohoni’s fascinating form continued: he took on Gujarat at Ahmedabad in his next Ranji Trophy match and scored 134; two matches later Western India had scored 459 at Rajkot and reduced Maharashtra to 118 for three; unfortunately, Western India ran into Sohoni, who scored a career-best 218 not out and took the score past Western India’s, thanks to an unbroken 342-run partnership with Vijay Hazare. He followed it up with 68 in the semifinal against Northern India at Poona.

Then came the final — against Madras at Chepauk. Madras conceded a 139-run lead but eventually ended up setting a target of 209. It was a daunting ask, but Sohoni kept on scoring runs at a rapid pace; Deodhar was the second-highest scorer with 32 as Sohoni scored 104 to ensure a back-to-back win.

It remains Maharashtra’s last Ranji Trophy title till date. Sohoni was the clear leader on the runs chart with 655 runs at 131.00 with four hundreds. The fact that Hazare (565) and Deodhar (508) were the only others to have crossed the 500-mark says something about Maharashtra’s dominance. One must remember that he also picked up nine wickets.

The migration and the rise

Still not content, he followed the record with 101 against Rest of India at Bombay. Sohoni finished the season with 808 runs at 80.80 with five hundreds from eight matches; add to that ten wickets and nine catches, and he had clearly emerged as one of the leading all-rounders of the country.

It was during this period that he picked up a shoulder injury, as a result of which Sohoni the bowler was somewhat pushed into the background by the batsman. His pace reduced drastically; he still bowled, but was far from being the Maharashtra spearhead; on the other hand, he became a constant feature in the top half of the batting-order. Thanks to some excellent performances in 1945-46, he was selected for the subsequent tour of England.

Test debut

England was not a good hunting ground for Sohoni; he was too slow to bother the batsmen (he did not find a lot of lateral movement either), and he struggled with the bat under testing conditions. He got to play in 18 matches, scoring a mere 293 runs at 15.42 without a fifty and picking up only 14 wickets at 44.07; his best performances on the tour, with both bat and ball, came against Lancashire at Old Trafford where he scored 44 (batting at eight) and picked up five for 82 as the hosts piled up 406.

It was perhaps his success at Old Trafford that won him a cap for the second Test. The Nawab of Pataudi (senior) gave Sohoni the new ball, but he went wicket-less and was used for only 11 overs as Lala Amarnath and Vinoo Mankad bowled out the hosts for 294. Alec Bedser and Dick Pollard then ran through the Indians, bowling them out for 170 (Sohini scored three).

Denis Compton notched up a few quick runs (Sohoni was not given a single over) before Wally Hammond set India 278 in three hours. A big blow came when Merchant fell for a duck off the second ball, and they gave up the chase when Mushtaq Ali and Pataudi were also back in the pavilion with five runs on the board.

There was a 74-run partnership between Rusi Modi and Hazare, but wickets kept on falling and when Sohoni walked out to join Abdul Hafeez (Kardar) India had been reduced to 113 for seven. Bedser, who had been given a brief rest till now, was brought on by Hammond with twenty minutes left: almost immediately Hafeez hit one back to him, and when Chandu Sarwate was caught-behind by Paul Gibb to become Bedser’s 100th wicket of the season.

This brought Dattaram Hindlekar to the crease with 13 minutes to bat out. Sohoni was dropped by Gibb off both Pollard and Bedser, but to his credit he did not lose his nerves and guarded Hindlekar to safety. It would not be the last time that he would come handy with the bat.

Sohoni was also picked for the next Test at The Oval. Day One was washed off almost entirely; coming out after an epic from Merchant (he scored 128 and was seventh out with 272 on the board) Sohoni scored 29, dominating a 41-run partnership with Mankad. India scored 331, but rain came down after England had reached 95 for three and the Test was drawn. Sohoni got to bowl four wicket-less overs as England claimed the series 1-0.

Sohoni was retained for the tour of Australia in 1947-48. Despite performing abysmally in the tour matches (six matches, 97 runs at 12.12, eight wickets at 48.50) he played a hand in the tourists’ 47-run victory over a full-strength Australian XI with figures of four for 89 in the first innings. As a result, he got to play the first Test at The Gabba.

He was unfortunate in the sense that he played in a Test where India found themselves batting on a “sticky”: Australia scored 382, thanks to an emphatic 185 from Don Bradman; poor Sohoni went wicket-less again, bowling 23 overs, and was hit by Keith Miller over his head into the sightscreen.

Then it rained, and India ran into Ernie Toshack, who returned magical figures of five for two (no typo there) to bowl out India for 58 (from 53 for five). Sohoni walked out at 56 for seven, edged the first ball he faced for two, and tried to clear the boundary off Toshack; unfortunately, Miller ran back and took an excellent catch above his head. He lasted a bit more in the second innings, scoring four in 16 balls before Bill Brown had him caught off Miller; Toshack had six for 29 as India were bowled out for 98 (from 80 for five).

Back to domestic cricket

Sohoni shifted to Baroda after his return. He played the West Indians for West Zone at Baroda, and was back to his preferred positions up the order; he scored 34 (batting at three) and 40 (opening the innings) and picked up the wickets of Jeff Stollmeyer and Denis Atkinson.

Then came the match against Hyderabad at Secunderbad, where Sohoni single-handedly routed the hosts on his debut for Baroda: Hyderabad were bowled out for 80 in each innings (Sohoni’s seven for 32 and six for 34 gave him career-best match figures of 13 for 66) and lost the match by eight wickets. Opening batting, Sohoni had top-scored with 22 in the first innings and scored ten more in the second — which were significant contributions given the fact that no side reached three figures in the match.

Sohoni’s dream run in the season continued: bowling unchanged he took six for 42 to skittle Gujarat out for 94 at Ahmedabad; he followed it with five for 69 to rout Holkar for 133 at Indore in the semifinal; and he pulled off a valiant effort against Bombay at their den in the final.

Sohoni sent down 51 overs, picking up three for 117 as Bombay piled up 620; he opened the batting and scored 63, adding 123 with Shyamrao Vichare; and bowled 43 overs with a return of five for 86 as Bombay set an impossible target of 714. He finally gave in, falling for 18, as Baroda were crushed by a 468-run margin. Sohoni, however, had got his rhythm back, and topped the Ranji bowling chart for the season with 33 wickets at 15.12. Once again, Sohoni was back in contention.

The final Test

Sohoni moved to Bombay the next season. When England came along in 1951-52, they played Bombay in one of their tour matches; MCC scored 338, leaving Bombay in a tough situation at 210 for six when Sohoni walked out; he batted aggressively, scoring 58 not out as Bombay managed to reach 291. His excellent domestic form, combined with the innings, earned him a chance in the Bombay Test — the second of the series.

India piled up 485 thanks to hundreds from Hazare and Pankaj Roy; batting at nine (again) Sohoni was caught by Jack Robertson off Brian Statham for six; however, opening bowling, he picked up the first wicket (which was also the first of his Test career) when he had Frank Lowson caught-behind by Madhav Mantri.

India led by 29 and were reduced to 159 for eight when Sohoni joined Coimbatarao Gopinath at the crease; Sohoni hit a few lusty blows to score 28 and help India reach 208 before he was run out; the target of 238 in 100 minutes was well beyond England’s scope. This time Sohoni trapped Don Kenyon leg-before and caught Lowson, but England batted out time, finishing on 55 for two.

Sohoni never played another Test. One could have said that he did not get enough opportunities, but then, many of his contemporaries have got even less.

Sohoni battles on

Back to domestic cricket, Sohoni played an amazing innings against Gujarat at Bombay Gymkhana the very next match. Coming out at 288 for seven, he added 147 with Mankad and then 71 more in the next two partnerships with Ramesh Divecha and Sadu Shinde. He top-scored with 103 while Bombay reached 506; he also picked up two wickets, and Bombay won by an innings. He did not do much of note for the season, but became a part of the Ranji Trophy-winning Bombay side anyway.

That summer he earned a call-up from Rishton to play in the Lancashire League. Lancashire suited him (he had done well at Old Trafford earlier), and after that season (1952) he would come back to play for Lowerhouse in 1958. Immediately after his return he routed Maharashtra for 167 with figures of six for 78, but did little of note.

By 1957-58 Sohoni had shifted back to Maharashtra. Batting at seven he scored a match-saving 105 against Bombay, but as he approached 40 his appearances became more and more sporadic. Even at 42 he was good enough to be selected (and open bowling, and end up with three wickets) for Rest of India in the inaugural Irani Trophy fixture. He came back in 1962-63 to play a Defence Fund match, scoring 39 and 19.

Post-retirement

Mihir Bose, in his A History of Indian Cricket, had mentioned that Sohoni had “film-star looks” and was “very tall, fair-skinned, and light-eyed”. It was probably for these reasons that Sohoni was offered a role by V Shantaram (as Richard Cashman has mentioned in Patrons, Players and the Crowd). Unfortunately, nothing materialised out of it. His passion lay in carpentry, and till very late in his life he kept on making miniature objects out of wood.

Sohoni had worked in Baroda Government Service and Maharashtra Government Service before becoming a Class I Officer for the latter, a position he held till his retirement. He passed away from a heart-attack on May 19, 1993 at an age of 75 years 75 days.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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