KS Duleepsinhji © Getty Images
KS Duleepsinhji © Getty Images

Kumar Shri Duleepsinhji, born June 13, 1905, graced the cricketing world with delectable deeds of his willow for a brief and bewitching while before illness removed the most graceful of batsmen from the crease in his prime. Arunabha Sengupta reflects on the life and career of this gifted nephew of KS Ranjitsinhji who combined oriental magic with the solid English foundation of batsmanship.

His career was a masterpiece in miniature. His cricketing days lasted all of eight seasons, and of that the second was snipped off as early as May — in a symbolic synecdoche of the way his bitter-sweet story would pan out.

In this short span, he scored 50 centuries in First-Class cricket. Just 12 Tests were graced by his silken elegance, before failing health stopped him first from venturing to Australia for the infamous 1932-33 series and then from playing cricket altogether. In those dozen outings he scored five runs short of a thousand, at an average of 58.52, with 3 splendid hundreds that were crafted with the platonic ideal of cricketing stroke-play. And from such sublime peaks of the cricketing world, he suddenly had to withdraw and prepare to live the rest of his life as a sick man. It was an illness of the heart, and it beat in sad reverberations across all the hearts he had gladdened with his willow.

The nephew

Kumar Shri Duleepsinhji was born in Sarodar, a village in Nawanagar, the small Indian state ruled by his uncle Prince Ranjitsinhji. The great Ranji remained his idol, his hero, his mentor, his coach, his benefactor and the immense yardstick against which his cricket would forever undergo unkind, but not unrealistic, comparison.

It was the power of Ranji’s coffers that sent him to Cheltenham in 1921, and he captured and transcended imagination as a schoolboy cricketer. Three decades earlier, his uncle had struggled against the English lack of imagination that could not conceive the idea of a cricket-playing Indian. Duleep had no such problems. The very name of Ranji associated with him, by virtue of family tree and stance at the wicket, underlined his claims to the crease. But, his struggle was greater — against the august avuncular shadow cast on him by the cricketing genius of the old Indian Prince.

Yet, the treasury of riches strewn about by Ranji during his playing days served him excellently. He learnt his cricket under the watchful eyes of the Prince himself. When he landed in Cheltenham, his local guardians were CB Fry and his wife Beatrice. Perhaps the combination of nurture and guardianship across countries reflected as he took guard. According to Neville Cardus, “He at once revealed he was kin not only in race but style with the batsman described by George Giffen, the Australian captain, as a ‘so-and-so’ conjurer. But, Duleep’s cricket was more definable by English traditions than that of his uncle. He was supple of wrist, without the oriental jugglery, the Ranjitsinhji legerdemain.”

The ripple of runs

From the very beginning beauty and orthodoxy combined in his batting in heady proportions.  He did not get a hundred for Cambridge against Oxford, but the 75 runs that rippled through the field were full of youthful promise of engaging greatness. A year later he qualified for Sussex. Playing against Leicestershire he failed by three runs to emulate his uncle by scoring a hundred in his first match for the county. The century came in the very next game as he delighted the crowd with 115 scored out of 214 against Hampshire — driving men of middle-age rheumy-eyed with nostalgia.

The next year the briefest of glimpses of a very serious talent was in view. He started the season for Cambridge with 101 against Yorkshire, and followed it up with 254 not out against Middlesex. And after commencing with such supreme form, he did not play again for a year and 15 days. He had enjoyed far more success in the University than his illustrious uncle. But, his crafty willow had been unable to conjure proper defence against an attack of pneumonia – that affliction that plagued many a visitor who made their way from the warmth of the tropics to the dull, soggy, intemperate Northern climes. It put him out of action — as also out of England — for a year. He returned the following year to score six hundreds, and 1,706 runs in 22 games.

Duleep spent the harsh winter in India, and found time to score 84 and 38 for the Hindus against Parsees in the Bombay Quadrangular, one of the only two matches he played in his native country.

By the summer of 1929, his willow-work had reached the rarefied levels of brilliance even in a structure of stroke-play perfected by the likes of Wally Hammond and Frank Woolley of that era. Lithe of figure and quick of foot, drives flowed effortlessly from his genetically blessed willow. If he had started his cricket with definite limits on the off-side, all such thresholds had been left behind with his stepping out of formative years. Runs now bloomed in full splendour all around the green expanse. As many as 2,542 flowed from the bat, average in the mid-fifties.

Duleep played just eight seasons, and of that the second was snipped off as early as May. In this short span, he scored 50 centuries in First-Class cricket. In 12 Tests, he scored 995 runs at an average of 58.52 with 3 splendid hundreds © Getty Images
Duleep played just eight seasons, and of that the second was snipped off as early as May. In this short span, he scored 50 centuries in First-Class cricket. In 12 Tests, he scored 995 runs at an average of 58.52 with 3 splendid hundreds © Getty Images

For Duleep, the most mild and modest of men, there was a curious episode during this spate of run-making. When he played Kent that season, Tich Freeman got him caught by Les Ames in the first innings and stumped in the second, though not before he had scored 68 and 137. Duleep was not satisfied. Legend has it that he bet Lord Harris, that omnipresent Kent patriarch, that he would score a double hundred in the return match at Hastings. In the first innings, he failed — managing just 115. In the second Freeman got him again, but he had 246 against his name. The amount of the wager is not known, but one is certain that Lord Harris paid his dues with delight. This remains the only instance of Duleep’s approaching the boundaries of a boast.  Normally, according to RC Robertson Glasgow, “he seemed gently to transfer to the admiring spectator most of the responsibility for some fine performance of his own.”

This brilliant year also saw him play his first Test match, a three-day affair against South Africa, but the game was drawn and with Herbert Sutcliffe and Hammond hitting hundreds. Duleep’s debut scores were limited to 12 and 1. That winter he went to New Zealand with Harold Gilligan’s men, and scored 358 runs at 89.50, registering his first Test hundred — 117 at Auckland.

The two glorious years

The year 1930 is remembered as the start of the loftiest two-year period even by his august standards. Sussex inaugurated a new scoreboard at Hove, and Duleep worked it to limits on its first day, scoring 333 runs in five-and-a-half hours against Northamptonshire. In a county used to the fabulous feats of Ranji and Fry, this was the record for highest individual score and stood for 73 years.

The next month he appeared in his first Test match against Australia, at Lord’s, in an encounter that has gone down in history as one of the most glorious ever. Played under brilliant sunshine for four intoxicating days, it was according to Cardus an ‘apotheosis of cricket’, combining all that is wonderful in the noble game.

Duleep came in at 53 for 2, after the loss of Jack Hobbs and Woolley, and saw Hammond walking back at 105. He batted for a little less than 5 hours, cutting, driving and glancing — the crowd drunk on the intoxicating charm and elegance of his stroke-play. The late-cuts left even the Australian slip fielders standing and staring in helpless admiration. When he had reached 173, with the score on 387, he probably thought it was enough for a four-day match, and stepped out to Grimmett. The man who caught him in the outfield would go on to reduce the 400-plus English to the realms of insufficiency. But, while 22-year old Don Bradman set Lord’s on fire with his 254 the following day, Duleep added to the brightness of the afternoon sunshine. He followed it with a delectable 48 in the second essay.  However, sitting in the stands, his uncle Ranji was not amused when he got out in the first innings, uttering ‘The boy was always careless’. In Cardusian chronicles, this has been modified to the following words of admonishment as Duleep walked past Ranji: “My boy, that was a very careless stroke.”

Among the many successes of that supreme year was perhaps the twin hundreds for Gentlemen against Players, 125 and 103*, scored against Harold Larwood, Maurice Tate, Tich Freeman, George Geary and Frank Woolley and, the most successful bowler of that match, Maurice Leyland.

The deluge of runs continued the following year, along with the regular splash of centuries. There were 2, 562 runs and 12 hundreds in 1931, four of the tons in successive matches against Worcestershire, New Zealand, Middlesex and Hampshire. These 4 as well as the other 8 — were as delightful to the aesthete as they were ideal for the technician. That year he was made captain of Sussex, yet another feather than had adorned the princely crown of Ranji. Under his leadership, there was a will to win, and the attractive cricket the team played drew both inspiration and imagination from the personality of the skipper. Sussex finished fourth in the championship, and was perhaps the happiest and most popular of all teams.

The same summer, Duleep ended the Tests with 109 at The Oval and 63 at Old Trafford against New Zealand. And in one of the gravest tragedies of cricket, these would be his last forays into Test cricket.

The tragedy

Duleep spent the winter in India once again, playing his second and last game in his country, scoring 173 for the Viceroy’s XI against a Roshanara Club attack consisting of Amar Singh, CK Nayudu, Jahangir Khan and Phiroze Palia.

Cricket was struck by calamity in the year 1932. Sussex enjoyed a magnificent season, ending second on the championship table. And in the tussle with Yorkshire for the top spot, Duleep’s health broke down. He was already in the midst of yet another wonderful season when Sussex took on Somerset in their last championship match. His health prompted the physicians of the day to advise against playing. Yet, he took the field, leading his team out, bringing off excellent catches in the slips as was his penchant. When Somerset were bowled out for 204, he walked out at 67 for 3 and made 90 before falling to Arthur Wellard. It was one of the best innings of his life, and he collapsed after reaching the pavilion. He never played again. A pulmonary disease it was that stole much of the anticipated sunshine from the summers that followed.

Ranji passed away from the world in 1933, and in a cricketing sense, a year earlier, so did Duleep. He had been a certainty to travel to Australia for The Ashes, and the great cricketing country Down Under never witnessed his princely exploits in a Test match. He was 27 when he played his last match, far before the age when majority of batsmen inch towards maturity.

England had at least been graced by his ethereal presence at the crease. The fledgling cricketing nation of India would have been much boosted by his batsmanship, but his health did not allow him to turn out for his homeland.

He did serve in other ways. For long did he serve in advisory and selectorial roles for both England and India. His uncle had represented the Old India under British Rule as a diplomat. Now, soon after independence, Duleep joined the Indian Foreign Office and in 1950 was appointed India’s High Commissioner in to Australia and New Zealand. In 1954, he was posted as chairman of public service commission in Saurashtra. He also served as chairman of the All-India Sports Council, a position he took up a few months before his death.

Kumar Shri Duleepsinhji passed away from a heart attack in 1959 at Bombay. His journey in the cricket world had been brief but one of the most joyful, shimmering with grace and beauty, producing the most attractive stroke-play even considering an era etched with elegance.

(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)