KS Ranjitsinhji in action    Getty Images
KS Ranjitsinhji in action Getty Images

KS Ranjitsinhji, born September 10, 1872, was a magical batsman, the first wristy wizard from the orient and the creator of the leg glance. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the life and career of the man better known as “The Prince of a small state, but the king of a great game”.

Magic with the Willow-wand

The first Sussex season had seen ‘balls leave his blade with the swiftness of thought . Some others claimed that the ball flowed from his bat like water rushing down a hill.

His first match for Surrey against MCC at Lord s had brought him 77 not out and 150 and anything finer than his hitting had never been seen at Lord s.

The suppleness of his Eastern wrists had led him manufacture the novelty of the leg-glance, played fine in arcs that defied the hard-core logic of batting of the day that dictated balls to be hit back in the direction from whence they came. He discovered angles that were acute and mysterious. And his late cut was such that it was claimed, “envious gods are still practising it in the Elysian fields.”

His methods were equated with the many splendored treasures and enigmas of the land from which he hailed. “He combines an Oriental calm with an Oriental swiftness the stillness of the panther with the suddenness of its spring,” wrote AG Gardiner. And his steadfast friend for life, CB Fry said, “One would not be surprised sometimes to see a brown curve burnt in the grass where one of his cuts has travelled, or blue flame shiver around his bat in the making of one of those leg-strokes.”

He had acquired a following even before the end of the first season. The lithe form of Prince KS Ranjitsinhji could be recognised by all who could distinguish a cricket bat from a walking stick. While his strokes sparked and sizzled with lustre that was unique, even while he fielded the crowd could pick him out with ease as he waited like a coiled spring at slip or moved sharply in anticipation at point. Everyone knew how his hands found each other behind his back between the deliveries, how the back of his gossamer shirt fluttered in the wind while tremors rippled down to the wristbands which he always kept so tightly fastened.

Neither was he all style, for substance there was plentiful. He had scored 1,766 runs at 50.16 for Sussex that initial season. By the end of the summer he had made runs on all sorts of wickets 100 at Nottinghamshire after heavy rain, 137 against Oxford University on a fusty, spinning track and 72 against Middlesex on a flier.

Yet, his claims to a Test spot against Harry Trott s Australians were not without pitfalls. At Sheffield Park, that most lush of Sussex estates, he stroked the ball ethereally to score 79 and 42 for Lord Sheffield s XI when the Australians landed in England in 1896. He had already scored 74 against MCC at Lord s in the new season and had followed it up with 64 and 33 against Lancashire and three consecutive hundreds against Yorkshire, Gloucestershire and Somerset.

Test success

The English crowd was eager to see this magical import from the outposts of the Raj, this most sparkling treasure from the Jewel in the Crown, take on the might of Ernie Jones, Hugh Trumble and George Giffen. But, then, never had an Indian been good enough to be hailed as the best and the most exciting batsman of the land. It was a first. And it created complications.

It was 1896, the year one can associate with the modernisation of sports. The Summer Olympics were held in Athens in their modern form for the first time. And from the following year Test teams were chosen by an independent selection committee in England. However, that summer the old process was still in vogue. The home county on whose ground the match was being contested had to select the eleven. And when Lord s was decided as the venue of the first Test match, it was Lord Harris, supremo of the MCC, six years previously the Governor of Bombay, who was the principal selector. And he was not in favour of playing ‘birds of passage .

Ranji was omitted and it resulted in vehement outcry in the press and among the public. An apprehensive Ranji, invited by AN ‘Monkey Hornby of Lancashire to take part in the second Test at Old Trafford, insisted that the Australians be consulted before the final selection. The tourists were asked, and Trott merely expressed his delight.

Just before the Manchester Test, Ranji had turned out for the Gentlemen against the Players at Lord s. He had scored 47 and 51 not out, in what Wisden termed was: “One of the most brilliant and delightful pieces of batting seen at Lord s.” The 47 had come in 10 minutes and each of the 12 balls he faced before he was leg-before had been hit for a boundary except for one which was dispatched for three. The bowlers of whom he was contemptuously dismissive happened to be the fearsome Tom Richardson, George Lohmann, JT Hearne and Johnny Briggs.

Ranji batted on his Test debut at No 3, and fought hard to score 62 as wickets fell around him. England followed on and by the end of the second day the Indian maestro had stroked his way to 41. But, with England struggling at 109 for 4, and defeat looming threateningly ahead, not too many people turned up on the final day.

Wickets continued to fall the following morning, but Ranji rose to the occasion and played an innings that could, as Wisden put it, “without exaggeration, be fairly described as marvellous.” He repeatedly brought off his exotic leg-side strokes, finding angles and gaps that left everyone breathless but him. There were only a couple of strokes that did not hit the middle of the bat and neither came close to being a chance. In three hours and 10 minutes, he had played a gem of an innings of 154 not out, including 23 boundaries.

The target set for the Australians was just 125, but with Tom Richardson running in with endless energy and the greatest of hearts, seven wickets went down for 100, and the final runs were scored by the skin of the teeth.

KS Ranjitsinhji had made his mark in Test cricket.

He did not score too many in the third Test at The Oval, but did have a vital role to play. Australia had reached 71 without loss in reply to England s 145 when Joe Darling hit a ball far into the untenanted deep at the Vauxhall end and Frank Iredale called for the fifth run. Ranji chased after the ball, and sent in a beautiful throw over a hundred yards that caught Iredale short of his ground. Australia collapsed to 119 all out and lost the low scoring match by 66 runs.

Ranji followed his Test success with 40 and 165 against Lancashire against Arthur Mold and Johnny Briggs. And he continued with 100 out of 191 all out against Yorkshire on a drizzly morning. Following on, Sussex enjoyed a better start and Ranji came in to hit an unbeaten 125, cutting, driving and glancing in the most elegant of innings. No one but William Lambert, WG Grace, Andrew Stoddart, George Brann and Bill Storer had scored two centuries in a First-Class match before this. And no one had come remotely close to scoring two in the same day.

As Ranji packed up his gear and departed for Cambridge, full of the happy thoughts of shooting on the moors and starting his long love affair with fishing, he left in his wake 2,780 runs at 57.91 with 10 hundreds for the season. It was a record for an English summer, going past Grace s 2,739 in 1871. In 1899 and 1900, Ranji would go even further, passing 3,000 on both occasions.

Those were the days that the sun never set on this treasure of the Empire.

However, for all his brilliance in the First-Class matches of 1896, Ranji perhaps played his best innings in a match at Bexhill, for a Sussex eleven against a scratch side raised by Lord de La Warr. The pitch was a long way below county standard and Billy Lockwood bowled for the home team with his usual speed. Ranji alone stood against the fiery pace on a dreadful wicket.

Phillip Trevor, writing in his book Cricket and Cricketers, mistakenly calls Lockwood Woodcock, but produces a fitting description of the majesty of the Indian prince: “Woodcock s fast balls were coming off the pitch like rocketing pheasants One good length ball pitched just clear of the leg-stump and went over Ranji s head. To the best of my recollection, Sussex scored 71, of which Ranji got 49. Most men and women of my generation have, I imagine, seen Cinquevalli juggle with knives and finish his wonderful performance uncut by them. Ranji s performance that day put Cinquevalli s feats in the shade, for the ball never touched anything but the middle of his bat. He smiled quietly when it went too far over his head for him to touch at all, and when it was a shade more pitched up he did one of two things. He sprang like a cat and drove it hard, or he whipped round and scored fours off his face. I was so amazed and enthralled that I could hardly applaud, and members of my family thought I was little short of cracked when I said, ‘This is the greatest ever. ”

Ranji was pure genius.

Murder and intrigue

It is a mistaken notion that Ranji was the heir to the throne of Nawanagar by birth. His claims to the gaddi were circuitous, to say the least.

Jam Vibhaji had succeeded his father to the throne five years before the Sepoy Mutiny in 1852. He quelled the Waghers of Okhamandel, whose ambitions extended to Jamnagar, and emerged victorious in the showdown that took place in the Badra Hills. Outstanding in the battle was Jadeja Jhamalsinhji, an officer of Sarodar and a distant cousin of Vibhaji.

Safely ensconced on the throne, Vibhaji ruled with a lot of prudence. Besides, knowing the problems of producing male heirs that had dogged the dynasty for long, he acquired as many as14 wives.

However, none of these bore him a son, and in his middle age, his roving eye fell on a Sindhi labourer and part-time prostitute called Dhanbai. Declining his invitation to enter his Zenana, Dhanbai demanded marriage and insisted on her three sisters accompanying her.

Marrying a Muslim being out of question, Vibhaji managed to resurrect an obscure ritual and Dhanbai became a kind of morganatic wife. The three sisters entered the zenana.

When Dhanbai gave birth to a son named Kalobha in 1872, it was rumoured that she had already been carrying him when Vibhaji s eyes fell on her. But, with his hopes of a male heir fast disappearing the ruler accepted the son. However, he regretted it when some years later poison was discovered in his food and was traced to Kalobha. The boy was disinherited and banished, but strangely the sisters stayed on.

Vibhaji now turned to Jhamalsinhji, the valiant officer of Badra, for one of his sons as prospective heir. Umedsinhji was adopted and re-named Raysinhji. Within a year he was dead, poisoned by Dhanbai or on her instructions.

Vibhaji turned to Sarodar again, and this time his choice was the seven-year-old grandson of Jhamalsinhji, Ranjitsinhji. And taking no chances, he entrusted the boy to the care of his political agent Colonel Barton.

The ceremony of adoption took place in the temple of Dwarka Puri, a mile from Jamnagar. An hour before dawn, a slow-moving cavalcade left Jamnagar. Both the Jam Saheb and Ranji rode in closed carts meant for purdah ladies. A convoluted route was taken and the escort was formed of 80 lancers. The ceremony was officially recorded by The India Office, the Government of India and the Bombay Government.

Ranjitsinhji was returned to Sarodar and later sent to Rajkumar College at Rajkot, an institute meant for princes in waiting. Before entering the school, he spent months in a bungalow at Rajkot, attended by a staff of 17, ranging from a tutor in Gujarati, a barber and torchbearer to a coachman and a water-carrier. However, on entering the College at the age of eight, his retinue, like those of the other princes, was restricted to one servant.

Rajkumar College

It was here that Ranji flowered, under the remarkable Principal Chester Macnaghten. He progressed steadily, winning the Ferguson Gold Medal for English Speaking at the age of 13, reciting ‘Young Lochinvar. The same year, he won the gymnastics prize. And under the wholehearted coaching of Macnaghten, the boys took to cricket, tennis and racquets. In all three Ranji emerged as the best in the school.

It was also while he was in Rajkumar College that Janbai, one of the sisters of Dhanbai, gave birth to a son which she announced was Vibhaji s. It is almost certain that the son had been brought into the Zenana from outside, but Vibhaji, with four ambitious women scheming together, was prevailed upon. The Bombay Government was asked to reverse the recognition of Ranjitsinhji and accept Janbai s son as heir apparent.

The Government refused the request. Janbai was not an official Rani or even a morganatic wife. However, Vibhaji took up the issue with the Viceroy Lord Ripon, and the latter, eager to earn favours in exchange of a harmless whim of an Indian prince, overruled the Bombay Government. The son, Jaswantsinhji, was accepted as the heir.

Hence, when he was in his final years at Rajkumar College and later at Cambridge and still later playing for Sussex and England, Ranji was not really an heir to any throne. It required all his cricketing contacts, and thereby the adulation and friendship of British decision makers, to once again turn the decision in his favour in 1907, after the death of Jaswantsinhji of typhoid the previous year. There was still another challenge from KS Lakhubba, son of the banished Kalobha. But, that was more technical and was not contested with passion.

After the adoption ceremony, Vibhaji never saw Ranji again. And at the age of 35, KS Ranjitsinhji, the famous cricketer and one of the most stylish batsmen ever, ascended the throne of Nawanagar helped by his cricketing contacts.

Coming back to the schooldays, the coaching of Macnaghten was more enthusiastic than copy book. Hence, perhaps, the development of a technique that owed little to orthodoxy. With time, Ranji did develop regard for the correct principles of batsmanship, but at the same time he developed an imaginative brilliance unlike anyone else. And since there were no nets used in the school, to ensure that one got his chance at the batting crease, fielding had to be tight and sharp. Ranji later attributed his excellent slip catching to this curious trait of Rajkumar college.

Ranji was among the three princes chosen from Rajkumar to go to England for further education. the others being Ramsimnhji of Sihor and Mansur Kachar of Jaashan. Chester Macnaghten decided to accompany the three boys himself. In his farewell speech, Macnaghten said of Ranji, ” a better or manlier boy has never resided within this College.”

Cambridge Days

So, in 1888, while PS McDonnell s Australians toured in England, Ranji arrived in the country for the first time. One of the early visitors to the house in London where he stayed with the Macnaghtens was another young man from Rajkot, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

During the initial days at Cambridge, it seemed that Ranji would be more interested in lawn tennis. Like many great cricketers, he had considerable talent at this sport as well. Through his life he played tennis and billiards, revelled in shooting and fishing, but the atmosphere and excitement that greeted him as he saw AG Steel s England face the Australians at Lord s tilted the balance in favour of cricket. Three of the men he saw playing that day would be his teammates on debut eight years later WG Grace, Bobby Abel and Johnny Briggs.

However, being a champion cricketer among Indian princes is one thing. Competing with professionally coached English young men was considerably different. While preparing for his entrance to Trinity, Ranji played his cricket at St Faith s, Cambridge. According to RS Goodchild, Headmaster of St Faith s, initially he did not have a defence at all.

Ranji s another great passion was photography. When not on the St Faith s pitch, he would be at the billiards table or fiddling about in a converted studio.

Initially his cricket was played at Parker s Piece, and he looked a natural entertainer rather than a future batting prospect for England. However, with each game his technique was adjusted and refined. He supposedly scored three centuries for three different teams in one day. And by now, his princely grandeur taking over, he engaged professional coaches to teach him the secrets of the game, with Billy Lockwood, Tom Richardson and Jack Hearne some of the bowlers recruited to bowl to him for hours.

After moving into Trinity in 1892, Ranji rented two floors above a bakery and established himself in comfort. He bought Popsey, a parrot, to keep him company. Already in her fifties, Popsey was a constant companion, and was still strong and healthy, although bald, when Ranji passed away some forty years later.

It was natural for Ranji to feel isolated in Cambridge, being the first of his countrymen to attend the university. Some racial undercurrents and social prejudice were bound to be present. That is perhaps why his cricket too was also not taken seriously at first. And perhaps this can be linked to Ranji s extravagance in entertaining guests, showering them with princely gifts, and general hospitality and generosity. His desire to succeed as a cricketer too perhaps stemmed from the desire to break down social barriers.

Ranji never graduated from Trinity. And neither was it easy for him to earn his Blue. In 1892, he played regularly for Trinity in inter-collegiate matches, but Cambridge skipper Francis Stanley Jackson was unimpressed. It was in May, 1893, that Ranji played for the University for the first time, and made his first venture onto Fenner s. He later confessed that it was probably the only time in his cricket career that he felt nervous. He scored just 18 against CL Thornton s XI, but from that day was a regular in the side.

It was against Jack Blackham s 1893 Australians that he first showed his promise, top-scoring for the University in both the innings with 58 and 37*. His overall figures for Cambridge were not really spectacular, but as a slip catcher he was something of a wonder.

In the final year, as he made his reputation as a sportsman, he also gained fame as a natty dresser, with an excellent collection or suits, shoes and expensive watches. He himself remained frugal in his habits of food and drink, but entertained lavishly. Also, he soon became the owner of a motorcar the first in the city, and it remained a life-long fascination. With his limited allowance, these expenditures placed him in severe financial duress. This was also going to be a lifelong trait.

Even though his deeds with the bat were limited at Cambridge, he created quite an impression with his manner of scoring runs. According to ‘Country Vicar , “The breathless hush when a defeated batsman had vanished into the back doorway of the pavilion the tense expectancy with which we awaited his successor. The glimpse of a cap of Cambridge Blue, crowing a lissom form, and at the appearance a ripple of applause breaking out faintly at first, but gathering strength until it burst into a roar of welcome which grew and grew in volume.”

Sussex and Fry

In Cambridge, Ranji had been on close terms with Tom Hayward, and it was natural that he would be wooed by Surrey. However, he threw in his lot for Sussex. “There would be no honour and glory in assisting Surrey to win matches,” he later wrote, referring to their strong line-up. It may be that he wanted to be in a comparatively weak side where he would be certain of a place.

Also, there was CB Fry, someone he had met during an Oxford-Cambridge encounter and it had seen the start of a lifelong friendship. Fry had joined Sussex in 1894, and Ranji followed the following year.

Soon both were playing for England. It was the start of a partnership at the crease and beyond.

Ted Wainwright of Yorkshire used to explain the peril of the bowlers when faced with the line-up of Sussex. “It weren 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.”

In an era dominated by the ball, Ranji piled 24,692 runs at 56.37, while Fry got 30,886 at 50.22.

Jubilee Book of Cricket

It was while shooting grouse in the winter of 1896, after his successful Test debut, that Ranji contracted a congestion of the lungs. It took 10 weeks for him to recover. Ranji spent his period of recuperation reading historical fiction mainly Alexander Dumas.

However, another thought struck him. He sent for a shorthand writer and dictated his thoughts about the game, dissecting the techniques of fielding, batting and bowling in that order. AJ Gatson of Sussex Daily, Fry and Dr. Butler were some of the men who helped him along the way. And thus was born the magisterial and invaluable Jubilee Book of Cricket. From start to finish, it was an immensely thoughtful and well-balanced work.

It was also during his recovery that quest for warm sunshine drove him to the continent. Again Fry tagged along, and the two headed south and somehow turned east from Paris and crossed Germany into Austria, finally across the Balkans into Turkey. Fry s curiosity made them witness the battleground of the on-going war between the Turks and the Greeks from uncomfortably close quarters. Fortunately for the two young men and the thousands of cricket fans, they managed to survive the adventure.

The 1897 Australian tour

Returning to England, Ranji scored 1,940 runs in the summer, and received an invitation to join Stoddart s team to tour Australia in 1897. He was delighted to accept.

It was not a happy voyage. The team went there full of hope, and came back badly beaten. The bowlers failed miserably. Ranji himself was often ill. However, he still scored 457 runs at 50.77 in the Tests, and 1,157 on the tour at 60.89.

He started with 189 against South Australia, He scored 64 against Victoria and 112 against the New South Wales. He hit 175 in the first Test against Harry Trott-led Australia, battling illness and exhaustion. Unbeaten on 39 and completely exhausted overnight, he received treatment from a doctor and proceeded to bat superbly on the morrow. When George Hirst was out at 382, he took complete control and shepherded the last four wickets to put on 169 more. England won by nine wickets.

It is somewhat strange that after scoring his second Test century in his third Test match, Ranji did not score any more in the 12 remaining matches in his Test career.

He did play some more useful innings on that tour 71 in the second Test, 77 in the third and 55 in the fourth. However, it was not good enough to win the Ashes for England. The team returned in disappointment.

The tour diary Ranji kept during the Australian summer was later made into a bestselling book, With Stoddart s Team in Australia.

On the way back from Australia, Ranji tarried for a while in India, not playing cricket that summer in England. It was a planned trip, to renew acquaintances and chip away at the question of the gaddi at Nawanagar. A course of action had already been undertaken in England, and Ranji s claims had been presented as a memorandum to the Secretary of State for India, Lord George Hamilton. The latter declined to take any initiative and Ranji decided to work his way through fellow princes.

Runs flow like water down a hill

On his return to England, runs continued to be amassed in great style and finesse in the summers. As many as 3,159 gushed forth in 1899, 3,065 in 1900 and 2,461 in 1901.

Yet, in 1899, Ranji had asked the selectors not to consider him for the Nottingham Test match against Joe Darling s Australians. He was not satisfied with his form. But, with Lockwood and Kortright injured, the selectors could not afford to have him sit out. It was WG Grace s last Test match, and CB Fry s first against Australia. In the final innings, having been set a near impossible target of 290 in four hours, England were reduced to 19 for 4. Ranji batted 165 minutes, unleashing an array of dazzling strokes to remain unbeaten on 93 and secure a draw for England with seven wickets down. Wisden remarked, “Never probably did a batsman, in the endeavour to save a match against time, play such a free and attractive game as he did during the last forty minutes he was at the wicket.”

The English cricket team at Trent Bridge 1899. Back row (from left): Dick Barlow (umpire), Tom Hayward, George Hirst, Billy Gunn, J T Hearne (12th man), Bill Storer, Bill Brockwell, V A Titchmarsh (umpire). Middle row (from left): CB Fry, K S Ranjitsinhji, W G Grace (captain), Stanley Jackson. Front row (from left): Wilfred Rhodes, Johnny Tyldesley. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
The English cricket team at Trent Bridge 1899. Back row (from left): Dick Barlow (umpire), Tom Hayward, George Hirst, Billy Gunn, J T Hearne (12th man), Bill Storer, Bill Brockwell, V A Titchmarsh (umpire). Middle row (from left): CB Fry, K S Ranjitsinhji, W G Grace (captain), Stanley Jackson. Front row (from left): Wilfred Rhodes, Johnny Tyldesley. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

At this stage, after eight Test matches, Ranji had scored 827 runs at 63.61. However, the last seven Tests would bring just 162 more at 18.00 with a solitary fifty. Ranji got 54 in the Oval Test of the series, but failed miserably in the great 1902 series and was dropped after a prolonged struggle for scores of 2 and 4 in the famous Manchester Test of that summer.

Ranji never played Test cricket again. His overall 989 runs in 15 Tests came at 44.95 with two hundreds. Playing during a period when the best batsmen averaged in their thirties, this was a fabulous record.

The 1899 season also marked Ranji s first experience as captain of Surrey. He was criticised, rather unfairly, for changing his bowlers around too often. However, he did bring in innovation even in his captaincy. There would always be a small aneroid barometer in his pocket and Ranji claimed it was of immense tactical value to him.

Immediately after the 1899 season, Ranji set off for the United States, along with a strong including Archie Maclaren, Andrew Stoddart and Gilbert Jessop to play the Associated Clubs of Philadelphia. He was dogged by poor health during the tour, and batted only three times, scoring 42, 57 and 68. However, he did create a curious impression on the Americans. His clothes, appearance, princely rank, bachelor status, all led to a lot of speculation. He was plumper than expected and his walk was described as ‘rolling about like a barrel on pins .

Down the years, the runs kept coming some of which merit mention.

In 1900, at Baramall Lane he scored 72 and 87 against George Hirst, Wilfred Rhodes and Schofield Haigh his presence drawing 15,000 people over to the ground. Against Leicestershire he batted five hours and five minutes for 275. And when GJV Weigall of Kent pointed out he never seemed to be able to make big scores against that county, Ranji took 192 not out against them the first time, and 220 in the return match.

In 1901, at Taunton, egged by Somerset players, he wanted to fish in River Tone. When forbidden by the management, he kept his shoes in front of his hotel room, indicating he was in bed, and spent the entire night fishing. The next morning, resuming at 29 not out, he batted through the day to end at 285 and ensure a draw.

By this time, he used his drives a lot more in his game. Teams tried to cramp his run-making, placing a number of short legs to cut off his leg side strokes. He countered this by driving the bowling crisply, without any semblance of power, the strokes almost caresses, coaxed and cajoled through impeccable timing.

Even after playing his last Test in 1902, he remained a superlative batsman at the county level. At The Oval he scored 135 against Surrey, hit 230 against Essex at Leyton and finally scored 234 in the return match against Surrey at Hastings.

In 1903 he piled up 1394 runs at 58 and returned to India, shooting lions in the Gir Forest with Nawab of Junagadh. It was still a princely life without the responsibilities of a ruler.

From 1904 onwards, a remarkable change seemed to touch his batting. It became less serious. The runs continued to flow, in the same liquid brilliance, but he seemed more intent on putting on a show. In the end, he did finish the season with an average of 74 while amassing 2,077 runs. But, the season was marked with attempts to surprise as well as seduce. Renowned strokes were exchanged for unfamiliar ones. Experiments were indulged in. Yet, his eyes were so good and his feet so twinkle-toed that he got away with everything that he attempted.

The season of 1904 was the last English season he played as a Kumar. Days before returning to India to pursue princely claims, he was seen in August at Hove, scoring a scintillating 99 and 207 not out against Lancashire. And when he appeared for the last time that season, it was on a turning wicket against Middlesex, with Bernard Bosanquet spinning his googlies and leg-breaks, capturing 14 wickets. And Ranji dancing down the track to tackle him in masterly fashion, scoring a superb 52.

Was he a dream?

“Did he really happen? Or was he perhaps a dream, all dreamed on some midsummer night long ago?” Neville Cardus wondered. The magical Indian prince did not come back any more.

The Jam Saheb returned three times, after he had put on his silk durbar dress, jewelled sword belt and thick string of pearls. He was now the ruler of a small state, having relinquished his other throne from which he had ruled the noble game. In 1908 and 1912, he returned as more rotund versions of the earlier nimble form, equal in skill, scoring hundreds with usual flair, but without the dazzling enchantment. He was more of a responsible ruler, removing the burden of his kingdom from his shoulders and enjoying himself during an English holiday.

He returned again in 1920, an ill-advised comeback after putting on plenty of mortal flesh around his svelte form of the past, and losing an eye during the War years. No, it was not a mark of bravado it was just an accident while shooting grouse in Yorkshire. The knocks of 16, nine, 13 and one gave him enough indication that his cricketing days were long over.

Uneasy sits the crown

Ranji s ascension to the throne was a trifle curious. The ruling Jam Saheb, Jaswantji or Jassaji, was in apparent good health and suddenly passed away in August 1906, after a bout of fever for two weeks. Simon Wilde has written that there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that Jassaji may have been poisoned. There were a few who believed that Ranji had plotted Jassaji’s murder a belief voiced by one of the later rulers.

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There were intriguing negotiations as well, which made potential rival claimants to the throne withdraw in exchange of money. The British government finally ruled in favour of Ranji. His popularity as a cricketer and close connections with many of the administrators did go a long way in influencing the decision.

The stipulations imposed by the British and the current health of Nawanagar did not make for smooth sailing. Ranji tried a lot of improvement measures, including stimulating the economy by building a modern harbour. There were illnesses, escapes to England, lavish entertainment of British guests and resumption of his First-Class career. There were also affairs of the heart as he pined away for a British lady, and the two could not marry due to the complications that mixed-race marriage would bring into both British and Rajput circles.

Ranjitsinhji was never very happy in India. He had become too anglicised in his ways and tastes. He was appointed as the Indian Representative in the League of Nations, and he took on CB Fry as his deputy. However, he was seldom interested in the political and administrative problems that he was supposed to deal with in his role. He remained far more interested in providing extravagant hospitality to Western guests and dignitaries, while most of the complicated tasks were left to Fry.

Ranji, the great batsman and the public figure, was not really a popular icon in India. He was too pro-English and hankered after the old days of the Raj when the British flag fluttered with fullest pomp and grandeur. Many sports administrators of India, specifically Anthony de Mello, complained that Ranji never did anything for Indian sports and always maintained that he and his nephew Duleepsinhji were English cricketers.

He was acknowledged to be a great man, but also a strange one whose heart remained in England.

It was cricket that gave solace to the childless, frustrated Ranji in India. He was overjoyed when nephew Duleepsinhji showed exceptional talent as a batsman and arranged for him to receive full instructions at home. When Duleep travelled to Cambridge, following the footsteps of his illustrious uncle, he was well schooled in the basics of batsmanship. This was totally unlike Ranji who had reached England full of talent but with rough edges around his glittering diamond of talent. Duleep, as elegant and majestic in his wristy brilliance, excelled in the few seasons he played and scored a scintillating 173 at Lord s against Australia in 1930. The innings was watched by a proud Ranji from the stands. However, physical frailty brought an end to Duleep s career in 1932.

The very next year Ranjitsinhji died of heart failure on April 2, 1933 after a short illness.

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A brief analysis of genius

What made him special the prince among batsmen?

Often his splendid skills in certain aspects of the game made us forget that the other facets of his batsmanship were equally impeccable. So distinctive was Ranji s cutting and wrist play on the leg side that one almost forgot to notice the strokes in front of the wicket. Not only was he a beautiful driver on both sides of the wicket in the classical sense, he could drive if he liked hard and high just like the professed hitter. His gift of timing allowed him to take on all roles with equal ease.

Bob Thoms, the umpire who probably saw most cricket from 1870 to 1900, and who was reckoned a fine judge of the game, compared Ranji to WG Grace saying, “the Prince was a greater batsman than the Doctor because he had more strokes.”

Fry underlined the strengths of his life-long friend saying, “He tries to make every stroke a thing of beauty itself, and he does mean so well by the ball while he is in. He starts with one or two enormous advantages, which he has pressed home. He has a wonderful power of sight which enables him to judge the flight of a ball in the air an appreciable fraction of a second sooner than any other batsman, and probably a trifle more accurately. He can therefore decide in better time what stroke is wanted, and can make sure of getting into the right position to make it.”

But in spite of enormous gifts, the success of this greatest of batsmen was rooted in the elementary lessons of batsmanship. As Fry put it during their playing days: “Ranji appears scarcely to look at the ball or take any trouble. His electric flashes seem almost as insolently careless as brilliantly successful. Actually he watches the ball with feline insistence every time.”

The Ranji Trophy, the national championship for cricket in India, is named after KS Ranjitsinhji. It has been played since 1934.

(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://twiter.com/senantix)