Ladha Ramji. Photo courtesy: The Cricketer International
Ladha Ramji. Photo courtesy: The Cricketer International

Ladha Ramji Nakum, born February 10, 1900, was among the early fast bowlers in Indian cricket history. Test cricket came too late for him, but that did not stop him from tormenting batsmen with his relentless aggression and raw pace for over a decade. While he never enjoyed the stature of his younger brother Amar Singh, Ramji carved a niche of his own in the Bombay Quadrangular. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a temperamental fast bowler who got banished from two kingdoms.

There was Mohammad Nissar, the giant who made those fireballs move in air and off the surface, both at tremendous pace. There was Amar Singh, slower than Nissar but almost certainly craftier, and a big hitter to boot. There was Jahangir Khan, enormous and accurate, using his skills to take out batsmen one by one. Indeed, it is difficult to believe that India had one of the most potent pace-bowling attacks of the era.

Curiously, all three were born in the same year, 1910.

Ladha Ramji, elder brother of Amar Singh, was a decade older to them. Had India played their first Test about five years earlier, he would have been an automatic choice. Unfortunately, he had to compete for a fast bowler s slot with the young brigade, more so because seam-bowling all-rounders like Nazir Ali were available.

It is not easy to fathom exactly how good Ramji was. There are several reasons for this. Ramji never played a First-Class match outside India, which makes his averages compared to Nissar, Amar Singh, and Jahangir unfair, for all of them had their opportunities to bowl in favourable conditions in England.

A mere 27 matches of his decade-long career were given First-Class status. He got 125 wickets from these matches, at 17.37. And if one adds the Second-Class matches to the list the numbers go up to 145 wickets from 35 matches at 17.86. Despite the small sample it is difficult to argue with these numbers.

And thirdly, while the trio of the 1930s ensured India got off to an impressive start to Test cricket, Ramji was a part of the team that helped them attain Test status. He was India s premier fast bowler of the era, and ruled the Bombay Quadrangular like few others.

Ramji was quicker than Amar Singh and Jahangir, and if one goes by contemporary sources, at least as fast as Nissar as well.

How fast was Ramji?

An oft-narrated incident is worth a mention here. When Arthur Gilligan brought his team to India in 1926-27, they played a tour match against a team with a name as convoluted as Rajputana and Bombay Baroda & Central India Railways (let us refer to them as Railways).

Railways were skittled out by George Geary (8 for 56) for a mere 155 on a matting wicket in Ajmer. Then MCC started their innings.

Ramji took new ball, and sent back Maurice Tate and Bob Wyatt in a short burst, and came back to account for John Parsons and Geary. The score read 181 for 7, but that does not account for the many blows the batsmen took off Ramji. Andy Sandham, the Surrey stalwart, was holding the fort, but there was little assistance from the other end.

Then Gilligan sent out a request to Lakshman Singh Bahadur, The Maharawal of Dungarpur, and Railways captain: Ramji had to be taken off, for his pace could prove lethal for his batsmen.

The Maharawal agreed. So Sandham got a hundred, and the last three batsmen got 85 between them, and MCC reached 287. It is not known whether Gilligan would have made a similar request to an English side.

Keki N Daruwalla, the famous Indian author, also wrote in The Hindu that batsmen quaked to face Ramji . He also mentioned an incident where [Janak] Rai ducked into a ball that was not a bouncer and got it square on his sola hat. Rai, and squashed hat had to be carried away.

Despite all that, it was his hostility that made Ramji a spectacle to watch.

It was quite a sight, they said, to watch the imposing hulk of a man steam in for the Hindus. There was a vermilion tilak a symbol of the Hindus smeared on his forehead, which got the crowd going, chanting har har Mahadev! as Ramji hurled them down at express pace, getting them out or intimidating them out of his way.

For his first few overs, he was perhaps even faster than Nissar, and on jute matting he was particularly dangerous, making the ball fly around the ears, wrote Manchi Colah, son of Ramji s teammate Sorabji Colah, to me. [Ramji was] a simple fellow with a massive physique and a reckless love for the game. Full of zest, he would hurl all his energy into the new ball for the first few overs, terrorising the batsmen into frozen fear. He didn t know how to pace himself, and as the shine on the ball wore off he would lose some of his sting, and wasn t quite as menacing.

But underneath all that lay a sportsman s heart. Manchi Colah recollected his father s words: The Parsees were playing the Hindus in a Quadrangular tournament match, December 1928, and he was at his peak, bowling like a madman to get us. I went in at No. 3 to join [Rustomji] Jamshedji after the first wicket had fallen for just a few runs, a tense situation … Jamshedji and I had to be very cautious, as Ramji was fast, accurate and extremely menacing. Of course I knew Ramji well, having played against him for several seasons he was a force to be reckoned with. While I was trying to get my eye in, he bowled a few bumpers and I took some body hits. Then I hit him for a couple of fours and hooked him for a sixer, which only infuriated him. As we changed between overs, he warned Bhai Soli, watch out, I m after you now you may get hurt! And so he did pitched the ball short and fast-rising, right at me, and I didn t always get out of the way. I made 98 runs that day, but needed a few stitches! Later, back in the pavillion, he threw his arms around me and congratulated me Shabash, Soli! said he was very sorry, but he d do it again if he had to!

Unfortunately, he had a volatile personality, which meant he was not a favourite of the men who mattered in Indian cricket of the era.

The tiger and his stripes

Suresh Parekh narrated two incidents in The Cricketer International. The first took place in 1926-27 at Porbandar, against a club team from England . Both Ramji and Amar Singh were invited. Natwarsinhji Bhavsinhji, The Maharaja of Porbandar, instructed Ramji to be lenient on the guests. The tourists strolled to 150 without loss, and everyone was happy.

However, KS Ranjitsinhji present at the ground, was aware of Ramji s abilities. He asked Ramji to bowl a few short-pitched balls if only to create fear . And Ramji obliged when the new ball was taken.

The English batsmen were taken aback. The bowler who had seemed innocuous till then had suddenly begun to make them jump around with his pace and bounce. One of them was hit on the chest. He had to be stretchered out and shifted to Bombay for treatment. He returned to England, but never recovered, and died soon.

Had Gilligan heard of the incident when he had asked the Maharawal to take Ramji off the attack? The date of the Porbandar match remains unknown, so there is no way to conclude.

The Maharaja banished Ramji from Porbandar. He warned that Ramji would be shot if he was seen in the kingdom again.

The stature of Bhupinder Singh (Maharaja of Patiala) in contemporary Indian cricket merits little introduction. Unfortunately, though he was one of the most significant names in cricket administrators, The Maharaja was not an outstanding cricketer. In fact, his First-Class batting average of 17.37 was less than Vizzy s 18.60 though it must be admitted here that The Maharaja had little ambition of leading India.

But The Maharaja had other aspects common with Vizzy. In the match in question, he instructed the bowlers to send down a few easy ones to help him get some runs. Ramji would have none of it: he was at his fiercest, bowling in a way that would intimidate batsmen all over the country.

The Maharaja was not amused. He instructed the umpires to turn down all leg-before appeals. When an infuriated Ramji clean bowled him, the umpires signalled no-balls. The fielders did their bit too, dropping catches at will.

So Ramji bounced The Maharaja. He was asked to leave Patiala as well.

The most famous of his tussles was with CK Nayudu. The brothers and Sorabji Colah massive men all were a group of three, all of whom had their share of altercations with India s first Test captain. All three hated Nayudu (a rather mean man), Manchi Colah told me.

Ramji fielded at point on Test debut with hands in his pockets, an incident that did not go well with Nayudu. He never played another Test. It could have had to do with his bowling, but then, CK s reputation is a disciplinarian of the highest order is well-documented.

Raw pace and wickets

Ramji and Amar Singh both went to Alfred High School decades after Mahatma Gandhi. Neither was a fast bowler to begin with: while Ramji was a wicketkeeper, Amar Singh was a specialist batsman.

That changed in a match between Ranji s Nawanagar and Manavadar. Ramji was influenced by Ghulam Nabi, the Punjab fast bowler, and decided to follow suit. Both Ranji and the Khansaheb of Manavadar would take keen interest in the careers of the brothers.

Ranji gifted them a substantial house that went by the name of Cricketers Cottage. The brothers, probably too ideologically driven, paid back in cash, but Ranji made sure it was nothing beyond a token amount. The Khansaheb of Manavadar gifted Amar Singh a car.

Ramji made his Quadrangular debut in 1922-23. The next season he took 4 for 111 against the Europeans. A week later in the final he had 4 for 101 and 3 for 44, but Nazir Ali guided the Muslims to the title.

The revenge duly came in 1926-27, where he routed the Muslims with 4 for 14, but once again his 5 for 57 and 4 for 47 in the final went in vain.

Gilligan s men toured India next, and Ramji was at his spectacular best in a match for an all-India side, at Bombay. He had 3 for 42 in the first innings (including both Sandham and Gilligan). Prof. DB Deodhar then scored a hundred to give the Indians a 75-run lead, but there was little time left in the match.

Ramji took out three wickets in a short burst. Wyatt and John Parsons steadied ship, and finally secured a draw, but not before Ramji had claimed Wyatt. He finished with 4 for 32, and MCC on 97 for 5.

The next season saw another futile effort: his 6 for 92 and 7 for 41 were not enough for the Hindus to defeat the Europeans.

His most famous haul came two seasons later, this time against the Muslims. Nayudu s 155 gave the Hindus a 168-run lead. Then Ramji kept taking wickets, not stopping before he had 8 for 55 and pulled off an innings win.

In the early 1930s Vizzy got together his Freelooters side. Fatehsinhji, the Maharaj Kumar of Alirajpur, was appointed captain. In characteristic style, Vizzy appointed the cr me la cr me of Indian cricket, and that included both Ramji and Amar Singh.

The Freelooters bulldozed Nizam s State Railway A in the semi-final. Both Ramji (8 for 14) and Amar Singh (2 for 14) bowled unchanged through the innings, skittled them out for 31. Four of Ramji s wickets were caught-behind, three leg-before, and one bowled. He also took the fifth First-Class hat-trick on Indian soil.

Freelooters were bowled out for 79 in return, but the brothers hit back again: Ramji had 4 for 32 this time and Amar Singh 6 for 59, restricting Railway A to 118. The target was achieved for the loss of 6 wickets.

He missed the boat to England in 1932, but when the Englishmen paid a return, he played and got his Test cap in the first Test on Indian soil. He shared new ball with Nissar while Amar Singh came first-change: rarely have India taken field with three bowlers of genuine pace.

Ramji but went wicketless as England won by 9 wickets. The Test is typically remembered for Lala Amarnath s hundred on Test debut and his famous 186-run partnership with Nayudu.

Ranji Trophy came too late for him. He played only 2 matches, but in his last outing he took 4 for 29 in the second innings (Amar Singh got 6 for 71). The wickets included Vijay Merchant, bowled.

Ramji last played at the highest level against Jack Ryder s Australians of 1935-36. He was certainly not past his prime, and was good enough to clean bowl Charlie Macartney in the first innings and Stork Hendry in the second, and finish with a match haul of 5 for 80.

He did tour England for a Rajputana side, but by then he was 38 and well past his prime. The 3 matches he played were not given First-Class status. He took 4 for 96 against Cambridge. The haul included Paul Gibb, who was stumped something that was not possible off the bowling of Ramji of the yesteryear.

Twin tragedies

The first incident took place in 1940. Amar Singh was invited to a wedding by The Khansaheb. He fell ill, and fever never receded. The doctors diagnosed typhoid. It was too late.

Amar Singh was a mere 29 when he passed away at the Cricketers Cottage. Ramji never entered the house again, and sold it away shortly afterwards.

Parekh narrated an anecdote from 1945, that of Viceroy Hencock donating the Hencock Cup in Rajkot. Ramji was invited to the inauguration, as was Amar Singh s son Vajesingh Nakum.

Unfortunately, The Maharaja of Porbandar was not willing to welcome Ramji back. He refused point blank to meet Ramji, but was enthusiastic to meet Vajesingh. The onus fell on Ramji to groom the youngster on how to talk to the royalty.

On another subsequent trip, The Maharaja faced a few deliveries from Vajesingh (who would play First-Class cricket) but, as before, refused to bat against Ramji.

By then diabetes had taken his toll on Ramji. It did not help that he drank nearly fifty cups of tea a day.

Manchi Colah recollected an incident from 1945: While on a visit to my uncle Ratan in Rajkot, my father and I emerged from a cinema when he spotted Ramji, walking with a pronounced limp. What a reunion! They hugged each other, long-lost brothers, both laughing with delight. I had to wait awhile before they were ready to part. Poor Ramji had diabetes, and it had begun to affect his leg.

The limp worsened quickly. When he was diagnosed with gangrene on his right leg, a doctor insisted it be amputated, for that was the only way out. Ramji refused to live on one leg. The family members tried their best, but all requests fell on deaf ears.

Ladha Ramji passed away on December 20, 1948. He was 48.

In a speech at Rajkumar College, Rajkot, The Maharaja of Porbandar delivered a speech where he lamented the lack of fast bowlers in India. He mentioned, to quote Parekh, one hell of a fast bowler who was simply unrivalled. The Maharaja added that he had seen the man send down a ball that went for six byes in other words, it did not pitch at all before crossing the boundary.

Yes, he was talking about the man he had shunned from his kingdom.