CricketCountry
Rameshwar Pratap Singh played 20 First-Class matches for Holkar between 1942-43 and 1954-55 CricketCountry

Over the years, Mumbai have easily been the most prolific team in Indian domestic cricket. In fact, such has been their dominance in Ranji Trophy that they have won it a record 41 times out of the 83 editions. The second-best effort is Karnataka s 8 wins, which signifies the huge gap between Mumbai and its competitors. Though Mumbai have not enjoyed much competition in last few decades, there was a time when they had some fierce matchup with the great Holkar team.

However, for about a decade from the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, Holkar cricket team ruled the roost in Ranji Trophy. They made it to 10 Ranji Trophy finals and won four of them during their decade-and-a-half long existence. A formidable side, Holkar boasted of CK Nayudu, India s first Test captain; India s first overseas centurion, Capt. Mushtaq Ali; Chandu Sarwate, Hiralal Gaekwad, CS Nayudu, MM Jagdale, BB Nimbalkar, Jamshed Bhaya amongst others.

While the great Holkar edifice was built around these men, there were others as well, men who played small yet crucial roles in the golden era of Holkar cricket. It has been over six decades now since Holkar played their last match under that name. The team was then dissolved and replaced first by a Madhya Bharat (MB) team and subsequently Madhya Pradesh (MP) team once the states were reorganised.

None of the Holkar cricketers are among us barring one, that is.

Meet Rameshwar Pratap Singh, a nonagenarian who played 20 First-Class matches for Holkar between 1942-43 and 1954-55. Rameshwar-Ji typically referred to as Pratap Singh on the archives was a part of several historical moments. He is one of the six batsmen who scored centuries for Holkar in a single innings against Mysore in Ranji Trophy 1945-46 semi-final (the others were Kamal Bhandarkar, Sarwate, Jagdale, CK and Nimbalkar). That match started exactly 71 years ago on this day, was a witness to many records.

Today, Rameshwar lives with his family in Indore, not far from the place where he played most of his cricket.

The Holkar team played majority of its cricket on its home ground Yeshwant Club Ground which was on one part of a large land area owned by the royal family. The present-day Holkar Stadium stands on one of its pieces, on exactly opposite end to the modern day Yeshwant Club, till where it stretched. Rameshwar-Ji, the last remnant of that glorious Holkar era, resides about 200 odd metres away from the stadium. I recently had the privilege to meet up with him and take a trip down the memory lane.

***

Sitting in the drawing-room and having a look at the large photo-frames on the wall, I was convinced of Rameshwar-Ji s royal lineage. When he joined me for the chat, he confirmed the same. These are the pictures of my forefathers; my father, grandfather, great grandfather. Originally we are Jodha Rathores that have offshooted from Jodhpur, centuries and centuries ago. Our family has roots in Kachhibaroda, next to Ratlam, where our ancestral village is, some 160 km from Indore, he said.

In fact, Rameshwar-Ji is also closely related to former Indian cricketer Hanumant Singh and his brother Suryaveer Singh, who played First-Class cricket for MP and Rajasthan. He is also distantly related to Ranji and Indrajitsinhji.

Vijay and Rahane remind me of the great Polly Umrigar. Pujara reminds me of Mushtaq-Sahib. And for Kohli, well he is a lot like Colonel-Sahib.

The conversation soon shifted to cricket. Rameshwar-Ji took a stroll down his memory and churned out gems from the golden era. It was an honour to play in that great Holkar team, Rameshwar Ji, who will soon turn 91, said. There were so many greats in the XI that we, the youngsters, were never assured of getting the chance to bat or ball. But just being a part of that team was a great privilege, he said.

Commenting on the class of the Holkar team, Rameshwar-Ji said it was an epitome of consistency. Holkar was the greatest team during its time. It is not fair to compare teams across eras, but no team has ever come near its greatness. Today, the players we see are much fitter and retire at a relatively younger age. In our times, players used to play at an age well over 40. [CK] Nayudu-Sahib hit a double-hundred when he was 50. That speaks a lot about that era and our team s superiority.

Rameshwar-Ji was very young when he started playing cricket. An all-rounder in school, he was neither a proper batsman nor a frontline bowler in the Holkar team. He batted as low as No. 8 (even 9 and 10 at times) and was not even the first- or second-change bowler. He was thus more of a bits-and-pieces player in the Holkar XI, rich in class and experience. However, he was a very good fielder, and as he recalls, took many catches at the slips: I was a good fielder and mostly got the chance to field in the slips.

Being a good fielder was a big thing those days. In our times, grounds were not that good. You see fielders diving around on the lush green fields these days. But we played on bumpy, uneven grounds that had no grass cover. Diving around on them would have left us with scraped knees and elbows, he told CricketCountry. With improved facilities, Rameshwar-Ji believes the fielding standard has gone up drastically.

The impressive infrastructure available at almost every cricket centre these days is one of the better things to have happened to cricket, he believes. However, he also throws light on the subtle things that have changed from those times and have made a significant impact on the game: You were not allowed to drink water whenever you wanted in our days. These days, we see bottles available in abundance near boundary ropes. We used to drink once in two hours. But bowlers these days drink every five-six minutes or so. These may seem little things, but they do impact the game.

Col CK Nayudu, in fact, was the one who inculcated this habit amongst the players of not drinking water on frequent intervals. Beech me ek dafa paani aata hai, zarurat kya hai tumko jaane ki? [When you have drinks breaks at regular intervals, why do you need to go out to drink water?], Colonel-Sahib would say. Col Nayudu, in Rameshwar Ji s words, believed it impacted the flow of the game.

Rameshwar-Ji was in awe of CK s personality: He was a disciplinarian. When we used to go out for Ranji matches, he would make sure the players were in the bed in their hotel rooms by 9 pm. You could not smoke or drink in front of him. No night-outs. He was a father-figure to the team and the players would treat him like their father.

On the field, just as off it, Nayudu would call the shots as well. He would set the field and ask the bowlers to bowl accordingly. He was inspirational. The team would look up to him all the time.

I was curious to know more about Nayudu the batsman, and Rameshwar Ji answered my interested curiosity in the best possible manner. His eyes lit up as we started discussing the batting of Nayudu: He was a complete batsman. Colonel-Sahib would have dominated any attack with ease even today, had he been born in this generation. He could innovate and improvise so well in the middle and get runs in unorthodox manner. This T20 cricket would have been an easy thing for him.

Talking about Mushtaq, he said: Even in today s times, when T20 cricket is taking precedence and creating power hitters, there is no player who could match his stroke-making ability. No captain could arrange field for him. 6-3, 5-4, no matter what the field arrangements were, Mushtaq-Sahib would pick the gaps with ease. He was equally adept at playing on matting as well as turf wickets. He was an unorthodox batsman, and could even play the deliveries outside the off-stump on the leg side.

Memories of the match full of records

All the record-breaking six centurions in single frame. Standing: (From left to right): Rameshwar Pratap Singh, MM Jagdale, Col. CK Nayudu, Bhausaheb Nimbalkar. Sitting: Kamal Bhandarkar (left), Chandu Sarwate (Right)    Rameshwar Pratap Singh
All the record-breaking six centurions in single frame. Standing: (From left to right): Rameshwar Pratap Singh, MM Jagdale, Col. CK Nayudu, Bhausaheb Nimbalkar. Sitting: Kamal Bhandarkar (left), Chandu Sarwate (Right) Rameshwar Pratap Singh

Rameshwar-Ji started playing for Holkar at 16. However, the most important match of his career came four years later, the record-filled semi-final of the 1945-46 Ranji Trophy against Mysore at Indore. Rameshwar-Ji still has vivid memory of that match. I was still in school [The Daly College, Indore] at that time. Whoever was going out to bat from our side was getting a hundred. Only Mushtaq-Sahib was unfortunate to get run out cheaply (the only lapse in Rameshwar-ji s memory, as he was actually caught and bowled for 2).

I went in and got runs too. Maharaja Yeshwantrao Holkar, at that time also the President of the selection Committee, was also present on the ground to watch the match. He was joined by the Resident General of Holkar state and Vice President of the selection committee alongside other committee members, he said.

There was Central India Cricket Association before Holkar was formed. The then Maharaja Yeshwantrao decided to form his own team. That was how Holkar team into existence.

Coming back to the match, he said: When I was batting on 80, the score was already well past 800. At this point, the Maharaja asked Colonel CK Nayudu to declare the innings, saying we were already well on course of a big win. RN Zutshi, a member of the selection committee who later went on to become the first Indian to be appointed as the Principal of Daly College and Mayor of Indore city, was sitting nearby and overheard the Maharaja talk about the declaration. He then requested the king to allow his school s ward to complete his hundred and then declare the innings. The King acceded to the request. Such a nice person he was! I got out immediately after scoring my hundred and the innings was declared.

Holkar declared at 912 for 8, then a record of highest team total in Ranji Trophy (Tamil Nadu equalled it in 1988-89, while Hyderabad bettered it with 944 for 6 declared against Andhra Pradesh in 1993-94).

Rameshwar-Ji scored exactly 100. There were five more centurions apart from him. Bhandarkar scored 142, Sarwate 101, MM Jagdale 164, CK Nayudu 101 and Nimbalkar 142. Six hundreds in an innings is still a record: in the entire history of First-Class cricket, only thrice more has a team innings included five hundreds. There were also 7 century partnerships in the innings: no other team innings at First-Class level has even 6.

Comedy of coincidences

Rameshwar-Ji explained that had the king not acceded to the request and Nayudu declared earlier without he getting to the hundred, no record would have been made. He called it a comedy of coincidences: Had I missed my hundred, no record would have been made neither most hundreds in an innings in a First-Class match, nor most hundred-run partnerships in an innings. It was a memorable match and only after two days we learnt we had created world records.

It was not the only time when Rameshwar-Ji was a part of a record. In March 1951 he was a part of a record eighth-wicket partnership with Sarwate, once again in a crucial match, this time in the 1950-51 Ranji Trophy semi-final against Delhi at Feroz Shah Kotla.

He still remembers the game clearly and narrated it with almost child-like excitement. We were 180-odd for 7 [181, actually] batting first. Four or five of our batsmen, who were India players, were already back in the hut. With such stalwarts in the side, I never batted above No. 8. I walked out to face the hat-trick ball as Bhaya and Jagdale were dismissed in the space of two balls. I was under pressure, as nobody likes to take the blame for a hat-trick. But I defended that ball, which hit the middle of my bat, and there was a huge sigh of relief. From there on, I went on to add 236 for the eighth wicket with Sarwate. It remained a Ranji record for years.

From 181 for 7 Holkar ended up scoring 615, their 9, 10 and Jack scoring 88, 88 and 68 respectively. Sarwate got 235. The match ended in a draw but Holkar progressed to the final on first-innings lead. (Amit Mishra and Jayant Yadav hold the Ranji Trophy record currently; they had put up 392 runs for the eighth wicket for Haryana against Karnataka in 2012.)

Rameshwar-Ji also remembers playing alongside Denis Compton. Like many of his contemporaries, Compton too lost some of his best years to the Second World War, during which he served the British Army in India. He was posted at Military Headquarters of War (MHOW), located about 30 km from Indore and was granted permission to play for Holkar in the Ranji Trophy. I played with Compton in the 1944-45 Ranji Trophy semi-final against Madras at Chepauk. I also remember watching him score a double hundred in the final against Bombay, a match that we lost. It was a pleasure playing alongside him and watching him bat, Rameshwar-Ji said.

***

Rameshwar-Ji s career ended at a young age of 28 due to a knee injury he had picked up while playing football during his college days. He used to play multiple sports, and was proficient in football, hockey and squash as well. Being an active sportsman, injuries were part and parcel of his career. In fact, a niggle he picked up in 1947 kept him away from cricket for two years.

However, the knee injury was the final nail in his cricket career s coffin. In the 20 matches he played for Holkar side, Rameshwar-Ji scored 653 runs at 29.68 with that one hundred, besides taking 2 wickets.

No captain could arrange field for him. 6-3, 5-4, no matter what the field arrangements were, Mushtaq-Sahib would pick the gaps with ease.

Post quitting the game, he worked with MP government s Forest Department for a short while before getting into business. His granddaughter Rohini told me it was difficult for him to adjust to a normal life after being used to a royal life before Independence: The MP Government asked him to go to Rewa for a Forest Department project. He declined and quit citing inability to leave family and go to Rewa. He quit and went to his ancestral village and took care of farms and other businesses.

   Getty Images
MPCA Chairman Jyotiraditya Scindia (left) and CAB chief Sourav Ganguly presenting Rameshwar Pratap Singh (centre) with the Lifetime Achievement Award last August Getty Images

He later returned to Indore and has stayed here with his family ever since.

Much has changed since then. Limited-overs cricket came into vogue. India won two ODI World Cups and a World T20. They have recently played their 500th Test, and have risen to the No. 1 spot in Test cricket. Holkar Stadium hosted its maiden Test last year. What, however, has remained constant is Rameshwar-Ji s love for the game.

Rohini told us he still stays glued to the television set whenever matches are on. He confirmed the fact: I still watch cricket all day long. He had last visited Holkar Stadium in November 2008 for an ODI between India and England. Unfortunately, age has refused to allow him to remain seated for long. He has not made a visit to the ground since.

However, he was happy with England s annihilation in the Test series against India last year: They used to call us dull-dogs. Happy that our team beat them the way they did.

From the current generation, he admires Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, KL Rahul and Karun Nair, whose triple-century against England was closely followed at the Pratap Singh household. He believes that Kohli and Rahane are complete players when it comes to technique: From the current crop of players, I like Kohli and Rahane the most. They have solid techniques. I also like Murali Vijay, who has the old-world charm. He plays the orthodox, straight-bat cricket. It is the same with Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, who play conventional cricket.

Rameshwar-Ji had told us earlier that it is unfair to compare players and teams across eras, but I was tempted to ask if he finds any resemblance between the players of his times and current generation. To my surprise, he came up with answers: Vijay and Rahane remind me of the great Polly Umrigar. Pujara reminds me of Mushtaq-Sahib. And for Kohli, well he is a lot like Colonel-Sahib.

Is it just me, or does comparing the flamboyant Mushtaq and the sedate Pujara confuse everyone?

Rameshwar-Ji was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award last August by Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association (MPCA) during their annual awards. Sourav Ganguly was Chief Guest for the function. Though many felt it was a belated honour, MPCA still managed to get full marks for turning the pages of history and acknowledging the contribution of an almost forgotten hero from the past. As they say, it is better late than never.