The crown jewel in an age of greatness

Jon Culley pays tribute to the brilliance of Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, the Indian prince who made his Test debut for England 100 years ago this week
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The Independent Online
Were it possible, just once, to travel back through time, it is difficult to imagine a destination more tempting in cricket's past than the couple of decades spanning the final years of the last century and the beginning of this, the era encompassing what was to become known as cricket's Golden Age.

If it were feasible to be more specific still in determining where to touch down, one might well conclude that, to bear witness to these times, no more agreeable vantage point could be found than a deckchair at Hove. Those fortunate enough to have enjoyed that privilege in the Sussex sea air between 1895 and 1904 would have seen, in his pomp, Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, the Indian prince known with affection everywhere he performed as "Ranji."

These years were indeed patterned with a golden thread, illuminated by the concurrent careers of some of the finest batsmen ever to have appeared on English cricket fields, names with a resonance that has, if anything, grown richer and deeper with passing years: Charles Burgess Fry, Archie Mac-Laren, F S Jackson, Johnny Tyldesley, Gilbert Jessop.

It was an age in which amateurs, unshackled by the mundane requirements of professionalism, were able to approach their game with a carefree and daring spirit, unworried by such trifles as wages and contracts. In this climate, Ranji, of Cambridge University and Sussex, emerged as a star when the word still had some meaning.

As elegant a man as he was a cricketer, Ranji captured the imagination of the public as no other player had; and never more so than in this week 100 years ago when, at the age of 23, he made his debut for England against Australia in Manchester, the first Indian ever to play Test cricket.

It was a remarkable debut; he made 62 in the first innings and, when England batted for a second time, emulated W G Grace by scoring a century in his first Test. In the course of it, he established a mark of his own as the first to score 100 before lunch in a Test, moving from 41 to 154 in 130 minutes on the third morning.

The feat made Ranji the talk of the cricketing world, just as he had been on his debut for Sussex in 1895, when he scored 77 not out and 150 against the MCC at Lord's. In that first season he scored 1,775 runs at an average of around 50, which he was to maintain throughout his career. Effectively, this spanned fewer than 15 years and yet produced almost 25,000 runs in 500 innings, including 72 centuries, 14 of them turned into doubles. Twice he scored more than 3,000 runs in a season.

The cricket of Ranji, though, was not to be measured in statistics, impressive though they were, for he was a cricketer his contemporaries perceived as possessed of magic.

In part, this was due to his exotic countenance and to the impression most late Victorians held of India, as a land of conjurors, rope tricks, flying carpets and all manner of mysteries. But he brought a real mystical charm to the game with the way he played it. Blessed with the sharpest of eyes and timing which no other player of the day - not even Fry, his scientific Sussex team-mate - could match, he also had great strength and control in his wrists, which enabled him to drive with substantial power but at the same time execute the most delicate of strokes.

In this way he truly revolutionised batting, sending good length, middle stump balls to the leg-side boundary as if spirited away, perfecting the late cut and inventing what we now recognise as the leg glance, which enabled him to score runs in hitherto unexplored territory. He used the litheness of his body - or, as Neville Cardus put it, his "fluttering curves" - to move across to the off side when the ball was pitched fast and short of a length, playing the ball off his hip with the full face of the bat.

The stroke tormented opponents and left spectators open-mouthed. Jessop, from whom a compliment was something to be treasured, described him as "the most brilliant figure in cricket's most brilliant age". Ranji's obituary in Wisden paid him what was, in the yellow book's estimation, the highest tribute, conceding that "genius could with the greatest truth be applied to him".

Never had been witnessed in a player such a natural ability as his and yet Ranji owed more, in fact, to practice than was probably appreciated by those who watched him, and who assumed from his unorthodox strokes that he played by instinct. In fact, until he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1890, he had no experience of organised cricket. At Cambridge, however, the game became an obsession. He hired Bill Lockwood, Tom Richardson and Tom Hayward, professionals on the Surrey staff, along with Jack Hearne of Middlesex, to bowl at him endlessly in the nets and insisted they bowl at their fastest, which in the case of Lockwood and Richardson was at fearsome speed.

By the time he qualified for Sussex he was ready for anything, at home on hard, fast surfaces but an expert, too, at playing rain-affected pitches, as he demonstrated against Middlesex at Hove in 1900 when, in the most unhelpful conditions, he made 202 in three hours. His career, in the end, was abbreviated by duty. On inheriting the title of Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar in 1907, he became increasingly pre-occupied with that state's administration and with other political distractions. He also had the misfortune to lose an eye in a shooting accident, despite which he returned to England to play a few more matches for Sussex in 1920.

He died suddenly in 1933 at the age of 61, after which India instituted the Ranji Trophy in his honour. Nowadays there is a clamour for greater recognition of his talents here, much of it coming from India, where commentators point out that for all that the English cherish Ranji's memory, they do not commemorate him as they do Grace, even though the good doctor, in 1908, said of him that "you will never see a batsman to beat him if you live for 100 years".

Cardus, more eloquently, said that "cricket was changed into something rich and strange whenever Ranji batted. When he passed out of cricket, a wonder and a glory departed from the game forever."