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10 things you didn't know about Maharaja Ranjitsinhji

Yedu Krishnan
Maharaja Ranjitsinhji - arguably India’s first ever cricketer

The popularity of cricket in India has gone beyond moral reason. Wherever you turn to look, there are posters of cricketers, videos of cricketers or interviews of cricketers. As the game has constantly evolved and improved, the fans have also begun to appreciate the nuances of the game, learning to enjoy the aesthetic value of a well-timed shot or the beauty of a delivery that beats the batsman.

The rise in cricket’s popularity has been meteoric; it was not a one-night affair. Did the craze of cricket begin when a young Sachin Tendulkar overpowered the mighty Australians in their backyard? Or did it begin much further back, when a minnow team led by Kapil Dev humbled the world champions West Indies at Lord’s, the home of cricket? Or did it begin when greats like Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Vishwanath held their own against world class bowlers? No one is really sure.

But if one thing is certain, it is that the inception of cricket in India can be traced back to a singular point in history. It can be further be narrowed down to one man – Maharaja Ranjitsinhji.

Unofficially India’s first ever Test player, Ranjitsinhji – called Ranji for short – made waves in the cricketing world with his unorthodox technique. It brought a whole new dimension to the game, as viewers and players alike marvelled at his impeccable balance and strokeplay.

The story of Ranji travelling to England and making a name for himself and his subsequent return to India is well known. Here, we take a look at some relatively unknown facts about Maharaja Ranjitsinhji, arguably India’s first ever great cricketer, who was born on this day – 10 September:

1. Preferred tennis to cricket initially

After troubles regarding Ranji’s ascension to the throne and the existing Maharaja’s heirs, Ranji was hastily enrolled to the Bombay Presidency, where he immediately took to the British way of teaching and studying.

At the age of 10, he was introduced to the gentleman’s game, and he was made captain the following year. But initial reports suggest that Ranji’s technique during his schoolboy years was not as refined as it would be, and also that the future Maharaja preferred tennis to cricket.

2. Wanted to win a ‘Blue’ more than anything

A ‘blue’ is an award which is earned by athletes at university or school championships. Brought up during the British rule, Ranji immediately vowed to win the prestigious award which was only given to the best.

Initially, his aim was to win it for tennis, but he soon focused on cricket. Since the blues were only awarded at Oxford and Cambridge, Ranji decided to move to one of the two institutions. He managed to do so in 1891, and after two years of hard work, finally won the Blue in 1893.

3. An early pioneer of back-foot strokeplay

As Ranji watched around him, he noticed that the batsmen relied too much on the front-foot and often committed themselves forward, making them vulnerable to the short-pitched ball. In order to nullify the threat, Ranji and mentor Daniel Hayward came up with an idea.

To ensure that Ranji used both feet equally and stood still in the crease, Hayward tied Ranji’s front foot to the ground, making it immovable. Ranji thus had to rely on his back foot to play every single ball, and it was not long before he could use both feet equally well. This also led to the popularisation of a new shot – the leg glance.

4. Started too late because of prejudice

While Ranji was welcomed and appreciated in the nets and practise sessions of Cambridge in 1891-92, he did not make his debut for the Cambridge team until much later. The captain of the Cambridge team – and future England captain – Stanley Jackson refused to let Ranji on to the team, an act that he later confessed was because of Ranji being an Indian.

The thinly-disguised act of racism would keep Ranji out of the team for more than a year before an injury to a team-mate gave him his chance in late 1892. Ranji promptly showed his worth as he averaged 44 with the bat, second only to captain Stanley Jackson himself.

5. An excellent fielder as well

While Ranji’s batting prowess is legendary, not many know that he was also an excellent fielder. Apart from his leg glances and cuts, his fielding was also remarked as being exceptionally good by critics, and Ranji took 19 catches in the 1892-93 season, most of them in the slips.

Later, when he was made the captain, he took fielding very seriously and often implemented long fielding drills. Ranji finished with 233 catches in his distinguished first class career.

Ranji’s friendship with CB Fry was what made him play for Sussex

6. Played for Sussex with international legends

After his failure to attend the Bar examination in India in 1894, Ranji was impatient to go back to England, where they had finally accepted him and his cricketing genius. Once he received his Blue from Cambridge, he was ready to fixate on a new target.

It arrived in the form of yesteryear legends CB Fry and Billy Murdoch. Ranji was already fast friends with both of them, and they persuaded him to play for Sussex. It would be the turning point in Ranji’s career as he joined the Sussex team and would take them to new heights.

7. Accumulated massive scores in county cricket

After making his debut for Sussex in 1895, Ranji managed to score more than 1,000 runs in 10 successive seasons. He finished with an enormous 72 centuries and 109 half-centuries and ended up as the highest scorer in the County championships in 1896, 1899 and 1900, passing 3,000 runs in the two latter seasons.

His twin centuries in a day at Hove are the stuff of legend as he single-handedly took on the Yorkshire bowling attack. He was particularly effective on the lively ground of Brighton, where he quickly became a fan favourite.

Ranji’s century against Nottinghamshire was widely regarded as the best performance in the 1895 season, and he finished with 1,775 runs in his first ever county stint. He was one step closer to making his debut for the English cricket team.

8. A controversial debut

Since England did not have a team of national selectors in 1896, it was up to Lord Harris, the president of the MCC, to choose the team to play Australia at Lord’s. Lord Harris was against Ranji’s inclusion in the English team, stating that Ranji had been born in India, and not England.

The fact that this rule did not seem to extend to other players like Billy Murdoch and John Ferris who were also born out of England did not escape the notice of the media. Nevertheless, Harris’ decision held, and Ranji was not selected for the first Test.

But Lord Harris’ power only extended to matches played in Lords’, and Ranji was picked for the second Test in Old Trafford, where he made 62 and 154, though it was in a losing cause.

9. Captained a team named after him

Though Ranjitsinhji did not play a lot of matches in India, he led a widely popularised tour of North America to face the Philadelphian Gentlemen. His team – named the Ranjitsinhji XI – faced a stiff task in foreign conditions, but Ranji was determined to prove that he could be a good captain as well.

The Ranjitsinhji XI won both the matches on the tour, with Ranji himself scoring 68 and 57 in the two innings he played. But if Ranji expected that this would pave the way for him to be the first Indian-born cricketer to captain England, he was in for a cruel realisation.

It seemed that prejudice was still rank among the England selectors, and Ranji never rose to be the English captain, something he had always desired.

10. Contributed to cricket even after retirement

Apart from Ranji’s achievements over the course of his career, his greatest legacy would be his nephew, K. S. Duleepsinhji. After a tragic accident to his eye ended his cricketing career, Ranji returned to India as a disappointed man.

But that soon turned to joy when he discovered that his nephew Duleepsinhji had begun to show an interest in cricket, and Ranji turned all his attention over to him. He tutored Duleep in his early days and helped him follow in his footsteps, paving the way for Duleep’s eventual admission to Cambridge.

The nephew raced past his uncle in his early years, achieving his Blue and making his debut for England much earlier than Ranji. He was also an excellent fielder, amassing 232 catches, mostly in the slips. Ranji was overjoyed when Duleep made 3 hundreds and 5 half-centuries in 12 Tests, even though he was often ill, which made him miss more Tests than he played.

Ranji ensured that his legacy lived on as Duleep was another revelation for England, despite being born in India. It was only fitting that he followed his uncle by having a trophy named after him – the Duleep Trophy.

Edited by Staff Editor

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