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England’s First Indian Prince

Ranjit Sinhji
England's First Indian Prince

There was just one cricket book in the library of my secondary school. Why there should have been even one in that sprawling wood-panelled temple to academia I could never work out. The fact the book had been published more than sixty years before I first chanced upon it, tucked away in a corner by a radiator adjacent to the least popular seat in the room served only to make its presence more mysterious.

Despite its antiquity The Jubilee Book of Cricket was far from uninteresting, and from time to time it provided me with a welcome distraction from my studies. The author was Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, an exotic name that struck a chord for that reason alone, and the more so once I learned that despite playing so long ago Ranji still had the highest career average, 56.37, of any English based player (more than a decade later Geoffrey Boycott retired on 56.83, but no one else has passed Ranji’s mark).

The book came in two parts, the first section was instructional, and the second historical, containing chapters on the histories of the Oxford and Cambridge University cricket clubs, those of some of the major public schools and then the First Class counties. The fact that Ranji was responsible only for the instructional chapters passed me by at the time, but all in all the fact that the book’s original target audience was the schoolboy enthusiast no doubt in part explained its appeal to me. It remains a decent read in the 21st century. It is inevitably very much a period piece, but it remains relevant and, because it sold very well through several editions, copies can be acquired for a very modest outlay to this day.

It was to be many years before I learnt very much more about Ranji. Along the way I picked up that he was in the vanguard of the so-called Golden Age of batsmanship along with the likes of CB Fry, Victor Trumper and Archie MacLaren, and that he was an Indian prince. There was an occasion when I tried to read a 1934 biography of him that was written by Roland Wild. It is a dull book and not recommended. In recent years I have revisited Ranji and read two modern biographies, by Alan Ross, now sadly deceased, and Simon Wilde. Of those who were not born in England and brought up in Australia Wilde is probably the game’s best current writer. Ross’s book largely repeated the story Wild had told, but did so in the highly readable prose for which Ross has always been rightly revered and which was sadly lacking in Wild’s effort. Wilde on the other hand started again, and uncovered the real story, or at least as close to it as we will ever get from this distance in time.

Ranji was born in 1872 into a family that was indeed very well connected, but his particular branch of it had fallen on hard times. His father was not a pleasant man, and had a drink problem and it was probably as well that the rather sickly child that Ranji was found himself packed off to live with an uncle as a small boy. At six years of age Ranji became the heir to the throne of Nawanagar. There was concern that the current incumbent had no son, so Ranji was selected for the role. Sadly for him however that status did not last, thanks to his father’s behaviour antagonising the existing Jam Sahib, although in the long run that particular piece of parental interference mattered little, as a son was eventually produced anyway.

The giving and snatching away of the chance to become ruler was not a wholly negative experience for Ranji however, as he was heir for long enough to take his place at the prince’s college in Rajkot. Strictly speaking he should have lost that privilege when his status as heir went, but fortunately for him he had by then shown sufficient prowess on the sports field and academically to be able to stay, and from there a place was arranged for him at Cambridge University. In 1888 Ranji, primarily in those days a tennis player, travelled to England with the principal of the prince’s college, as well as two fellow students. One was named Mansur Khachar, of whom more later.

Cricket only assumed a major role in Ranji’s life once he arrived in England and for four years he worked hard on mastering the art of batting. His reputation is of a man who was prodigously talented and brought a new style and grace to the game with his approach. That is true enough, but it is a mistake to assume that he relied on innovation alone. What Ranji had above all else was a superb eye for the ball. He adopted a stance that was much more open and two-eyed than had previously been recommended and he wasn’t afraid to play cross batted strokes. He famously invented the leg glance and his approach whilst at the crease was, unless he came down the wicket to drive, to play back where the extra time his lightning fast reactions gave him enabled him to improvise in a way that shocked the purists, but delighted spectators everywhere.

Before Ranji non-white sportsmen were rare, and not surprisingly he came up against plenty of prejudice, and that is the reason why his First Class debut was delayed until 1893. It was not a great season for him in terms of runs scored, but he succeeded in becoming the first Indian to win a Blue, and in the University’s game against the touring Australians he top scored in both innings, with 58 and an unbeaten 37.

Ranji’s time at Cambridge ended in the spring of 1894. He had run out of funds and was in debt, so much so that he could not afford to be called to the bar, his initial intention. That summer he played only eight First Class matches, most of them for the MCC and none of any significance. It was the following year when, despite not having the requisite two years residential qualification, he joined what at that time was a fairly weak Sussex side, and it was doubtless that weakness that meant no one questioned his right to play for the county. In his first match against the MCC he scored a century (his first) before lunch on the third day, and never looked back. He ended the season with more than 1,700 runs at almost 50.

In 1896, only his second full season, Ranji had a remarkable summer. With 2,781 runs he beat the previous record season’s aggregate that had been set by WG Grace a quarter of a century before. He equalled WG’s record ten centuries. Against a powerful Yorkshire side Ranji achieved the remarkable feat of scoring twin centuries on the same day, and he ended the season at the head of the First Class averages. Those fine performances notwithstanding the greatest feature of the season from Ranji’s point of view was his Test debut. In those days the England side was chosen by the hosts, and the MCC committee decided not to pick him for the first Test at Lord’s. Perhaps surprisingly against that background the Lancashire committee were happy to pick him for the Old Trafford Test and he became only the second man, after WG, to score a century on debut. What he additionally achieved, to go one better than Grace, was firstly to also get a half-century in the first innings, and within his unbeaten 154 in the second innings he scored 114 before lunch. The disappointment was that with only Drewy Stoddart of his teammates scoring more than 19, Australia ran out winners despite Ranji’s heroics.

The following season was a disappointment to Ranji, but he had still done enough to be invited to tour Australia in 1897/98 for his only overseas tour. He started superbly, with a big century against South Australia in the first match and 175 in the first Test which helped England to victory. The visitors lost the other four Tests however, and although there were three more half-centuries for Ranji, and he still managed to average 60 for the tour as a whole, less than perfect health meant that he could not keep the brilliance going.

At the end of the series Ranji did not accompany the rest of the party home and instead went back to India to mount a legal challenge to the succession of the Nawanagar throne. He failed, but succeeded in getting the entire issue referred to London, and that brought him back to England in time for the start of the 1899 season. The UK government was not prepared to interfere with the decisions made in India, but if that troubed Ranji it certainly didn’t affect his batting. He beat the record he had set himself in 1896 and with 3,159 runs at 63.18 became the first man to top 3,000 runs for an English summer. The downside was that in an Australian summer he was again on the losing side and, by his standards of the season, would have been disappointed at averaging 46.33 in the five Test series with just two half-centuries.

In 1900 Ranji topped 3,000 runs again. His aggregate was down slightly, to 3,065, but he had 18 fewer innings and his average was north of 87. His form was remarkable and even the captaincy of Sussex, who he led to their best position yet of fourth, failed to have any discernable impact on his brilliance. In the penultimate match of the summer he scored his eleventh century, and beat the record he had shared with WG since 1896. Five of those centuries were doubles, at a time when no one before him had scored more than two in a season, and that record would only be downed by, inevitably, Bradman. At the end of that season Ranji’s dominance can be illustrated by the fact that he then had all of the three highest aggregates recorded in an English season.

Not surprisingly Ranji couldn’t recapture the same form in 1901. In addition by now captains were becoming wise to his strengths and leg fields were strengthened in order to stifle some of his scoring, but despite that there were still more than 2,400 runs at 70. There were also problems of an entirely different nature. Ranji enjoyed an expensive lifestyle, an example of which is that he believed hiself to be the first man in Cambridge to own a car. He received a modest allowance from the state, but for the bulk of his income he relied on the generosity of a number of benefactors, some more generous than others. By the time the 1901 season was ended he was in real trouble, with a bankruptcy petition hanging over his head. He managed to avoid that at the eleventh hour, but over the winter of 1901/02 he had to return to India to try and stabilise his finances.

The 1902 season saw one of the most famous Ashes series. Rain marred the first two games before Australia won the first and, by three runs, then sealed the series in Fred Tate’s match before a famous fourth innings century by Gilbert Jessop, followed by George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes ‘getting them in singles’ to claim a one wicket consolation victory in the final Test. Ranji’s Test career had ended with Fred Tate’s however, having averaged just 4.75 in the three Tests in which he played. He had got back from India late, his mission largely unsuccessful, and he was distracted for most of the summer by continued desperate manoeuverings to stave off renewed threats of bankruptcy. He barely got his 1,000 for the season, and without an unbeaten 234 against Surrey his record would have been little short of dismal. As it was he averaged 46, and in a damp summer that was good enough to place him second in the country.

Ranji had dropped out of the Sussex side in the final weeks of the 1902 season. The reason was again that he needed to take time out to sort out his financial problems which again he managed to do, albeit only just. He overwintered in Cambridge, so was not in India when local police in India heard word of a plot to kill the by then 20 year old Jam Sahib, who had yet to produce an heir. Perhaps Ranji heard about it as well, as in 1903, despite another wet summer and playing for a month whilst carrying a muscle strain, he was much more relaxed. There were almost 2,000 runs, at more than 56.

1903 might have been Ranji’s last season, finances dictating that he return to India again that winter, but then he got lucky. His old school friend Mansur Khachar agreed to lend him GBP10,000. It was an eye-watering sum. To put it in context the equivalent figure today would be more than one million pounds. In return for the loan Ranji had promised to assist Khachar in his efforts to succeed to the throne of Jasdan. In fact as soon as he got the cash Ranji left India, and by mid-May 1904 he was back to assist Sussex. At 31 it was his last full season. He broke the 2,000 run mark and averaged nearly 75. For the fourth time he headed the national averages – since 1895 he had never dropped below fifth.

When Ranji returned to India at the end of that season he travelled with Archie MacLaren, who he had just appointed to the position of his private secretary. The former Lancashire and England skipper was another great amateur cricketer whose lifestyle always outstripped his ability to finance it and it may be that an affectionate description of them as ‘partners in crime’ was actually rather closer to the truth than either man would ever have been prepared to admit.

On arrival in India Ranji’s immediate action was to press forward once again with his claims to the Nawanagar throne by lobbying the Viceroy, Lord Curzon. This constant harping on about the succession at first blush seems odd. After all quite apart from having been disowned by his uncle, that uncle had in any event subsequently sired his own heir anyway. What was Ranji’s point? It seems to have been that his initial choice as heir amounted to a formal adoption, and that accordingly the dropping of him by his uncle, as well as the later arrival of a younger ‘sibling’ were therefore irrelevant. We know also that Ranji, by seeking a call to the bar, had leanings towards the law. One thing that many lawyers believe is that if you regularly regurgitate a spurious argument with sufficient conviction to enough people who matter then one day someone who matters, somewhere, is going to accept what you say.

The biggest problem that Ranji had in early 1905 was that Mansur Khachar had decided that he had been deceived in relation to that huge loan, and a lawsuit in the Indian High Court followed. This was potentially disastrous for Ranji, as he couldn’t possibly pay, and defeat would certainly put an end to those lingering hopes he harboured towards the throne of Nawanagar.

And then the Jam Sahib died, officially of typhoid. He was 24 and had not produced an heir. So there was a lacuna to be filled. Competing with Ranji were others with legitimate claims, but this time his argument, finely honed by repeated deployment, succeeded, and he became the Jam Sahib. Did his predecessor die of natural causes, or was he perhaps poisoned, and if so by whom? Wild’s book throws this tantalising possibility into the mix, but the evidence is long gone. But Ranji was certainly fortunate that the sort of public scrutiny that to this day goes on in relation to the incident that took place in Dealey Plaza in Dallas on 22 November 1963 was still a few decades away.

Wild’s authorised biography of Ranji dealt at length with his achievements as Jam Sahib, with him taking the credit for much of the progress made in the state during his reign. In truth the credit probably belonged to others more than Ranji, but there can be no doubt that his status as a sporting celebrity would have done the state no harm, but frictions did continue, as ever in the main in relation to Ranji’s personal finances. These improved immeasureably after his succession but, thankfully as far as his subjects were concerned, he did not have personal control of the state’s purse strings.

By 1908 Ranji felt able to return to England, apparently to recover from an attack of typhoid, but the 36 year old was able to play for most of the season, albeit he did not travel far, and also had to take time off in order to deal with creditors with long memories. Inevitably after such a layoff he was not quite the batsman he was, but after a slow start he ended up with over 1,000 runs at 45, and only six men in the country headed him in the averages.

On his return Ranji was advised by the Indian government that he should wait at least four years between visits to England. In light of that he came back next at the earliest available opportunity, 1912. It was the year of the Triangular Tournament and, optimistically, he made himself available for England and indeed it seems at one point he hoped the captaincy might come his way. In the event that job went to his old friend Fry, and Ranji was not called upon to add to his 15 Test caps. Despite that the 39 year old who had played very little cricket since 1908 managed his 1,000 runs again, at the respectable average of 42. This time only five men bettered him, and there were fine centuries against Kent, Cambridge University, Lancashire and, doubtless most satisfying of all, the touring Australians.

The outbreak of the Great War afforded Ranji another opportunity to travel to Europe, and he quickly volunteered, being given the honorary rank of Major. He travelled to France, but his status meant that no risks were taken with his safety. In 1915 he was wounded, albeit not whilst in France but as a result of an accident on a shooting party in the North Yorkshire Moors. He lost an eye and a combination of that, and no doubt the inexorable march of time, meant that when he made his final comeback, at 47 in 1920, he was no longer the player he once was. He played three games for Sussex in August, but 39 runs in four innings convinced him the game was up.

As time passed Ranji did become prosperous, and once his affairs and those of Nawanagar were in order he began to divide his time more or less equally between India, where he had a fine palace, a summerhouse and a shooting lodge, and Europe, where he maintained a country home near Staines and an estate on the west coast of Ireland. He took an almost proprietorial interest in the cricketing progress of his nephew, Duleep, not unreasonably given the encouragement he had lavished on the youngster during his childhood. He also played an active part in Indian politics, being fiercely defensive of the role of the princes in the face of growing pressure from the Indian National Congress for democracy.

Never completely robust in his health Ranji was 60 when he died in 1933. He had not been well for some time, although his death from heart failure was still unexpected. He was mourned the world over and tributes were many and fulsome. Few knew the whole story, and none of those who did told it, and until Simon Wilde’s biography was published no one knew Lieutenant-Colonel His Highness Maharajah Jam Shri Ranjitsinhji Kibhagi as anything other than a great cricketer, statesman and human being. That he wasn’t perfect should not surprise us though – as we all know no man really is.

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