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Salute to a Centenarian


Yesterday the list of First Class cricketers who have celebrated their hundredth birthday numbered 23. Today that exclusive club has a new member, and its second (after DB Deodhar) from India, Vasant Raiji. There were a total of nine First Class appearances for Raiji spread over eleven years. He was a batsman who in his fourteen visits to the crease twice passed fifty, both those half centuries coming in the same match when he was opening the batting for Baroda against Maharashtra in the Ranji Trophy. He scored 68 and 53 in a comfortable 354 run victory.

Outside the game Raiji earned his living, and doubtless it was a reasonable one, as a chartered accountant, but cricket was his passion and over the years he wrote a number of books on the game and, as far as I am aware, is the only notable cricket writer to live to the age of one hundred.

It was 1963, and thus at the age of 43, that Raiji’s first book appeared, self published from his home address. Ranji: The Legend and the Man was slim hardback on the subject of the man who was, certainly up to that point, the most famous of Indian born cricketers. It is a sobering thought that as late as 2020 there is a man, Raiji, who was alive when the man who was one of the shining lights of the Golden Age made his last appearance as a First Class cricketer, at Hastings in August 1920.

Raiji’s book, the first since 1902 to celebrate Ranjitsinhji the cricketer rather than the man, was undoubtedly hagiographical in nature. Raiji openly acknowledged his reliance on the work of earlier writers, notably Cardus, of whom he expressed regret that he had not penned his hero’s biography. As for the reason for writing the book in his preface Raiji wrote; I feel it is the duty of an Indian who has been a keen follower of the game to now collect all the authentic and interesting facts about the greatest cricketer India ever produced.

Shortly after Ranji: The Legend and the Man appeared Raiji was involved in a much more ambitious project on the subject of a batsman he did, as an eight year old, see score 84 and 38 for the Hindus against the Parsees in the 1928/29 Bombay Quadrangular Tournament. It was one of only two First Class matches Duleep ever played in India. Later on despite Duleep being several years older than Raiji the two became friends.

By Indian standards of the day Duleep: The Man and his Game was a luxurious publication. There was no single author but a group of four editors who comprised Raiji, statistician Anandji Dossa, filmmaker and photographer Vithalbhai Jhaveri and former Indian batsman Vijay Merchant. The book is a hardback printed on high quality paper and is now a collectors item. It consists of a biographical section attributed to the editors, of whom one suspects Raiji was the main writer. The bulk of the book then consists of a series of more than forty essays by just about all of the great and the good of cricket writing. It then concludes with a number of writings by Duleep himself on a variety of subjects.

Raiji clearly worshipped the stylists, as his third book in a year was Victor Trumper: The Beau Ideal of a Cricketer. This is very similar in size and appearance to the Ranjitsinhji book although it is of a rather different genre. Whilst Ranji: The Legend and the Man comprised Raiji’s own writings, albeit using extensive quotes from others, the Trumper is an anthology, with contributions from the likes of Arthur Mailey, CB Fry, FS Ashley-Cooper and Cardus.

Despite those three books in little more than a year it was to be almost a decade before Raiji’s name appeared on bookstands again and when it did it was once more in connection with Ranjitsinhji as, in 1972, he edited Ranji: A Centenary Album. It is an unusual book, ring bound and in landscape orientation it was clearly, as with Duleep: The Man and his Game, intended to be a special publication and the gold covered front board that houses the book adds lustre to the finished product as do the myriad of photographs and the regular insertions, on a different grade of paper, of examples of poetry on the subject of the Jam Sahib. The book contains writings from Grace, Fry, Cardus and Duleep as well as extracts from Ranji’s own writings.

By now the die had been cast by Raiji for the sort of publication that he, as a man who earned a living outside of cricket writing, wanted to produce and his next book was another tribute. Again a slim volume, better described as a booklet, LP Jai: Memories of a Great Batsman, appeared at the end of 1975. Jai scored a famous century against a strong Australian touring side in 1935, although he had disappointed in his only Test (against England in 1933/34) and was to do so again when he toured England in 1936 and was unable to break into the Test side. Another great stylist Jai was a batsman that Raiji loved to watch, and he also played with him Jai’s final First Class match. Around half of the 56 page booklet is taken up with Raiji’s tribute to a man he describes as My Cricket Hero, and the rest in the main by appreciations from Merchant, DR Joshi (who worked with Jai in the banking sector) and journalist ‘Bobby’ Talyarkhan.

In 1984 Raiji chose a different tack for his next book, although once again an unashamedly nostalgic one. The title, The Romance of Ranji Trophy: 50 Golden Years, is self-explanatory and Raiji, eight of whose nine First Class appearances were in India’s best loved domestic tournament, produced a fascinating 65 page booklet. The subject might have called for a lengthy narrative, but that isn’t the Raiji way and his 28 short chapters, liberally sprinkled with photographs, scorecards and statistics is essentially a miscellany, visiting all of the Trophy’s most interesting men and moments.

The title page of the Ranji Trophy booklet contains a short quote from John Nyren’s 1833 classic The Cricketers of my Time which, with hindsight, was clearly intended as a hint to the direction in which Raiji’s writing ambitions were moving. Two years later, coinciding with the centenary of the first Parsee tour to England in 1886 he published India’s Hambledon Men, a look back to the ancient history of the game in India. The 156 pages contained a history that John Arlott described as thoroughly and carefully collected and arranged.

The next anniversary marked by a Raiji publication was the following year when CCI & The Brabourne Stadium 1937-1987 appeared, published by the Cricket Club of India Ltd and co-written by Raiji and his old friend Dossa, both of whom of whom had been at the stadium back in ‘37 to watch it’s inaugural fixture when the CCI hosted the strong MCC team that was touring India under the captaincy of Lionel Tennyson. The nicely produced hardback again eschews the lengthy narrative format so often used in histories and whilst the essays are rather fewer and fuller than those in the Ranji Trophy booklet the style is not dissimilar.

There was just one ‘biography’ to appear from the pen of Raiji and that appeared in 1989, CK Nayudu: The Shahenshah of Indian Cricket, although the man himself was keen to describe the book as an appreciation as opposed to a biography. Nayudu was the most exciting Indian cricketer of his generation and cemented his reputation in 1926/27 when, playing against an MCC side whose attack included George Geary, Maurice Tate and Ewart Astill he scored a dazzling 153 and set a record for the number of sixes (eleven) in a First Class innings that was not to be broken for many years.

Sadly for the six year old Raiji his parents did not take him to the ground with them on the day of Nayudu’s famous innings, but at least he had the pleasure of hearing their first hand accounts and, in the future, to be present when Nayudu played many of his major innings. Raiji also had the privilege of playing against Nayudu thirteen years later when he made his own First Class debut. He wrote in his preface to the 101 page hardback; As a schoolboy I ate, drank, breathed and dreamt cricket. But not even in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that one day I would be playing cricket with the greatest cricketer India has ever produced. So it would be fair to say that the book was not intended to be an objective account.

It seemed, for some years, that at 69 Raiji had decided to hang up his pen for good, but then in 2000 Story of the Bombay Tournament: From Presidency to Pentangulars 1892-1946 appeared, co-written with Mohandas Menon a further edition of which, in a de luxe and larger format, appeared six years later. In the meantime in 2005 Raiji was persuaded to edit a slim centenary tribute to Duleep.

Finally, in 2010 somebody, I believe Sachin Bajaj (co-author of the excellent Fortune Turners), had the good sense to put together an anthology of Raiji’s work and Cricket Memories: Men and Matches of Bygone Days appeared. Some of the material came from the earlier books, but most came from magazine and journal articles. Those that were culled from the pages of the likes of Wisden Cricket Monthly, Cricket Quarterly* and the Journal of the Cricket Society can be sourced, but some from more ephemeral publications are much rarer. All are typical of their writer. He does not waste words, but tells some wonderful stories. All of his books are recommended but, as an introduction, Cricket Memories is perhaps the place to start.

*An excellent Indian magazine that ran for 15 issues in the late 1970s and was edited by Anandji Dossa and not Rowland Bowen’s similarly named journal from the 1960s

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