Long before the Indian Premier League made inter-city rivalry over cricket a thing of joy and strife, the Ranji Trophy has pitted city, state and dominion against each other as India’s premier first-class cricket championship.
Many of India’s finest cricketers made their names in the Ranji Trophy before being considered for the national team – the pedestal of gods in Indian cricketing fandom. But the Ranji has a particular appeal to players of quality. Even legends like Sachin Tendulkar chose to play Ranji Trophy matches even when nearing retirement.
Part of the allure, besides the prestige that comes with playing first-class cricket, is the name. The Ranji Trophy started in 1934, its name a nod to the greatest Indian cricketer known at the time – Maharajah Ranjitsinh.
As the name suggests, he was of royal blood – the scion of the ruling family of the princely state of Nawanagar, Gujarat. As Alan Ross famously said of him, he was “The Prince of a Small State, but the king of a great game.”
Ranjit was India’s first great cricketer. But unlike many firsts, he rose to the very top in the country’s first effort. He started his days in first-class cricket at Cambridge, where he scored a century each for three different teams in a single day.
He was a poor student, more interested in leisure and sports than in his academics. Though initially flush with funds, he bankrupted himself – requesting more money from his uncle in India, who sent it in on the promise that Ranjit return to India after his studies. Ranjit, however, was unable to pay off all his debts, and was forced to leave Cambridge. Desperate, he thought of trying to win a ‘Blue’ at tennis – but settled for cricket instead.
Initially, he was an average player – notoriously afraid of fast balls, to the point where he would take a step back if he saw them. A friend and guru advised him to tie his leg to the ground and face the ball. In the course of doing this, Ranjit ended up inventing his distinctive move – the leg glance, where he ‘guides’ the ball to his fine leg, an innovation on existing techniques.
His rapid improvements at the game made him unpopular. How could a brown-skinned man beat the British at the finest level of their finest game? As his prowess grew, so did his proximity to British women. This concerned the British – along racial lines and across continents.
Lord Harris, governor of Bombay in the 1890s, opposed the idea of Ranjitsinh playing for England against Australia in 1896. When Ranjit did so anyway, a writer to the Daily Mail wrote that this would encourage “seditious natives in India (’especially the Bengalese’) to become even more seditious, and result, moreover, in the swamping of English cricket by talented subcontinentals.”
Because Ranjitsinh had been dating some of the British women from Cambridge, there were also fears of Indians intermixing with white women. J.M. Hunter, the political Agent at Kathiawar, told the Bombay government not to allow Ranjit to stay on in Cambridge after his studies, “as this might result in his contracting an European marriage, which is not desirable.”
By then, Ranjit had attained the fame of infamy, and the decision to include him in the test squad was partially to attract crowds. England lost the match, but Ranjit’s performance drew stunned accolades.
[The] famous young Indian fairly rose to the occasion, playing an innings that could, without exaggeration, be fairly described as marvellous. He … punished the Australian bowlers in a style that, up to that period of the season, no other English batsman had approached. He repeatedly brought off his wonderful strokes on the leg side, and for a while had the Australian bowlers quite at his mercy.
His first international tour went well for him, but poorly for his team. His fortunes restarted after 1899, when he returned to cricket after a bout of ill health – heavier, and better able to whack the ball long distances.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Ranjit played some of his best games for England – busting any stereotype about ‘natives’ being unable to play quality cricket. Writing of him, Alan Ross said:
Ranji gave the game some strokes it had never seen before, most notably the leg glance and the late cut, which, perfectly executed, is the most beatiful stroke of them all… Ranji was almost certainly, as well as revolutionary, the most graceful batsmen ever seen in one of the most graceful sports.
C.B. Frey even asked:
Why does he ever get out? Perhaps he knows himself. There may be reasons but they are not apparent.
Ranji’s cricketing career ended in 1912 when he was 39 – a period when he was still able to top the Sussex batting order and come sixth in English county cricket average. By this time, a political struggle in his home state resulted in Ranji being declared the Maharajah of Nawanagar, whose capital, Jamnagar, had a palace.
Nawanagar, described as ‘a disease-ridden, squalid and dusty city” was transformed into what ‘a model city of lakes and gardens, of flowering trees and waterways.” Ranjit built the city a port, though he is remembered for spending more money on entertaining prominent British guests than on infrastructure.
He spent £2,000 on a new hospital and £40,000 on entertaining the Viceroy when it was opened.
During World War I, Ranjit signed up to serve with the British Army. He was stationed as the Aide-de-Camp to Sir John French in 1915, where he lost his right eye after an incident of friendly fire in the Yorkshire grouse moors.
In later years, he represented India at the League of Nations, where he successfully fought for the position of India on the International Labour Bureau as a nation of ‘chief industrial importance.’ He held powerful positions as Chancellor of the Chamber of Princes in Delhi – with the British hoping he would be their stooge. But Ranjit, instead, sought to preserve “the old order under new management” according to Geoffrey Moorhouse.
This alienated him from both Mahatma Gandhi (who had no time for princes) and the British. It was popularly believed that he died of shock after the Viceroy interrupted him at a speech in 1933. But the real culprit was his asthma. Ranjitsinh died alone, with nothing but his pet parrot from Cambridge for company.
The Ranji Trophy was set up as ‘The Cricket Championship of India” in 1934, to cater to India’s growing clout as a cricketing people. The Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, donated the trophy in Ranjit’s honour. Then, the tournament was named after Ranjit, immortalizing him.
As an incubator of first-class cricket, its competing teams are curious. Not every state is represented, and some that are represented, have multiple teams (such as Maharashtra and Bombay, the latter of which has won several times more Ranji Trophies than any other team). There are also two national teams – the Railways and the Services (that is, of the Armed Forces).
The Maharajah behind the Ranji Trophy is responsible for putting India on the international cricketing map. To win the trophy that bears Ranjit’s name remains among the most prestigious awards in cricket.
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