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Ranjitsinghji was father of batting, codifying the shots we take for granted today

By Harsh Thakor 

On September 10th, we commemorated the 150th birth anniversary of K.S.Ranjitsinghji.  Ranjitsinhji was born on was born on September 10, 1872, in Kathiawar, Gujarat under the rule of British India. He was the ruler of the princely Indian state of Nawanagar. He was secretly adopted by Jam Saheb so that he could have a direct heir to the throne. In a stroke of great fortune for Ranji, Jam Sahib Vibhaji, who was the ruler of the local province, adopted Ranji as his heir. This paved the way for Ranji to attend school in England, and his potent skill with the bat were shaped by RS Goodchild, who was the headmaster of St Faith's College.
Ranjitsinghji virtually took batting art to another dimension, transcending artistry or wizardry to regions of divinity. Ranji was the ultimate manifestation of batting genius of his age. He may have been overshadowed statistically by some, but no batsmen's strokes more bestowed the beauty, grace or poetry of the game of cricket.Batsmen were simply unable to execute strokes Ranji could do to given deliveries. He was the pioneer of oriental artistry which defied all conventions. The equivalent of a Michelangelo to the art of batting, in terms of inventiveness or creativity, giving a sensation of undertaking experiments with the bat.Ranjitsinghji possibly was endowed with more natural talent than even Donald Bradman . He was the pioneer of oriental artistry which defied conventional bio-mechanics. He epitomised perfection in backfoot play like no other player. No batsmen ever dispatched straight balls from the fastest bowlers with such remorseless ease to the boundary, with a mere flick of the wrists. He invented the leg-glance.
The English batsmen were unable to emulate Ranji The later genius of a Gundappa Vishwanath or Mohammad Azharuddin have direct descent, from Ranji’s game. He was the pioneer of oriental artistry which defied all conventions. It is arguable that even modern day wizards like a Viv Richards or Sachin Tendulkar did not equal Ranji’s genius. Ranji was the first outstanding Indian sportsman, and apart from boxing, there was no other non-white champion sportsman. He illustrated that an Indian or non –white person could be more talented than a white person.Ranji was the first ever Indian sportsman to attain international status.
Simon Wilde wrote in his biography “Ranji A Genius Rich and Strange”: “He practised with as much purpose whether he had just been out for 100 or for 0. He was a severe critic of his own game, and if he was indeed a genius it was for his infinite capacity for taking pains, not for becoming a superlative cricketer overnight. He enjoyed theorizing about the game and putting those theories into practice.”
Neil Cardus elucidated in "Good Days" (1934): “In the ‘nineties the game was absolutely English; it was even Victorian. W.G. Grace for years had stamped on cricket the English mark and the mark of the period. It was the age of simple first principles, of the stout respectability of the straight bat and the good-length balls. And then suddenly this visitation of dusky, supple legerdemain happened; a man was seen playing cricket as nobody in England could possibly have played it. The honest length ball was not met by the honest straight bat, but there was a flick of the wrist, and lo! The straight ball was charmed away to the leg-boundry. And nobody quite saw or understood how it all happened.”
All those who saw Ranji bat sweared that he had an exceptionally quick eye and could hook the fastest bowling with contemptuous ease. Though he had appeared in English first-class cricket since 1893, Ranjitsinhji’s first full season was in 1895 when he made his debut for Sussex against the MCC at Lord’s. He caused an immediate impact, carving out scores of 77 and 150. From then on he captured the imagination of the public and became a very popular, even mystical, figure.
The next year at the age of 23, Ranji topped the first-class averages at 57.92, surpassing Grace’s record season aggregate by scoring 2780 runs, and equalling the great senior’s 10 hundreds. In a unique feat, Ranji hit up a century in each innings of a match on the same day. Resuming at zero not out, he notched up 100 and 125 not out for Sussex against Yorkshire at Hove. The English were reluctant to pick him in their Test side, but his immense popularity ensured that he was selected for the second match. Appropriately, Ranji became the second England batsman after Grace to score a hundred on Test debut, an unbeaten 154 against Australia at Manchester, having hit 62 in the first innings. In the process he nearly pulled off an improbable win. In the 1897 season, Ranji scored 1940 runs at an average of 45.12. He hit up his first double-century, 260 in just 250 minutes with 36 fours and a six against MCC at Lord’s, the highest by a Sussex batsman.
Ranji was never at home in arduous journeys. Prone to bouts of asthma, he was taken ill during the month-long voyage to Australia in 1897-98, even though he joined the team only in the south of the European Continent. He was still unwell when the first Test began in Sydney. Even so, he battled through, sculpting a classical 175, which was a record for England until R.E. Foster bettered it with 287 at the same venue six years later. Ranji’s knock enabled England to win their only Test in a series they lost 1-4. It was a productive tour for him personally, averaging over 50 in the Tests and over 60 in the first-class matches. In all he amassed 1157 runs. At the end of the tour, Ranji returned to his homeland after a decade.
Having missed the English season of 1898 as a result of a long sojourn at home, Ranji’s best came at the turn of the century, even though he was not quite as slim and his feet seemed not as nimble. In 1899 he became the first to score 3000 runs in a season. He bailed out England in the first Test at Nottingham, scoring 42 and 93 not out, and holding Australia to a draw. By the end of the series he had scored 970 runs in 12 Tests at a brilliant average of 53.88. He amassed 3159 first-class runs at 63.18 per innings.
After a trip to the United States during the winter, Ranji’s 1900 season was just as brilliant. With the invincibility of a great emperor he knocked up successive double centuries, both for Sussex – 222 against Somerset at Hove, and an unbeaten 215 versus Cambridge University at Fenners. Illustrating mastery on rained surfaces, in scintillating style he reached 202 in three hours off the Middlesex bowling after a thunderstorm at Hove, the next highest by a Sussex colleague being 17. His five double centuries were a record for a season, bettered only by Bradman with six in 1930. Everton Weekes of the West Indies equalled Ranji’s five double tons exactly half a century later. The now-unstoppable Ranji logged up 3000 runs for the second successive season, this time scoring 3065 runs and topping the averages at a mind-boggling 87.57, hitting up 11 hundreds.
1901 he was again at his best. Again Ranji scored two double centuries in a row, once more representing his county, an unbeaten 285 against Somerset at Taunton and 204 at the expense of Lancashire at the home ground of Hove. The first was an amazing feat, not only for the fact that it was his top score and the highest-ever by a Sussex batsman, but because he was out fishing the entire previous night! For the 1901 season his tally was 2468 runs at 70.51 per innings. In three consecutive seasons, Ranjitsinhji had totalled 8692 runs at an average of 72.43 with 27 hundreds. The wizard from the orient continued to enchant and befuddle at the same time.
He did not set sail to Australia in 1901-02 .Possibly due to the troubles in his personal life, he lost form dramatically in the Tests in 1902, managing just 19 runs in four innings and never played at that level again. He still finished with a Test average of 44.96, an outstanding achievement at the time. In first-class matches, though, Ranji continued to blaze away till 1904 when he again topped the 2000 mark as well as the averages – 2077 runs at 74.17.
Ranji stepped on a cricket field one last time in 1920. Surprisingly, he played three first-class matches and, as was only to be expected, failed miserably. The fact was that his right eye had been removed five years earlier when on August 31 he had met with an accident while shooting grouse on the Yorkshire moors. This was soon after he returned from France, ending a brief and miserable stint in the army during the First World War.
In test cricket Ranji averaged 44.95, scoring 989 runs and 2 centuries. In first class cricket he amassed 24692 runs, with 72 centuries.Ranji’s first-class average of 56.37 was the highest for a full career by an England-based player until as late as 1986 when Geoff Boycott retired with a fractionally higher average of 56.84. And if one considers that Ranji’s career was all but over in 1904; his appearances thereafter were sporadic in 1908 and 1912, and farcical in 1920, his deeds are even more astounding. Upto 1904, Ranji had scored 22,402 runs at an average of 58.49 with 65 hundreds in 267 matches, really in less than a decade. Simply genius personified. In first class cricket his achievements are comparable to any all-time great batsmen.
To the outside world Ranji was picture exceptionally gifted prince who toiled arduously in the nets to emerge as the finest batsman of his era. People hardly gauged the inner turmoil he faced during his best years at the wicket. The sensation of his adoption that never was, the machinations over his succession as ruler and his financial woes at the time. He was beset by illness for prolonged periods, which affected his career. One has to applaud his success under the most challenging circumstances. Throughout is life he had to confront the barrier of racial or political prejudice .Sadly in 1902 he was denied title of Maharaja and financial problems drew him towards bankruptcy. Thanks to British colonial civil servants he was awarded a vacant princely thrown of his patron, which multiplied his wealth and enabled him to play more cricket in England. He ultimately lived the life of an aristocrat in England, serving with Fry in the League of nations.
As Gilbert Jessop wrote: “From the moment he stepped out of the pavilion he drew all eyes and held them. No one who saw him bat will ever forget it. He was the first man I ever knew who wore silk shirts, and there was something almost romantic about the very flow of his sleeves and the curve of his shoulders. He drew the crowds wherever he went, and at the height of his cricket days the shops in Brighton would empty if he passed along the street. Everyone wanted to see him.”
As late as 1944, Pelham Warner wrote in The Book of Cricket: “With his wonderful eye and wrists, he could play back to almost any ball, however good a length, and however fast. Like Bradman, he seldom played a genuine forward stroke, for, again like Bradman he found that balls to which he could not play back he could, with his quickness of foot, get to and drive.”
Quoting cricket enthusiast Robert on Pakpassion blog “Prince Ranji was the father of batting, codifying the shots we take for granted today (backward and forward defensive, hook, cut, pull, drive). Sir Jack Hobbs and then Sir Donald Bradman stood on his shoulders.”
I recommend fans to read the books on Ranji by Simon Wilde and earlier essays of Neil Cardus.

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