Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, later His Highness The Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, but known more commonly as Ranji, was a true cricketing genius. The first Indian to play test cricket for England, he brought with him an unheard of èlan at the crease, brought back foot play to English cricket, pioneered the leg glance, and adopted a batting stance that forms the basis of the modern batting approach. Outside cricket, too, he was a prince among men, having been adopted by Vibhaji, ruler of the Kathiawa province. When his cricketing days were over, and he returned to India, Ranji took the title of Maharaja in his native Indian state.

Ranji was born on September 10, 1872 in Sarodar, in the rarified are of the remote Western Province of Kathiawa. Having attended a public school, Rajkumar College, from the age of 8, Ranji moved to England in 1888, leaving India for Cambridge.

Ranji the cricketer

Despite developing his defensive batting skills to complement the undoubted natural flair of his offensive talents, by 1892, Ranji had progressed only as far as a place in the Trinity College eleven, at the same time playing for local sides, and hiring several of England's leading players as personal coaches. He had failed to make it into the University first eleven that season, simply on account of his being Indian.

The following year, he became the first Indian to be awarded a Cambridge Blue, and was courted by Surrey for the County Cricket circuit. Sussex was his preferred choice, though, their weaker team offering him a better chance of selection. Besides, his great friend, the legendary C.B. Fry, was already at Sussex.

From then on, all Ranji seemed to do was break further records, while drawing the admiration of the crowds, not to mention his peers. In 1895, he finished behind only the ageing W.G. Grace, and Archie Maclaren in the batting averages, and but for the cricketing politics of the day, would have been an automatic pick for the national side.

In this era, the England test team was selected by the members of the county where the test match was to be played. So it was, then, that Ranji was overlooked for the first test against Australia in 1896; Lord Harris declaring he was unsure of Ranji's qualification to play for England. The second test, however, was played at Old Trafford, Lancashire, and up in Lancashire, they didn't have much truck with Lord Harris, and promptly decided that whatever he'd said, he was clearly wrong. Ranji was duly selected.

England lost Ranji's debut test, but having scored 62 in the first innings, he made a stunning 154 not out in the second, scoring over half the England team's runs, and becoming in the process only the second England batsman (naturally, W.G was the first) to score a century on debut, and the first to score 100 runs in a morning session, scoring 111 runs before lunch on the third day.

Ranji played 15 tests for England in total, all against Australia, scoring two centuries, and averaging 44.95 runs per innings, the second highest average for any England batsman before World War I¹. In 1897, he scored 175 in the first test against Australia at Sydney, the highest score by an English batsman in test cricket. Another record for the man described as:

"The most brilliant figure during cricket's most brilliant period"²
In first-class cricket, he became the first player to score 3000 runs in a season, in 1899, and promptly achieved the feat again the following season.

More than the runs themselves, though, it was the manner in which he scored them that set Ranji apart from other players of the day. With an unprecedented range of strokes, and such style, speed and grace in performing them, "when he batted a strange light was seen for the first time on English fields"³. He made the leg glance his own in a period when most players in England were scared to play across the line of the ball, and was fearless on even the most dangerous of wickets against the most dangerous of opponents. C.B. Fry recorded of one test against Australia, with the raw, fearsome pace of Ernest Jones, that while the professionals4 were getting themselves out on purpose, "Ranji flicked Jones's fastest ball off his nose". Fry was also to say of Ranji that:

"He moves as if he has no bones. One would not be surprised to see...blue flame shimmering round his bat as he made one of his strokes."

In 1897 he was made one of Wisden's five cricketers of the year. The almanac said this of Ranji:

"If the word genius can with any propriety be employed in connection with the game of cricket, it surely applies to the young Indian's batting."
Away from the crease, Ranji wrote "The Jubilee Book of Cricket"5, showing his Imperial devotion by dedicating it "by her gracious permission to Her Majesty, The Queen Empress", paying homage at the same time to W.G. Grace by saying:
"I hold him to be not only the finest player born or unborn, but the maker of modern batting."
This declaration didn't prevent a less modest Ranji, when he and C.B. Fry were asked once who was the greatest batsman of all time, from turning to Fry and saying "I think, Charles [Fry], that I was better than you on a soft wicket."

English cricket - and English cricketers, who Ranji would entertain at great expense in India - who benefited the most from Ranji's involvement in the game, but the accusation that he did not contribute enough to the game in India, having made his name in English cricket, is a great disservice to Ranji, who inspired so many of his countrymen to pick up the willow wand and play. The Indian national cricket championship is played for a trophy named in honour of Ranji, although in recent times it has had to vie for prominence with the Duleep trophy.

Ranji the Maharaja

Though Ranji achieved much in England's cricketing colours, away from the game Ranji strongly represented India's interests. In 1907 he became the Maharajah of Nawanagar, succeeding his cousin. During World War I, he was a Colonel with the Indian troops in France, and was made KCSI in 1917 (one of three knighthoods he was awarded).

He made himself popular by introducing modernizing schemes into the area, to improve the state's infrastructure. His restructuring of Jamnagar was influenced by his time in England.

In 1924, having met and befriended Irish leaders at a conference in Geneva the previous year, the Prince purchased Ballynahinch Castle in Ireland, in order to pursue his sometimes controversial love of hunting, which had by now been restricted mainly to Salmon fishing.

In 1932 he became chancellor of the Indian Chamber of Princes, and also served on the League of Nations (during which time he managed to get his old friend C.B. Fry a stint as one of three representatives of India in the League.

Ill-health dogged Ranji in the form of asthma, and, in 1907, a bout of typhoid. Alongside his new duties back home, it had already restricted his playing days, but their end was to come when Ranji was on a shooting trip in Yorkshire, after some shot hit him in the face, causing Ranji to lose the use of one eye. Although he returned in 1920, at the age of 48, after some years away from the game, out of condition, and under-rehearsed, he failed to reproduce his former greatness.

On April 2 1933 he died, following a bout of pneumonia. A procession of half a mile led to his cremation, before his ashes were taken to Allahabad, and were scattered in the River Ganges. A memorial to the prince rests on his Palace bed, which is unused since his death. Clothes still hang in a nearby closet.

Ranji: the legacy

Ranji once said:

"When I have finished I hope I may be remembered not only for the success that has been my fortune to enjoy as a player, but rather as one who tried his best to popularise the game for the game's sake."
There can be no doubt that in this, as in many of his aims, he was a great success.

1. Ahead of him was the Hon FS Jackson, averaging 48.79 from tests, also all against Australia.
2. Gilbert Jessop, England's blisteringly fast-scoring batsman.
3. Neville Cardus
4. Professional and amateur players played alongside one another. The professionals (The Players) were generally of lower stock in the fastidious Victorian class system, while the amateurs (The Gentlemen) were generally of more noble lineage. The great W.G. Grace was an amateur himself, making money through his great fame and through endorsements, as many amateurs in all sports have since done.
5. The book was in fact most likely ghost-written by Ranji's good friend C.B.Fry

A Social History of English Cricket, by Derek Birley, Aurum Press, 1999, ISBN 1 85410 622 8