Cricket is a fascinating game. It is not just about batsmen trying to take bowlers to the cleaners and bowlers aspiring to knock down their batting counterparts. There are subtleties and intricacies which are finely intertwined in the outward accoutrement. The game has evolved drastically over the last 130 years and it has produced some of the finest sportsmen who became the national icons.
Cricket is a fine blend of art and science and no one in the history of the game embodied this truism more than Kumar Ranjitsinhji, fondly known as Ranji. He revolutionized the cricketing landscape with his distinct style, innovative strokeplay and sublime craftsmanship which warmed the cockles of millions of hearts. Born on September 10, 1872 near Jamnagar to a princely family, Ranji went to England to study in 1888 and joined Cambridge in 1891. He immediately warmed up to cricket and started playing for the university in 1893. He scored a mountain of runs and made his first-class debut for Sussex in 1895. In his first match against MCC at Lord's, Ranji scored 77 not out and 150, took six wickets and nabbed two catches.
During the season, Ranji compiled 1,766 runs at an average of 50.16 which included four centuries. His dexterity earned laurels from his contemporaries and cricket writers. "When he batted a strange light was seen for the first time on English fields," wrote Neville Cardus.
Ranji was a serious contender for a place in the England team when Australia visited in 1896. However, Lord Harris, President of the MCC, didn't approve of his selection and Ranji was left out of the squad which incited massive public outcry.
The backlash prompted selectors to draft him into the team for the second Test at Old Trafford and though his 62 and unbeaten 154 couldn't stave off defeat, Ranji stamped his authority as an extraordinary talent. "It is safe to say that a finer or more finished display has never been seen on a great occasion," wrote of his batting.
What stood out more than the runs he crafted was his unorthodox style which was not only pleasing to the eye, but also proved supremely effective. In the 1890s, batsmen preferred to score their runs on the offside and the legside was considered a prohibitive zone. Youngsters were strictly told not to play across the line. Leg-stump half-volleys were usually patted back to the bowlers. Ranji opened a new avenue for future generation of batsmen by devising a shot which would later be known as the leg glance. He had supple wrists and the knack of playing the ball late which enabled him play the leg glance with ease. In those days, captains usually kept only one or two players on the leg side and Ranji plundered heaps of runs defying all odds. He is also credited as the first batsman to unveil the late-cut.
A few arm-chair critics sneered at Ranji's achievement, terming the leg-glance an immoral tactic. Soon, though, it was hailed as a miraculous invention and Ranji was tagged with appellations like, 'magician' and 'juggler. The former Australian captain Clem Hill aptly described him as "more than a batsman - nothing less than a juggler."
Ranji scored 2,781 runs at an average of 57.91 in 1896, and obliterated WG Grace's 25-year-old record for the highest aggregate for a single season. He was selected by Wisden as one of their Five Cricketers of the Year. "If the word genius can with any propriety be employed in connection with cricket, it surely applies to the young Indian's batting," raved cricket’s bible.
When England toured Australia in 1897, Ranji cracked a century in his first Test on Australian soil to vindicate that he was a batsman for alls seasons. His sparkling 175 in the first innings enabled England to seal a comprehensive nine-wicket victory. In 1899 he became the first batsman in the world to score over 3,000 runs in a season.
Overall, Ranji played 15 Test matches and scored 989 runs at an average of 44.95. In first-class cricket, he played 500 innings (62 times not out) and scored 24,693 runs at an average of 56.37. He made 72 centuries of which 14 were double-centuries. When Ranji bid adieu to the game in 1920, Cardus wrote, "A wonder and a glory has departed from the game forever."
Though his career statistics are eminently illustrious, Ranji is remembered as a maverick who injected a wide array of distinctive and innovative strokes in cricket which made the game more alluring and compelling. He remained a bachelor all his life and died on April 2, 1933 at the age of 60. India's premier domestic first-class tournament, the Ranji Trophy, is befittingly named after him and his rich legacy reminds us of his glorious past.