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Cricket’s First Colored Superstar

There is a Jackie Robinson film about to be released across the theatres in the Unisted States.  Jackie Robinson will always be known as the man who broke the color barrier in Baseball.  So it made me think of the first non-white, or colored if you may prefer, superstar of Cricket.  Who was he?  As I began my research I was surprised to find that it wasn’t a West Indian cricketer.  As a matter of fact he played for England.   Ranjitsinhji, in cricketing ranks is probably the most mythological figure to have ever existed.  He is the ‘Honus Wagner’ of cricket.  Ranji is a cricketing ghost that we can only read about, a ghost, we can only imagine, a ghost, we can’t YouTube.

Cricket, one can argue has many mythological figures.   There is the Don, then, there is of course the grey bearded man who was on Coleman’s mustard.  However, what catches my attention from all the black and white pictures of those older English teams is the man standing right next to the ‘God-like’ figure of W.G. Grace.  The man who’d never roll up his sleeves, so he could hide his skin color, Ranji, showed he was as good, as equal to any race when it came to the artistry of batting.  For Ranji was just that, an artist.  Neville Cardus described him as “the Midsummer night’s dream of cricket”, and whether it was in popularity, literature, cricket folklore or mythology there is no one like Ranji.

The story goes that Ranji would walk across the pitch on incoming deliveries to such a degree, that his coach nailed his back foot on the leg stump and forced him to play at balls bowled at his body.  So, in the folklore of cricket, the leg glance was invented.  “The peculiarity,” Fry wrote in Batsmanship, “was that he did more than advance his left foot at the ball… he advanced it well clear of the line of the ball to the right of it, and he somehow got his bat to the left of his left leg in line with the ball, and finished the stroke with a supple turn at the waist and an extraordinarily supple follow-through of wrist-work…He moved as if he had no bones.”   Cricket, before that significant event, was an off-side sport.  Batsmen would actually apologize to the bowler for hitting the ball on the vacant leg side until the ‘wristty’ Indian came along.  A seven men on the off and two men on the leg side field was the norm till Ranjitsinhji’s arrival.  Player’s from the subcontinent have been doing it naturally ever since they could pick up a bat.  Maybe one could add to the myth that Ranji passed it along.

Another fact that glorifies Ranji is also that he was a prince.  Or, at the least, he considered himself one.  “He was, most importantly, only fleetingly a real prince, adopted as heir to the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar as a precaution against that ruler’s inability to father an heir of his own. Ranji’s princely status was revoked when an heir appeared four years later, and was not restored for the next quarter of a century,” writes Gideon Haigh to clarify the confusion.  He certainly wasn’t treated as a prince.  For a colored person to represent the empire in cricket is as unlikely as curry being identified as a dish from England.  In reality, however, things as such are waiting to happen all the time.  Sports or Cricket wouldn’t be the same if there were no story lines.

Sir Home Gordon in Background of Cricket  writes, that Ranji’s selection for the 1896 Ashes series was debated at Lord’s despite his stupendous Old Trafford debut, when he made 62 and 154 not out. “Old gentlemen waxing plethoric declared that if England could not win without resorting to the assistance of colored individuals of Asiatic extraction, it had better devote its skill to marbles. Feelings grew so acrimonious as to sever lifelong friendships… one veteran told me that if it were possible he would have me expelled from MCC for having ‘the disgusting degeneracy to praise a dirty black’.”  However, what’s truly remarkable is the genius with which Ranji fit in.  Ranji quickly became a household name in England.  At the time, he was the most recognizable cricketer there was in the Victorian Empire.  Ranji’s fame only continued to grow.  Ranji has been a subject of many biographies, novels and great works of fiction.  He was painted by Henry Tuke and appeared as “ringeysingey” in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.

Ranjitsinhji, in an era of uncovered pitches averaged 56.37 in first-class cricket, with 24692 runs and 72 centuries. These are statistics of mythic proportions indeed.  His nephew Duleepsinhji also scored a century on debut for England in test cricket.  The domestic cricket trophies in India are named after Ranjitsinhji and Duleepsinhji.  I guess it was only a matter of time until the Indians eventually started representing themselves in cricket.  Many, many years later a cricketer by the name of Ajay Jadeja who represented India in international cricket, also happened to come from the same family.  So when one thinks of the first colored superstar of cricket, when one thinks of an athlete who paved the way for all the other cricketers, the first name to appear on that list should and rightly be of, Ranjitsinhji.

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