Ranji's Special Guest
Roger Hudson explains why the great cricketer W.G. Grace embraced Indian headwear for a day.
Judging by the cigars, W.G. Grace and his three friends, also in blazers and whites, may well have just finished lunch at Shillinglee, the house in Sussex that his fellow cricketer Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji has rented. Ranji himself is not in the picture and we do not know who the members of his entourage are, though the central figure might be one of his Indian prince friends. Perhaps the Englishmen are about to go off and play in a cricket match nearby. It is May 1908 and Grace has played his last game of first-class cricket, in his 44th season, aged 59, only a month before, turning out for the Gentlemen of England versus Surrey at the Oval. So he can allow himself some foolery here, wearing a patka silk scarf round his head, no doubt borrowed from his host.
Grace entered the game just as it was transformed by the overarm bowling legislation of 1864. Using his phenomenal eyesight, timing, concentration and stamina, he then invented the modern style of batting, as well as being an outstanding bowler and fielder. In July 1866 he made 224 not out for All-England v Surrey, his maiden century; in 1868 he was the first to make two centuries in one match; in 1869 he scored four centuries in one month. Large of beard and of body – 15 stone (210 lbs / 95 kg) in his early twenties – his presence matched his growing reputation. In 1871, his annus mirabilis, he scored 2,739 runs, the first time anyone had topped 2,000. In 1873 he was the first to score 100 before lunch and then the first to make 1,000 runs (actually 2,139) and take 100 wickets in a season, a double he repeated for the next five years. So the records went on until, in 1879, he qualified as a doctor and thereafter had to devote much more time to his work. The new popularity of the game as a spectator sport by then could be put down to the coverage it got in the much expanded press, the spread of transport links and the ‘Doctor’, as he was called. It was only in 1892 that he started to play more and regain his form, with another outstanding year in 1895 when, at the age of 47, he scored his 100th century for Gloucestershire and became the first ever to make 1,000 runs in a month. In 1896 he was rewarded with nearly £10,000 from a testimonial and throughout his notionally amateur career he was earning much more than any professional through his ‘expenses’.
This was the decade that Ranjitsinhji joined Grace in the top rank of cricketers, St Paul to the older man’s St Peter. Born into a branch of a princely family, he was to claim to be the heir to the Hindu Rajput state of Nawanagar, though he had never been confirmed as such by its ruler. However, after learning cricket at a special school for princes, he came to England and in 1892, aged 20, was let into Trinity College, Cambridge as a ‘youth of position’. In 1894 he left degreeless and in debt from trying to live the part of a prince, but that year he also scored 94 in a partnership of 200 with Grace. It was soon apparent that here was someone taking batting to a new level, particularly with his speciality, the leg glance, an exotic attraction who drew the crowds. In 1896 there was much discussion in the press about whether he should play for England in a test match. The Australians were quite happy and in the second test he made 42 and 93 not out. By the end of the season he had made 2,780 runs, beating Grace’s record; and this included ten centuries, equalling Grace. So the outstanding scores went on through the years. By the 1900s he was driving more because opponents had learnt to set effective fields on the leg side. He went back to India regularly to pursue his claims to Nawanagar and to borrow money to pay for his extravagances. There seems little doubt that when his form faltered, it was due to money worries. His regular cricketing career really ended in 1904 and in 1907 he was eventually adjudged to have inherited by the British and so became the Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, but the unpaid bills continued, including the rent for Shillinglee. Only with the modernisation of his state after 1918 did his money worries end.