Ranjitsinhji, the Jam Sehab of Nawanagar
Ranji, sitting between CB Fry and WG Grace in the second row
He transformed cricket
Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji or Ranji as he was popularly known took the cricketing world by storm at the end of the c19th when in a few seasons he helped to transform cricket. Playing for Sussex he became a run making machine scoring more runs in a season than anyone had ever done before. Whenever and wherever he was playing, thousands turned up to see him in his flapping silk shirts. He fascinated a public that had always been attracted by the orient.
The Golden Age of cricket
Ranji appeared on the cricket scene at a time when pitches were being better looked after and easier for batsmen. This Golden Age saw huge scores being made in the new County Championship with Ranji himself being the first to score 3,000 runs in a season which he achieved in 1899 and repeated the following season when he scored five double centuries. Many of his runs were scored in ways not witnessed before: he used the leg glance and the late cut in a way no-one else had done.
The first non-white to play for England
Ranji was one of cricket’s most important figures. He became the first non-white to play for England and became a cricketing celebrity. He discovered early in his career how important it was to court friendships in high places and the need to entertain lavishly and be generous. This extravagant lifestyle won him many friends but was unsustainable in the long term although his inability to pay for his hospitality eventually turned friends against him.
Ranji’s success at cricket and his extravagant lifestyle though were to enable him to build up the support he needed from the British to become Jam Saheb or ruler of his native state of Nawanagar. At a very early age, Ranji had become a provisional heir to the gaddi or throne of Nawanagar. The rest of his life then became a preparation for the time when he could claim the throne. With the support of the British, Ranji eventually became Jam Saheb of Nawanagar and assumed the responsibility of ruling a Princely state. Ranji however used his new power and funds to support his life as an English gentleman, a life that he had come to enjoy. New palaces were built and new homes bought in England and Ireland. Despite his responsibilities for his people, Ranji preferred the lifestyle of an English lord in Ireland.
He watched the Diamond Jubilee celebrations
Ranji came to Britain at a time of increasing support and interest in the British Empire. In 1897, at the height of ‘New Imperialism’ Ranji went to London to see the celebrations of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. He knew of the importance of the Empire to the British and the way that cricket was a symbol of empire. The values of cricket were the values of empire and those thousands of young men who were sent to run and protect the British Empire had played the game at public schools, learning the language of cricket as well as the game which acted as a metaphor for empire.
It was important for him to ingratiate himself with the Aristocracy
Very soon after arriving in England Ranji learnt the importance of ingratiating himself with the upper classes who all appreciated the importance of cricket to the empire. The game of cricket was run by men who would go on to administer the empire – men like Lord Willingdon and Lord Harris - and Ranji well understood this link.
Ranji was Jam Saheb at a time of huge unrest in India when the Congress Party, led by Gandhi, was mobilising the Indian people to take part in civil disobedience in a movement that sought independence from the British. The rulers of the native states were supported by the British and saw Gandhi and the Congress Party as a threat to their position and no-one more than Ranji who tried to persuade the native states to stand together against British reform of the constitution. Eventually Ranji, who for years had expressed his complete loyalty to the British Empire found himself being sidelined by the very authority that he had given supported all of his life and in the very week that Lord Willingdon, an old friend, had to rule him out of order in a meeting of the Chamber of Princes, Ranji died.