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Princely players


The contrast between the two kinds of cricketing princes is beautifully captured in a story set in Ajmer's Mayo College sometime in the 1960s ... .

Ajay Jadeja ... lacked a sense of what was right and wrong

WHEN I first started following cricket, in the 1960s, limited-overs internationals had not been invented, and Test matches were few and far between. The highlight of the Indian season was the Ranji Trophy final, watched at the ground by 30,000-40,000, and followed ball-by-ball on the radio by several million elsewhere. At the time this particular contest had a rather melancholy predictability. Always, Bombay and Rajasthan contested the final and always, Bombay won.

The Bombay Ranji Trophy team was dominated by middle-class Marathi boys from Shivaji Park and Dadar: by men with names such as Hardikar, Diwakar, Gupte and Wadekar. The Rajasthan side, however, was genuinely ecumenical. It had a host of players from outside the State; such as C.G. Joshi and Salim Durrani, both for a time on the payroll of Maharana Bhagwat Singh of Udaipur. This was a man whose cheque book did more than anything else to take Rajasthan cricket (almost) to the summit. Bhagwat Singh had promised to have a dip in the holy Ganga if his side ever won the Ranji Trophy. That surely would have been a sight to behold, for the Maharana was a good six feet two and weighed 300 pounds besides.

Bhagwat Singh played rarely, but in the Rajasthan eleven of those days were three princes who were authentic cricketers. The first was Raj Singh, the tall, handsome fast bowler from Dungarpur, then in the early throes of what was to become a lifelong love affair with cricket. The second was Suryaveer Singh from Banswara, an attacking opening batsman chosen for his country. The third was Suryaveer's younger brother, Hanumant Singh, a greatly gifted middle-order batsman who in the winter of 1963-64 scored a hundred in his first Test match for India.

By scoring 105 against England in New Delhi, Hanumant became the fifth Indian to make a hundred on debut. As it happened, he was also the fourth prince to achieve this distinction. Except that the other three had done so while playing for England. These were, of course K.S. Ranjitsingh, K.S. Duleepsinhji, and Iftikhar Ali Khan of Pataudi.

In purely cricketing terms, the finest of all princely families has been the House of Nawanagar. To begin with there was Ranji, he who never made a Christian stroke in his life, he whom old English writers like Neville Cardus and A.A. Thomson always pencilled in at number three when choosing an all-time World XI. Next in line, cricketing-wise, was Ranji's nephew Duleep, a batsman of style and substance whose Test career was tragically cut short by illness, but not before he had earned the undying respect of contemporaries such as Don Bradman, both for the quality of his cricket and for the integrity of his character.

Ranji and Duleep deserve columns, indeed books to themselves. Here, let me also allow a honourable mention to two other cricketers from Nawanagar. One was K.S. Indrajitsinhi, who had the ill luck to come to cricketing maturity at exactly the same time as Farokh Engineer and Budhi Kunderan. Thus, as the critic Sujit Mukherjee once wrote, he had to out-bat one and out-keep the other if he wanted to be capped for India. He still managed to play four Tests, always keeping well and, on a historic day in Bombay, also making valuable runs as the home side beat Australia in one of the hardest-fought Test matches played on Indian soil.

The other, and most likely the last of the line of Nawanagar cricketers is Ajay Jadeja. Grandson of a brother of Duleep, he sometimes showed the same wristy elegance as his forbear and, at all times, fielded like him. Although his Test record was indifferent, he played many fine innings in the one-day game. He also had a superb cricketing brain, and was even spoken of as a future captain of India. He should have had a long career, for unlike Duleep he enjoyed a robust constitution. What he lacked was his great-uncle's sense of what, on the field as well as outside it, was right and what wrong.

Nawanagar was a large state, with acres and acres of scrub and mountain and a long coastline. The State of Pataudi, just outside Delhi, was all of 29 square miles, yet it still managed to produce two truly great cricketers. The father, Iftikhar Ali Khan, broke a sheaf of records at Oxford before playing for England and, later captaining India in Test cricket. The son, Mansur Ali Khan, also made his mark at Oxford, where he displayed such precocious talent that wise coaches said he would be the next Bradman. Then he lost an eye in a car accident, but recovered to play for and captain India through much of the 1960s. He was a courageous and hard-hitting batsman, a brilliant fielder at cover point, and an inspirational captain. Given his lineage, his skill, his almost fairy tale comeback and his more than fairy tale marriage to a celebrated actress, "Tiger" Pataudi ranks as perhaps the most charismatic Indian cricketer ever.

An all-time Princes Eleven might have Jadeja and Hanumant opening the batting. Ranji and Duleep would follow and then, at numbers five and six, shall come the two Pataudis, thus to complete a staggeringly solid middle order. At number seven we must choose one Patiala, perhaps Yadavindra, who had scores of 24 and 60 in his only Test. Indrajit would keep wickets and bat at number eight. The last three positions will be filled by other princes who played Test cricket for India strictly on merit. These were J.M. Ghorpade, Yajuvendra Singh and Rai Singh. They were principally batsmen, but in this side they would have principally to field, something none of them minded at all.

This team had better win the toss, as in true aristocratic fashion its members rather prefer batting to bowling. Still, it is an exceptionally good side, its names reminding us that while there have been many princes who paid, there have also been some who played. The contrast between the two kinds of cricketing princes is beautifully captured in a story set in Ajmer's Mayo College sometime in the 1960s. Here, sitting next to each other at lunch, were the Maharaja of Kashmir and the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar. Both were patrons of a school meant to make English gentlemen of the sons of the Rajput nobility. "Ranji, apne Kabhi anda banaya," asked the Maharaja. ("Ranji, have you ever scored a duck.")

"Bahut baar (very often)," answered the great batsman.

"Maine kabhi nahin banaya: (I have never scored a duck)," responded Kashmir.

Silence prevailed, but then the enormity of his achievement hit the unvanquished soul. Summoning the Principal to his table, he announced: "Aaj school bund kar do aur baccho ko chutti de do (close down the school today and give all the kids a holiday)."

The writer is the editor of The Picador Book of Cricket.

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