In the neatly-furnished hall of Rajkot’s century-old The Rajkumar College, once known as the Eton of the East, is an imperious photograph of KS Ranjitsinhji playing his iconic leg-glance, a stroke that symbolises the essence of Oriental batsmanship. The description beneath the sepia frame is without elaborations. “The Maharaj of Indian cricket”.
The treasured photograph was a gift to his alma mater during a visit in the mid-20s. It’s an apt sobriquet since Ranji was a Maharaj in the truest sense, the Jam Sahib of the prosperous and generous Jamnagar kingdom for 26 years. Some chroniclers of the period argue that he was the first famous Indian in the British Empire.
None in his kingdom has seen him bat, but each time he returned from England, the story goes, he brought a pile of bats, leather balls, and other cricketing paraphernalia that he gifted to his friends, nephews and relatives. Whether it was the sole reason the Kathiawar Peninsula, which sticks out like an ear in Western India and which once comprised 200 fragmented kingdoms, embraced the game and produced so many cricketers, is unverifiable, but the cricketing legacy of the region is undisputed. So is the Ranji connect.
The roughly 61,000 square kilometre region has churned out notable cricketers for three countries—there wouldn’t be a more unique geographical entity on the cricketing map. Ranji and his nephew Duleepsinhji played for England (and famously refused to play for India), the legendary Hanif Mohammad and his brothers were raised in Porbandar before they moved to Karachi. More than a dozen turned up for India, from Amar Singh and Vinoo Mankad, to Cheteshwar Pujara and Ravindra Jadeja, the present torchbearers of the Kathiawadi inheritance.
Though at no time did Saurashtra exerted dominance in the domestic circuit. It all changed on Friday – the Ranji Trophy finally returned to Ranji-land. Now, they could brag that they own the man who the trophy is named after.
At the centre of the Kathiawar peninsula is Rajkot with its nondescript charm. At the western coast is Jamnagar, with its bustling refineries. Until independence, they had separate representations—Kathiawar featuring players from in and around Rajkot and Nawanagar consisting of players from Jamnagar and Porbandar. The latter was a force in the early days of Ranji Trophy, they (incidentally) beat Bengal to clinch the 1938 edition, before reaching the final two years later. The team photograph was almost lost to moths and termites before it was restored—one adorns the corporate box of the SCA Stadium in Khanderi, another does the walls of the Ajitsinhji Pavillion in Jamnagar.
The title-winning side featured Mankad, who opened and scored 185. His stately statue, when he’s just breaking into his classical action, adorns the square just outside the Cricket Bungalow Ground opposite the district court. Cricket Bungalow Ground is where every cricketer from Jamnagar baby-stepped into the game. These days, you hear more stories of the other left-arm spinning all-rounder, Ravindra Jadeja. Chalk and cheese, but enriching the region’s folklore.
A few streets down the Cricket Bungalow is the Willingdon Crescent Market. Bang in the middle of it a cast-iron statue of Ranjitsinhji. The sculptor has traded the bat for a sword, cap for the turban. Not far from Willingdon is the Pratap Vilas Palace, which’s a treasure trove of Ranji artifacts. It includes his artificial eye, ashtray, cigar case, rings, shirts, medals, pads and bats (a few of which were stolen in 2009). All that was perhaps missing was the trophy named after him. And now the Ranji Trophy has returned to Ranji’s land, reached its spiritual home after rolling over countless sweaty palms.