I t might so easily have been called the Willingdon Trophy, after an Englishman who did a lot for Indian cricket, rather than the Ranji Trophy, after an Indian who did little for it. Yet, the fact remains that Ranjitsinhji was a hero of the Golden Age, admired by W. G. Grace and C. B. Fry, and despite his heroics for Sussex and England, was the first great cricketer from India. Sometimes who you are makes you a hero as much as what you do.
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At least one writer has claimed that Ranji was not only the first renowned Indian cricketer, he was the “first Indian of any kind to become universally known and popular.”
It also helped that for a generation in England, he was the quintessential Indian batsman: supple of wrist, quick of eye, fleet of foot. The cliché was established early. He brought to English cricket the texture and feel of another continent, provoking poetry in the likes of Neville Cardus and A. G. Gardiner. “When he batted,” wrote Cardus, “a strange light was seen for the first time on English fields.”
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Willingdon played for Sussex, became President of the MCC, and as the governor of Bombay and Madras and later Viceroy of India, did much to spread the game, encouraging mixed matches where both the English and the Indians played together.
When India played their first Test at Lord’s, they had no real national championship, although the Quadrangular tournaments were hugely popular. The idea for one must have been in the air, but it took a particularly energetic administrator, Anthony de Mello, to pluck it out of there and give it proper form.
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At the meeting of the Board of Control for Cricket in India in Shimla in 1934, secretary de Mello proposed a national championship, and presented an artist’s impression of the trophy — a Grecian urn two feet high with the handle representing Father Time. “I had hardly finished describing the trophy,” he wrote in Portrait of Indian Sport ,”when the Maharajah of Patiala leapt to his feet and offered to present a gold cup of the design I had submitted — a cup which would be worth 500 pounds.”
Patiala wanted it to be called the Ranji Trophy. Ranji had died the previous year, but more importantly, he was a friend and relative of Patiala and had played for his team in India. But things were never so simple with the BCCI then (nor is it now), and the decision was not made public. It gave Patiala’s sworn enemy, the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram the time he needed to plot and intrigue. He proposed that the trophy be named after Willingdon, and it was accepted at an emergency meeting of the BCCI. And that was that. For a while.
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When Bombay won the first title, Willingdon was present to give away the trophy. At the presentation, it was the Ranji Trophy that Willingdon handed over to the captain. Patiala had outmanoeuvred Vizzy after all! Promises of financing tours to India and a PR visit to London had worked their magic. From such cloak-and-dagger beginnings did the Ranji Trophy emerge. Madras hosted Mysore in the inaugural match on a rain-affected track on November 4, 1934. Thanks in the main to A. G. Ram Singh (11 for 35), the match was over in a day, Karnataka losing by an innings.
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In the absence of radio commentary, the only source of news was the daily newspaper. A fan walked across to the Bangalore railway station to pick up a copy when the Madras train came in, and the Mysore players alighted. “Come, we will tell you the whole story,” volunteered one of the players. History does not record whether the fan bothered to pick up a newspaper.
Ram Singh, the first taker of five-in-an-innings and 10-in-a-match bowled left-arm medium pace and later spin with the older ball. He was also the maker of Tamil Nadu’s (then Madras) first century in the national championship, an unbeaten 121 against Hyderabad.
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More than a decade later, he was on the verge of selection in the Indian team when a rumour was put about that he had a heart condition and could not travel. He lived for another four decades and more, dying in his 90th year. Ram Singh, later coach (he played a role in the development of Bishan Bedi), was also patriarch of the family that produced two internationals, Kripal and Milkha, and first class players Satwender, Swaran and Arjan, over three generations.
Also playing that match was the Adonais of Madras, M. J. Gopalan, a double international who represented India in cricket and hockey. He bowled the first delivery in the championship. Madras were led by Cambridge Blue and Kent player C. P. Johnston while Mysore were led by Major Taversham. According to Nagaraja Rao, who opened the bowling, the team was handicapped by the fact that, “He did not know us, and we did not know him.”
The Ranji Trophy was not an instant success. The Quadrangular tournament which became the Pentangulars in 1937 with the addition of a ‘Rest’ team, had been played along communal lines and was popular still. India’s finest took part, there was a certain frisson in the matches as teams of Parsis, Europeans, Hindus, Muslims, and the Rest showcased their talent and their commitment to their respective communities. It had begun as a Europeans versus Presidency match in 1892, and was at its peak from 1912 to 1936 before the Ranji Trophy, and possibly Mahatma Gandhi’s aversion to competition along communal lines, finally sounded its death knell in 1945.
Mumbai having established its credentials early as Ranji champions, have won the title the most times. A 15-year run of success was ended by Karnataka in 1973-74, and soon the list of winners bore a more democratic look with Delhi, Hyderabad, Haryana, Bengal, Railways, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat all etching their names on the trophy.
The format (zone-wise and knockout to begin with) underwent many changes, the long-standing record of Rusi Modi, the first to top 1000 runs in a season was overtaken many times, room was made for foreigners (Denis Compton notably, and fast bowlers from the West Indies in the 1950s in order to help the Indians play them), as the national championship thrived. Of its many believe-it-or-not stories is the fact that the maker of the highest individual score, B. B. Nimbalkar who scored the only quadruple century by an Indian was never chosen for a Test match.
Nimbalkar was left unbeaten and denied a chance to overtake Don Bradman’s then world record score of 452 because the opponents had had enough and simply refused to take the field after a break.
The other story, a commentary on how modern players approached the tournament, involves India’s two most successful Test cricketers, Sachin Tendulkar who made more runs than anyone else, and Anil Kumble who claimed the most wickets. These two stalwarts never played each other in a Ranji match in their careers of over two decades each.
The IPL might be seen as the more sexy tournament, all glamour and glitter, and the Ranji Trophy viewed as a necessary evil, important as a stepping stone to Test cricket. Yet, despite the BCCI’s occasional silly decisions — as when it decided that all matches would be played in neutral venues (now changed back to home-and-away) — the tournament endures. This is partly because it is the only first class tournament of any calibre now that the Duleep Trophy is a bit of a hit-and-miss, and the Irani Cup is a one-off, and partly because it has a loyal following. It continues to be the nursery for the country’s best players. And theoretically, it provides a readymade and strong back-up team should the national squad require a player at short notice.
It is a ladder to the top, but many players have shown a depressing tendency to kick away the ladder once they have got to the top. They would do well to take their lessons from the likes of Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid who seldom missed a match when they were available to play. That showed a nice mix of gratitude and professionalism.
And so what happened to the Willingdon Trophy, designed by the Viceroy’s wife and the one that lost out when the Ranji Trophy came into being? In 1935, Vizzy organized a Silver Jubilee festival in Delhi, in honour of King George V. He then went about putting together a strong team which he led himself, and as winning captain held aloft the Willingdon Trophy.
A one-time contender as the symbol of supremacy in the national championship, the Willingdon Trophy had to settle for being associated with a hastily put together festival tournament. The Ranji Trophy marched on, and eight decades and a bit later, here we are.
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