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Cricket kingdom

Nawanagar, as Jamnagar near Rajkot was known in the days of Ranjitsinhji, was a lot about the Indian prince who played for England, but not all about him. Vishnu Prasad tells the story of cricket in 

Published: 01st May 2019 09:54 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st May 2019 09:54 AM   |  A+A-

Photos: Vishnu Prasad

Express News Service

He stands there, forever frozen in his delivery stride, shirt neatly tucked in, sleeves rolled up to the elbows. His arm is still a textbook on how a left-arm orthodox should grip the ball but no one, neither the vehicles speeding by nor the cows chewing cud at the gates of the nearby Ajitsinhji Pavilion, seem to care. These days, Vinoo Mankad — 2109 runs and 166 wickets in just 44 Tests — is remembered only when someone breaks their delivery stride to run out the non-striker. But in the Saurashtrian town of Jamnagar, the erstwhile princedom of Nawanagar, Mankad’s statue stands tall, the inscription on its base reminding of his greatness that caused him to be named one of Wisden’s cricketers of the year in 1947.

Just as history condensed all of Mankad into the act of ‘mankading’, the town he was born in is now synonymous with one man. Jamnagar is about Jam Saheb Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji, the first Indian who played Test cricket, albeit for England. Indeed, the Jamnagar chapter in cricket’s history begins with Ranji, the future king who went to England when he was just the ward of the current one and discovered the gentleman’s game.

Upon ascending the throne, Ranji would also promote the game, bringing in English coaches to tutor Nawanagar’s schoolboys, funding exposure trips to England and taking any young cricketer, who caught his eye, under his wing. The Ajitsinhji pavilion, still the ground where the scions of Jamnagar’s proud cricketing tradition flock to, was built by Ranji in 1908.

Salim Durani was a fan favourite in the sixties & seventies for his ability to hit sixes. He is 84 and lives with his niece in Jamnagar

But Jamnagar is also so much more than Ranji or his nephew Duleep (the two Nawanagar princes who played most of their cricket in England). Like that of Mankad, these rarely-invoked spirits roam the ancient streets, willing to recite their stories to anyone who’d listen.

Prince and the Terror
In 1948, as the Maharaja of Porbandar paid tribute to Ladha Ramji who had just passed away, he shared an anecdote that comes across as gross exaggeration. “I’ve seen a bye off his bowling go for a six,” he said. But then, that’s the kind of story this is going to be.Ramji and his younger brother Amar Singh may have been born a few dozen kilometres away in Rajkot, but the yarns, of which their legends are spun, come from Jamnagar. 

It is indeed ironic that India’s fast-bowling tradition, which rarely rose above medium pace and mediocrity for decades, started off with two bowlers who made English batsmen shudder.It is Amar Singh who occupies a more prominent spot in the history books thanks to his starring role in India’s first-ever Test. At Lord’s in 1932, he took four wickets and top-scored in the second innings with 51. He would go on to play six more Tests and take 28 wickets.

Amar Villa looks as inconspicuous as other homes in the Rajkot suburb it occupies, but inside it is what’s left of Amar Singh’s brief international career. “People used to say there would not be another fast bowler like him,” says Sailesh Nukum, Amar Singh’s grandson who resides there. “But he was equally good with the bat.”

Indeed, when Amar Singh first caught Ranji’s eye while playing for Alfred High School (a certain Mohandas Gandhi also went there), he had the bat in his hand, not the ball. An impressed Ranji took Amar under his wing, taking him to Jamnagar, giving him everything he needed and funding county stints. His protege went on to create a few records — the first to hit a Test fifty for India, first Indian to play in the Lancashire leagues, first to take 100 Ranji Trophy victims. Amar Singh’s 506 first-class wickets came at an average of 18.35; his 92 matches saw 42 fifers and 14 ten-wicket hauls.

But Amar Singh almost did not even make the squad for India’s first-ever Test. Only intervention from Ranji and Duleep secured his spot at the last minute. The reason had nothing to do with him. It had everything to do with his elder brother.

Immortalised in cement, Vinoo Mankad’s is one of
the very few statues of cricketers in India 

If Amar Singh was the charming crowd-puller, Ramji was the unruly, hostile force of nature who made batsmen question their life choices. Back then, everyone had a sobriquet; Amar Singh was The Prince of Pace while Ramji was The Terror. While the latter was not afforded the kind of opportunities his brother was — Ramji apparently had quite the knack for getting on the wrong side of powerful people.

One of the many powerful people he riled up was the aforementioned Maharaja of Porbandar, who very nearly went on to captain India in that first Test and almost denied his brother Amar Singh a spot. In most versions of that story, the unwitting victim is a touring Englishman but Sailesh maintains it was a prince of Porbandar. “The Maharaja had asked Ramji to go easy on his team but he did not listen. He bowled a bouncer that struck the batsman on the chest and killed him. Ramji’s friends had to break him out of the Maharaja’s jail.”

The story of the brothers would end in tragedy though. Amar Singh, while attending a wedding at the palace of the ruler of Manavadar, contracted a fever after a long swim and died suddenly. He was just 29. A heartbroken Ramji would never set foot in the house that Ranji had gifted them in Nawanagar. Eight years later, he too would pass away. His first-class stats are incredible. Twenty-seven matches yielded 125 wickets at an average of 17.37. It’s a shame he went wicketless in the sole Test he played.

Ask for a six
“We can’t take a car, so we’ll go in a couple of bikes,” says CP Baxi, secretary of the Jamnagar District Cricket Association as he signals to a couple of his colleagues to start moving. The approach road is too narrow, he explains. As the journey progresses, Jamnagar gets older and older until the bikes stop at a neighbourhood that seems more ancient than the city itself. There, beyond a big Mughal-style wooden gate, in a small room atop a two-storied house, waits Salim Aziz Durani.

Durani, once Parveen Babi’s leading man in a Bollywood movie, is now 84. He moved out of his house last year after his health worsened and now lives with his niece. His hands are wrinkled and his eyebrows have a heavy sprinkling of grey in them. But the charm still remains. “Do you mind if I smoke?” he asks softly, before lighting up a Four Square cigarette. Baxi respectfully places a pack of beedis, labelled ‘11’ on the table and that brings a smile to Durani’s face. “I like these beedis but he always forgets the number,” he laughs.

There was a time when Durani would have got all the beedis he wanted for free. In the sixties, he was one of India’s most dashing cricketers, his movie-star looks combined with his ability to seemingly hit sixes at demand making him a fan-favourite. “Thankfully, I had this ability to hit sixes whenever I wanted,” Durani says. “I was always a very good lifter of the ball. I remember fans would chant for sixes and I would try to oblige.”

Durani’s popularity reached such he­ights that when he was dropped for a Test against the visiting English team, fans took to streets with placards bearing the slogan ‘no Durani, no Test’. “Those were different times,” Durani laughs when asked about the hordes waiting for a glimpse of him on the street. “There were no mobs. Maybe a few people would come up and wish you all the best for the upcoming match. That was it!”

If Durani was born five decades later, he would have been mobbed on the streets too and handed crores worth of endorsement deals. His six-hitting prowess suggests he would have been quite good at ODIs and T20s. Durani allows himself to be lost in that thought for a moment and then, as he has done multiple times that evening, laughs. “You can’t have everything. I am happy with what I got.”

His Majesty’s service
Cricket with its past, present and future is everywhere in Jamnagar. Auto drivers talk about how Ravindra Jadeja played his way out of nothingness, while more than a hundred kids gather at the Ajitsinhji Pavilion at day-break hoping to one day emulate him. A big chunk of the past, however, is locked up in a dusty room atop the main stand at the pavilion.

There, surrounded by broken windows and floors papered with dried bird-droppings, are dozens of pictures — a sepia-tinted museum of sorts for Jamnagar’s cricketing tradition. Ranji features in a lot of them. He poses in one with WG Grace and instructs onlookers on how to play a dozen shots in another. Another frame shows how his looks evolved over his lifetime. Duleep, too, features prominently as does Vinoo Mankad while a young and strikingly handsome Durani flashes a smile from behind a frame. There is a team photo from when a touring side led by Douglas Jardine — a year after Bodyline series — took on a Kathiawar XI in 1934.

But the truest representation of what Jamnagar meant to cricket in pre-independent India is perhaps trapped in a picture of the 1937 Ranji-winning Nawanagar team, the only time an outfit from Saurashtra earned that honour. That team is a reflection of how the game was flourishing here under royal patronage. 

The names in the frame include Mankad, Durani’s father Abdul Aziz who was brought in all the way from Afghanistan and Albert Wensley, a Sussex-born journeyman. There is Sorabji Colah, a fielder par excellence with a couple of Test caps, the curiously-named Nariman Marshall who went on India’s debut tour of England and struck up a match-saving eighth-wicket partnership of 217 with CK Nayudu against Warwickshire and the indomitable Amar Singh. A few of them had been bred in Nawanagar, the others lured into the welcoming arms of the Jam Saheb.

Those times are long gone. The current Jam Saheb stopped sending cricketers to England on exposure trips in the early 1990s; Jadeja is perhaps the first Jamnagar lad to make it to the Indian team without royal patronage. Though it regularly supplies Ranji players, the city is no longer the cricket capital of Saurashtra, let alone that of India. The century-old Ajitsinhji Pavilion has a fancy new stand while the house that Ranji gifted to Amar Singh has been replaced by a shopping mall. Everything has changed. Except for Mankad, who continues to stubbornly hold his pose.

The father of Indian Cricket
Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji Jadeja was the ruler of the princely state of Nawanagar (now Jamnagar). He is widely regarded as one of the greatest batsmen ever, with Neville Cardus describing him as ‘the Midsummer night’s dream’ of cricket’. In 1896 he made his Test debut for England. He is widely credited with inventing the leg glance. After retiring, he diverted a lot of resources towards promoting cricket in India and Jamnagar.

Maker of Test players
For a rather small city, Jamnagar has given Indian cricket a number of Test cricketers. Ranji was the first Indian to play Test cricket, albeit for England, and his nephew Duleep also emulated him. The likes of Vinoo Mankad, KS Indrajitsinhji, Ajay Jadeja and Ravindra Jadeja were born in the city. But there were also a number of cricketers who came to the city under the patronage of the Jam Saheb and flourished here. They include L Amar Singh, L Ramji and Karsan Ghavri (all born in Rajkot), Sorabji Colah (born in Mumbai) and Salim Durani (born in Kabul).

A Royal touch
Ranji and Duleep’s tradition of Jamnagar’s royalty playing cricket was continued by future generations as well. Ranji’s two immediate successors as Jam Saheb both played cricket — Digvijaysinhji may have only played one first-class match but his son and current Jam Saheb Shatrushalyasinhji had a more prolific first-class career, turning out 29 times for Saurashtra. Ranji’s great-nephew Indrajitsinhji played four Tests for India. The most capped cricketer among the family remains Ajay Jadeja who played 15 Tests and 196 ODIs.



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