In 1902, KS Ranjitsinhji played his last three Tests for England. And it was as far from a majestic farewell as can get.
Before the epochal series, Ranji had played 12 Tests, obviously all of them against Australia, and amassed 970 runs with two hundreds and six fifties, and averaged 53.88.
By the time he had played these final three Tests, his average had shot down to 44.95.
Not that his First-Class record showed any dip.
In the summer of 1901, he had scored 2468 runs at 70.51. Take away the Tests and he averaged nearly 52 in the summer of 1902. He raised it to 56 in 1903 and topped 2000 runs again at 74.17 in 1904. He was hardly ever struggling for form.
And in 1902 he was 29. Age was definitely not a factor.
But the scores he obtained against Australia were 13, 0, 2 and 4. Across three Tests. And he never played for England again.
The cause of this hurtling accelerated end to his Test career was a brilliant bit of gamesmanship carried out by Joe Darling. And one has to carry on reading to decide whether the diabolical methods of the Australian captain of 1902 were really within the boundaries of fair play.
Ranji, the oriental magician, redefined … nay, invented … wristy brilliance. His leg-side strokes, deemed unchristian because of the novelty, were a sight for the gods.
And that is where Darling chose to bait him.
Whenever Ranji came in to bat, Darling stacked up fielders on the leg side. Syd Gregory and Darling himself, the best fielders in the Australian side, moved to the angle to block his favourite stroke.
Darling writes, “Ranji always used to have a look where we were both fielding before the bowler started to deliver the ball and as soon as he had his last look and the bowler was actually on the point of delivering the ball, we generally shifted our positions by a few yards, sometimes one way and sometimes the other and occasionally one only would move or we would not move at all. Ranji never knew where we were actually fielding when he was about to make his stroke and this eventually put him clean off his game.”
“At Old Trafford, Ranji played a nice shot into what he thought was a gap and Gregory caught him. From that day Ranji was never again the same batsman. The reason was that we got on his nerves, as he never knew where we were actually fielding.”
This particular bit seems to have got muddled in Darling’s memory. The only time Gregory caught Ranji during that tour was in one of the early matches between MCC and the Australians at Lord’s, and he was facing the relatively innocuous bowling of Victor Trumper.
However, the strategy did have its effect. After the Old Trafford Test, which was Ranji’s last and saw him score 2 and 4, the England captain Archie MacLaren confided to Darling that Ranji was in such a ‘blue funk’ he’d nearly sent him in last.
The strategy worked. Was it in the spirit of the game? As I maintain, spirit of the game is utter nonsense.