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Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series…….

 Quote: “In asking Mr Ranjitsinhji to play, the Lancashire club undoubtedly cast a reflection on the MCC.”

 By: The Field, on the Old Trafford Test, 1896.

By 1896 KS Ranjitsinhji had become a phenomenon in England. The fans had seen WG Grace pile up huge scores at astonishing rates, but Ranji’s absurdly wristy strokeplay – it was not just the leg-glance – was alien to them. “He moved as if he had no bones,” wrote CB Fry, a long-time colleague of Ranji’s at Sussex.

Ranji’s reflexes were of the highest order. He played around the wicket, turning the ball at impossible angles, and contrary to popular belief, he could hit hard too, and had a serious appetite for runs.

He had started 1896 in excellent fashion. His first seven innings included three hundreds including 138 against Yorkshire. In fact, his lowest score across these innings was 26.

In mid-June, he got his fourth century of the season. At that point, there was little doubt that he would make it to the XI for the first Test of The Ashes, at Lord’s. Leader (Melbourne) included Ranji when they announced the England likely XI a day before the Test.

And that was precisely what did not happen. Lord Harris, President of MCC, was not too keen on “birds of passage” like Ranji playing for England. This was hypocritical, as Harris himself born in St Ann’s, Trinidad.

While there cannot be doubt over Harris’s love for the sport, he made a poor impact as Governor of Bombay Presidency, often sacrificing administrative responsibilities to play cricket. When Harris left Bombay, a collation of newspaper clippings was printed by a publisher. The introduction contained the excerpt: “Never during the last hundred years has a Governor of Bombay been so sternly criticised and never has he met with such widespread unpopularity on account of his administration as Lord Harris.”

Probably he was not very fond of Indians, after all.

But enough of Harris. Let us touch upon the first Test briefly, where Australia were shot out for 53 by Tom Richardson (6/39) and George Lohmann (3/13), who bowled unchanged. Then England secured a 239-run lead and reduced Australia to 62/3.

But captain Harry Trott (143) and Syd Gregory (103) fought back, adding 221, then a Test record for any wicket. This time Richardson took 5/134 and “Old Jack” Hearne 5/76. Chasing 109, England became 42/3 before winning by 6 wickets.

Also read: Cricket history in quotes, part 9: “I’ll have t’boogers out before loonch”

Then came the second Test at Old Trafford. According to the rules, the local committee was responsible for picking the Test team at every venue, which meant that the onus fell on Lancashire County Cricket Club. They did not have a problem picking Ranji – who had already become the first amateur to score a thousand runs in the season.

But Ranji had faced enough racism during his early days at Cambridge and Sussex – this, despite his royal connections. He made it clear that he would play only if the Australians agreed. Trott confirmed that he would be delighted to play against Ranji.

Thus, for the first time, an Indian took the field in Test cricket. Lancashire’s stance of standing up against the custodians was as significant. The Field announced the magnitude of the incident: “In asking Mr Ranjitsinhji to play, the Lancashire club undoubtedly cast a reflection on the MCC.”

This time Australia got 412, banking on Frank Iredale’s 108 and George Giffen’s 80. The inextinguishable Richardson sent down 68 five-ball overs of pace for his 7/168. Then Trott. opening bowling in lieu of the injured Ernie Jones, got Grace early. Ranji walked out at 2/1.

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He got 62 in quick time before being caught very low by Trott at point off Tom McKibbin. The catch was so low that some thought the leg-umpire ought to have been consulted. Only wicketkeeper Dick Lilley (65 not out) scored more. Bowled out for 231 (despite Jones’s injury), England were asked to follow-on.

Jones was fit to bowl by the time Grace and Stoddart walked out again. He got Grace out of the way soon, which meant Ranji had to walk out yet again. He was 41 when stumps were called. England, 109/4, needed another 72 to make Australia bat again.

In between all this, Giffen got Stanley Jackson caught by McKibbin to become the first to do the 1,000 run-100 wicket double in Test cricket.

The fun began next morning, when Ranji tore into the Australian attack in a way seldom seen till that day. It was batting of such exquisite quality that even typically cautious Wisden had to resort to superlatives: “[Ranji] punished the Australian bowlers in a style that, up to that period of the season, no other English batsman had approached … It is safe to say that a finer or more finished display has never been seen on a great occasion, for he never gave anything like a chance.”

Ranji scored 113 in the first session, thus becoming the first to score a hundred in the first session of any day’s play in Test history. He was left stranded on 154 as England managed to set Australia 125.

It should have been an easy task – but for Richardson, who bowled unchanged for 42.1 five-ball overs without significant loss in pace. He reduced Australia to 45/4; Johnny Briggs got Gregory at 79; Richardson took two more, on 95 and 100, but that was it. Hugh Trumble and JJ Kelly saw Australia to a three-wicket win.

While Ranji won over the cricket fraternity, his success did not go down well with a part of MCC. Home Gordon, MCC member and eminent writer, heaped praise on Ranji. He was reprimanded by another MCC member for he complimented “a nigger showing us how to play the game of cricket”. Another insisted Gordon be expelled for “having the disgusting degeneracy to praise a dirty black”.

All that would be sorted out over time.

Postscript

 The third Test, at The Oval, was not without controversy either. Five cricketers – Richardson, Lohmann, Bobby Abel, Tom Hayward, and William Gunn – went on a strike before the Test, demanding twice the usual £10 for the professionals. While Richardson, Hayward, and Abel eventually agreed, the other two did not.

England were bowled out for 145 on a wet wicket, Trumble taking 6/59. Joe Darling and Iredale then added 75 for the first wicket before Hearne (6/41) got England a 26-run lead. Then Trumble (6/30) struck again, and England were bowled out for 84.

Set 111 on a steadily deteriorating wicket against Bobby Peel – arguably the most destructive bowler of the era on wet pitches – Australia were bowled out for 44. Peel took 6/23 while Hearne got 4/19. Ranji (8 and 11) failed, and asthma prevented him from taking the field on the eventful last day.

England retained The Ashes with a 2-1 win.

A word or two on The Field

 Established in 1853, The Field is the oldest sports magazine in the world. It remains a quizmaster’s favourite for a series of letters from Gerald D Fitzgerald in March 1874. The letters informed the readers of a not-too-popular sport called sphairistike. This sport, or a variant thereof, would later become popular as lawn tennis.

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