When, in September 1888, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi travelled to London to study law, he was carrying letters of introduction to four people. One was Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji (picture), who also hailed from Kathiawar. Gandhi did not meet Ranji then, nor did the two come across each another in subsequent decades, when one became a major political leader, and the other a famous cricketer and ruler of a princely state. So far as I can tell, these two Kathiawaris did not meet face-to-face — but they did meet in after-life, in the pages of a novel by an Englishman which cast them both as students in Rajkot, with the wily bania — playing for the plebeian Kattywar High School — bowling googlies against the aristocratic batsman representing the Rajkumar College.
Late last year, I was with my daughter in Kathiawar, visiting sites associated with the early life of the Mahatma. We spent a day in Rajkot, where we visited Gandhi’s ancestral home, which is now a museum, and then his school, now renamed after its most famous graduate. We then drove on to Morbi, the home town of Gandhi’s closest friend, Pranjivan Mehta. Our next stop was Wankaner, where Gandhi’s father had once served as Diwan.
Driving through the Saurashtra countryside, I spotted a sign that said ‘Jamnagar: 100 kilometres’. When I saw the sign, the Gandhi scholar in me receded, and the cricket-nut called. That night, in our hotel in Morbi, we went into Google and came out with a booking at the splendidly named Hotel Aram in Jamnagar. The next morning we were in the town that once served as the capital of the state Ranji erratically and indifferently ruled over, Nawanagar.
In Jamnagar we drove around the palaces, and then went in search of cricketing memorabilia. I remembered reading a piece by Dilip D’Souza which mentioned a statue of Vinoo Mankad in the town. We asked as to its whereabouts. It was, we were told, near a place called ‘Cricket Bungalow’. This was a pavilion built by Ranji when he was Jam Saheb, overlooking a ground where matches were still played and where young boys still regularly practised. On the roundabout adjacent to the ground was the statue of the great all-rounder, a cricket ball poised in a raised left-arm.
My daughter obligingly took a photo of her middle-aged father next to the Indian cricketer he most admired. Meanwhile, two youngsters on a motor-bike came up, looking at the statue with affectionate respect. “Vinoo bhai Mankad,” said one, to himself, reflectively. I asked who his own favourite cricketer was. “Ravindra bhai Jadeja,” he answered, naming the Jamnagar boy then cementing his place in the Indian team.
The first world-class cricketers from Kathiawar were Ranji and his nephew, K.S. Duleepsinhji. When a clamour arose for his nephew to lead the Indian touring team to England in 1932, Ranji notoriously said: “Both Duleep and I are English cricketers.” The hurt that patriotic Indians felt was partly mitigated when Ranji helped choose a talented youngster from Jamnagar for that tour. His name was L. Amar Singh. A fine swing bowler and useful lower-order batsman, Amar Singh played with distinction in India’s early Tests before dying at the age of 30.
Amar Singh’s elder brother, L. Ramji, played one Test for India. He was an out-and-out fast bowler, a holy terror in the Bombay Quadrangular, when he wore a vermilion tilak on his forehead, running up to bowl as a partisan crowd shouted: “Har Har Mahadev!”
Ranji, Duleep, and Amar notwithstanding, the greatest Kathiawari cricketer was Mulvantrai (known always as Vinoo) Mankad. Mankad first played for India in a series of unofficial Tests in 1937-8. The Second World War then broke out, delaying his official debut until 1946. For the next decade he was the best all-rounder in the world, a superbly skilled slow left-arm bowler and an attacking opening batsman. He was absolutely indispensable to his team, in a manner that no Indian cricketer since — not Kapil Dev, not even Sachin Tendulkar — has been. Consider these figures: in the Test matches that India won when Mankad was around, he averaged over a hundred with the bat, while taking more than eight wickets per Test at some 13 runs apiece.
Mankad last played for India in 1959. In the 1960s another Kathiawari played a few Tests for India. He was a wicket-keeper-batsman named K.S. Indrajitsinhji. As his initials indicate, he was of noble birth. In fact, he was a kinsman of Ranji and Duleep, and was himself born in Jamnagar. He was an excellent stumper and decent bat, whose Test appearances were restricted owing to his career overlapping with that of Farokh Engineer and Budhi Kunderan.
A close contemporary of Indrajit was the gifted all-rounder, Salim Aziz Durrani. He was raised in Jamnagar, where his father had once worked, and where his mother still lived. He made his first-class debut for Saurashtra, before moving to Rajasthan, which was the state he represented during the years he played for India. Durrani played an important role in several series wins — against England in 1961-2 and 1972-3, and against West Indies in 1971.
After Durrani and Indrajit, for several decades Kathiawar was relegated to the backwaters of Indian cricket. The first-class team representing the region, Saurashtra, was never competitive in the Ranji Trophy. Now, however, an Indian eleven rarely enters the field without at least one, and often two, Kathiawaris in it. These are the hugely accomplished batsman, Cheteshwar Pujara, from the town of Rajkot, where Gandhi once lived, studied, and worked; and the talented all-rounder, Ravindra Jadeja, from Ranji’s former capital of Jamnagar.
Down the decades, Kathiawari princes have ennobled Indian cricket; Kathiawari commoners have enriched it. And lest it be forgotten, the region has contributed immensely to Pakistani cricket too. For the most remarkable of all cricketing families, the Mohammads, were born and raised in the Kathiawari chiefdom of Junagadh.
Years ago I read a piece by the poet-policeman, Keki Daruwala, on his boyhood days in Junagadh, where his father was a state official. One day, the cricket-mad young Parsi was taken to play with Hanif and Wazir, who were just a little older than him. They told Keki to first test his skills against their younger brother. After the five-year-old Mushtaq had bowled him a series of fizzling leg-breaks and googlies, poor Keki retired home, defeated.
Of the five Mohammad brothers, four played for Pakistan. Wazir, Mushtaq and Sadiq were all very good batsmen, and Mushtaq (as we have seen) could bowl a bit too. Hanif, of course, was one of the Immortals. He was venerated in Pakistan, but also in India and the West Indies, where he played some memorable — but to disgusted home fans, interminable —Test innings. Apart from his supreme skills with the bat, Hanif was a capable wicket-keeper, who may incidentally also have been the only player to have bowled left-arm and right-arm in the same over of a Test match.
I travelled through Kathiawar principally because I wanted to see at first-hand the terrain that shaped Gandhi and his work. As the Mahatma’s homeland, the region has an honoured place in the political and social history of India (and its spiritual and moral history too). It also has a secure spot in the more modest realm of the history of cricket. Proof may be found in this imaginary All-Time Kathiawari Eleven, which, in batting order, shall read: 1. Hanif Mohammad 2. Vinoo Mankad 3. K.S. Ranjitsinhji (captain) 4. K.S. Duleepsinhji 5. Cheteshwar Pujara 6. Mushtaq Mohammad 7. Salim Durrani 8. Ravindra Jadeja 9. L. Amar Singh 10. K.S. Indrajitsinhji (wicket-keeper) 11. L. Ramji.
One of my cricketing fantasies pits this side against a likewise imaginary all-time team from Bombay, which runs: 1. S.M. Gavaskar (captain) 2. V.M. Merchant 3. Dilip Vengsarkar 4. Sachin Tendulkar 5. Vijay Manjrekar 6. Polly Umrigar 7. Dattu Phadkar 8. N.S. Tamhane (wicket-keeper) 9. Ramakant Desai 10. Padmakar Shivalkar 11. Subhas Gupte.
In such a contest my instinct would be to back Ranji’s eleven. Perhaps their batting is marginally weaker, but they have two world-class bowlers (Mankad and Amar Singh) against one (Gupte). And their outcricket shall surely be better. The Bombay batsman were all singularly unathletic. On the other hand, Ranji and Duleep were both excellent fielders. So were Amar Singh and Vinoo Mankad. And so, of course, are Pujara and Jadeja, the current torchbearers of the great tradition of Kathiawari cricket.