The Maharajah of Connemara. Happy Birthday Ranjitsinhji
I read this some years ago, but I can commend it again today, because it’s Ranji’s birthday. Yes, Ranjitsinhji, the greatest batsman of his generation, inventor of the leg glance as we know it, ruler of Nawanagar from 1907 to 1933 and, as Anne Chambers is keen to add, local celebrity and keen fisherman in Connemara, was born on this day in 1872.
Ranji’s celebrity was first and foremost as a stylish cricketer. He quite simply broadened the repertoire of what was possible as a batsman and his stroke play amounted to a rhythmic revolution. Like many great cricketers, he tried to return to the game later in life and proved disappointing, although in his case, the fact that he’d lost an eye in a hunting accident meant that a deficit of depth perception undoubtedly affected hid game.
Ranji’s selection for England laid bare the racist contradictions of Empire. If India was British, then was not Ranji? Especially as Ranji had played for Cambridge University as a student and had hosted some very successful parties at the same time. The rawness of the racist objections to Ranji’s selection still shocks, more than a century on. Yet the British Establishment strategically absorbed Ranji, alert to his popularity and his ability to help win matches. And whatever else Ranji was – he was certainly an aristocrat.
Politically Ranji, as a well-intentioned “improving” prince, found himself in the ideological no man’s land between more systematic British imperialists and the incipient Congress Party vision of a democratic unitary India. But, as Anne Chambers points out, he sought regular solace in the west of Ireland. Like W.B. Yeats, Ranji felt that living in a big house in the West of Ireland and becoming an angler of renown represented a kind of acme of civilised existence. Ranji also became extremely popular with the locals, who regarded this global celebrity in their midst with a degree of possessive pride.
From Ballynahinch Castle, Ranji also served the interests of the Free State in the 1920s, insofar as Ireland declared itself “open for business” in the aftermath of the civil war. Ballynahinch declared itslef “Ranji Country” and you can see Ranji in a variety of official photographs standing alongside politicians and other bigwigs. The newly independent state welcomed this strange symbol of the British empire largely because he was good for tourism, and perhaps because of a more generous related sense that Ranji’s presence reactivated a vision of a hospitable Ireland, an internationalised resurgence of a kind of distinctively Hibernian notion of patronage.
Happy Birthday Ranji. We will think of you with every leg glance we correctly identify.
In the meantime, everybody read Anne Chambers’ book.